The Cello Suites

J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece

by Eric Siblin

Atlantic Monthly, 336 pp., $24

The Cello Suites, as its expository title suggests, features a multibiographical exploration across the centuries, and is accessible to both the musicological sophisticate and the curious neophyte. Eric Siblin, a former pop music critic for a Montreal newspaper, happened to attend a live performance of Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello. Musically speaking, he was smitten, while intellectually pulled in by two pieces of information in the program notes: that Bach’s original manuscript for the six famed works had never been found, and that the great cellist Pablo Casals brought the works out of obscurity to the concert hall and recording studio, where they now reign supreme—as well as having migrated widely and variously into popular culture.

Intrigued, Siblin took on the daunting task of exploring the suites from the musical, historical, and biographical contexts of both Bach and Casals, while also incorporating an autobiographical component centered around the process of his own search. He organizes all this into chapter-like sections corresponding to the six Suites’ six movements; per Suite, he allocates the first few movement-chapters to Bach, the next several to Casals, and the last to his own journey of exploration.

Our narrator meets archivists, musicologists, musicians (including a frail and elderly cellist in Siblin’s Montreal neighborhood, a longtime Casals fan and follower), and others along the way. Siblin even attempts to connect to the Suites by learning to play them. That Siblin did his homework shows not only throughout this volume but in the extensive bibliography and notes. The good news is how well the structure supports all this information: Bach’s political context, his various appointments and sponsors, performance and publication history (a mere nine works in his lifetime, the plates for some of which were even melted down for other use), his family life, the scholarship and speculation around Bach himself, and the unknown fate of the manuscript, the 90-plus years of Casals’s life, spanning two world wars, the Korean war, the annexation of Catalonia, and General Franco’s rule in Spain.

Walking with his father through Barcelona, the 13-year-old Casals had discovered an edition of the suites in the stacks in a small music shop. He had no idea Bach had written such pieces. Within 15 years, as the most famous cellist in the world, he was their champion, bringing them to his wide public through live performances and acclaimed recordings, beginning the long chain of their supreme reign. Casals’s own long life included many years spent in various places of exile, exerting political influence whenever he could. He opposed those who recognized Franco’s regime; living in France, he refused Hitler’s invitation to play in Germany. At times, his depression over world events and the political situation in his homeland eclipsed his spirit and paralyzed him. More than once, it was creating a Bach festival, or performing or recording the Suites, that pushed him back to stage and studio, and to the world.

In short, Casals brought the Cello Suites back to life, and Bach returned the favor.

Siblin does not dwell on any given tragedy as he reveals it, ably addressing political twists and turns and their consequences. Equally adeptly, he navigates Bach’s life and the complex world in which he functioned: the appointments and emperors, patrons and friends, some of whom played instruments and for whom Bach was (or may have been) writing, and of course, the famous family of 20 children. Less successful is Siblin’s indulgence in rhapsodic musical description: What might have served as a much-needed break from the heavy lifting of tracking insurrections or coups the reader may find simply annoying. Siblin introduces the prelude movement of each suite with a passage of programmatic narrative imposed on hyper-description, as in this about the Third Suite (C Major) Prelude:

Love is proclaimed in the downward, swooning scale, an amorous rush, a falling into someone’s arms. The pitch is romantic. The smitten notes promise everything. Again and again the lover makes his case, rising from the deep notes of desire to heavenly rhetoric.

Then he segues into romance novel-style biography:

She was the youngest daughter of a court trumpeter from Weissenfels. An exquisite singing voice. A praiseworthy figure. Barely twenty years old.

That’s a passage about Bach meeting his future second wife, Anna Magdalena. While many will agree that the opening of the Prelude is declamatory, in Baroque traditions C Major is more often a heroic key rather than an amorous one, one of the keys associated with the (valveless) trumpets of the day. (C Major’s relative minor, A minor, was considered an amorous key, and the movement does spend time there but not in the opening passage of which Siblin speaks.) The fact is that the historical traditions are as rich and as interesting as these misdirections, if not more so.

A fine feature of Cello Suites is an accounting of the fates of the surviving Bach children, some of whom were composers, especially as this affected Bach’s legacy. Given the lack of a unified means to deposit or preserve manuscripts, not to mention the destruction that befell Europe, it is amazing that as many survived as they did. Debts of gratitude are also owed to Mendelssohn and Beethoven for bringing Bach out of obscurity and back to the public ear. The closest to an original manuscript of the complete suites is one copied by Anna Magdalena: Her hand was similar to Bach’s, and none of his own has survived. Only the Fifth Suite, in a lute transcription, exists in Bach’s hand. To Siblin’s credit, even a reader new to musicology comes to understand the significance of this absence and to care about the urgency of the search.

Curiously, for a book intended for general readers, including nonclassical nonmusicians (it spent weeks as Canada’s number-one nonfiction bestseller), Siblin leaves undefined some crucial terms. One such, “period performances,” is not essential here or may be divined from context; but he also does not define viola da gamba (the Anglification that he prefers of the Italian term viola more appropriate to Bach), an important term to the book’s central search. Siblin posits the question of why Bach had written these pieces for the cello rather than the viola da gamba—but without saying what the viola da gamba actually is.

The cello was a background instrument in 1720, expected to hug the shore line of a tune’s progression, not an adventurous solo vessel. The viola da gamba was a more popular, exciting instrument in the same range as the cello. So why did Bach write the solo string works for the cello, and not the gamba?

This bears parsing. It is a common misconception that the gamba lies “in the same range as the cello,” but actually viole da gamba (this is the Italian plural) were a family of instruments parallel to the violin family we know today. The gamba family contained instruments corresponding in range with each member of the violin family, and so only the bass gamba is in the same range as the cello. Next, the question of relative popularity and excitement is not so simple. Gambas were originally courtly instruments by reputation, accompanying singing and other court music, while the violin family was developed in Italy to play dance music, the popular folk-type music of the time. The violin family, though, quickly became courtly, eventually displacing the gambas, first in Italy, then in Germany, and finally in France. By 1720, when Bach was writing the cello suites, gambas were almost out of use and out of fashion in Germany, though Bach included them in some of his great choral works to create an “antique,” or archaic, cast.

As to what a gamba actually is: They are six-stringed, fretted instruments, while the members of the violin family are four-stringed and fretless. The violin family was originally called viole da brazzo, meaning (in Old Italian) “of the arm,” as the smaller instruments were played held on the arm, whereas members of the da gamba (“of the leg”) family were generally played vertically on the knee.

Bach’s vision for the cello may have been in flux, as the Sixth Suite is written for a mysterious five-stringed instrument, and the Fifth involves scordatura (unusual tunings of the strings). It is certainly possible that Bach wrote the suites with a specific player in mind. Here Siblin is back on track, with the information that the court employing Bach at the time had the finest of players. It is also likely that, at the time, the pieces were mainly intended to be pedagogical. The question of what Bach was aiming for is not a simple one, otherwise those smart musicologists would have figured it out a long time ago.

The search referred to in the title is not fully resolved in this volume, or in any other, as yet; nor perhaps need it be. But certainly the Suites are worthy of Siblin’s extraordinary efforts and syntheses, and vice versa.

Kate Light, poet and violinist in the New York City Opera, is the author, most recently, of the libretto for The Life and Love of Joe Coogan.

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