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.