Tom Healy reflects on Casals and the "Cello Suites" in this review of a recently reprinted, classic study of Bach's masterpiece.
"The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece"
Grove Press, 2011 reprint, 336 pp.
"The difference between the reputation Bach enjoyed in his lifetime and that which he accumulated posthumously is one of the remarkable phenomena in the history of music." – Percy M. Young
I consider J. S. Bach's "Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin" the most beautiful music I have ever heard. Like nearly all of my (sadly limited) favorite classical music, Bach demands many hours of attentive listening. An appreciation of him is all the more rewarding because I used to live in fear of Bach and the possibility that his music was beyond my comprehension; his was the exalted realm of people I held in awe: Yngwie Malmsteen and Yo Yo Ma, the torment of my musical inadequacies made incarnate.
At any rate, after a slow initial sneak attack, Bach's "Cello Suites" still challenge me. With one instrument to focus on, in time I am confident that I am hearing nearly everything, whereas in a symphony of voices, I am easily lost.
For musicians Bach can be an ideal frame of reference for harmony and tonality. Working within Baroque and Lutheran liturgical constraints that are severely limited by today's standards, he constantly finds unforeseen avenues and manages to sound fresh 300 years later. You could do worse.
With Bach, the moment we presume intimacy, materials shift and re-assemble to generate new twists and new expectations which are in turn, unfailingly, crushed. Here is an unusually detached means of our watching our little minds at work, struggling with the defeats of our incessant, spontaneously-generated assumptions. Sometimes Bach, obviously the consummate music listener, seems a mischievously amused presence.
Most of what I know about writing music stems from songwriting, where what starts as in impenetrable confusing mass gradually recedes, (though things unforeseen and serendipitously magical remain.) An eventual familiarity is attained, though something, with any luck (if it is good), is left deliberately resistant to interpretation -- some calculatedly non-resolving and non-resolvable stuff -- some of it in the lyrics.
With Bach's violin "Sonatas and Partitas" and similarly with the "Cello Suites," I am not sure it is possible to feel a secure orientation, or even to remember entire sequences and transitions, at least not without complete immersion on a scale akin to practicing them every day as cello legend Pablo Casals did. They deepen.
Eric Siblin -- former Montreal Gazette music critic -- is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. He claims that idle curiosity and a nearby hotel room led him to hear a performance by distinguished Boston cellist Laurence Lesser of Bach's "Cello Suites" at Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music: "The lone figure producing this massive sound with such modest resources seemed to defy the musical odds…Why was such monumental music written for the cello, a lowly instrument usually relegated to background droning in Bach's time?" A seed was planted and what must have required a great deal of research and hard work mitigated by a love of his subject would ultimately yield his first, inordinately generous book, "The Cello Suites." Siblin is a natural for critical biography. This book has a grainy documentary film feeling and travels a long way. In conjunction with the recordings it may provide the foundation for a lifetime of quality music listening.
It is no mean feat to interpret successfully for the everyman what can be a connoisseur's music. I would cite what was once the bulk of my classical music education: The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection -- heartily advised for those drawn to classical music without knowing where to begin. The Guide features thumbnail biographies of the major composers, simple and effective analysis of the music and helpfully suggests particular recordings to start with. Comparing different versions of a piece is surprisingly illuminating, whatever your level of comprehension.
Historical, endlessly quotable, part interviews, part music criticism, travel writing, and essay, Siblin's "The Cello Suites" is organized in sections named after the suites -- then "the most popular structures of instrumental music in Europe, a loosely structured collection of dance movements" -- and said movements comprising them, interleaving admirable and concise biographies of J. S. Bach, creator of "The Cello Suites" and Pablo (Pau) Casals, the Spanish Catalan cellist who would mesmerize the world with them. Here is the fruit of a union of the minds of men widely regarded as the greatest ever in their fields; music composition and the cello.
Casals' rise is meteoric where Bach's is snail slow, and sometimes accidental, stretching across aeons. Bach's life becomes one of determinedly rugged routine in relatively stable surroundings, emphasizing by contrast the pathos of Casals' politically heated wartime surroundings, which challenged and confronted him at nearly every stage of his development. In a speeding whirl of chaotic events unknowably funnel-clouding into World War II, "Franco's chief of propaganda, General Queipo de Llano, had vowed that once Casals was captured, both of his arms would be cut off at the elbow." Facing such trials, Casals reveals ever greater depth of personality. He is a humanitarian and hero; a courageously vocal opponent of nuclear weapons and fascism.
To familiarize himself with his subject Siblin, an intermediate acoustic guitarist, learns Bach pieces, first on the guitar, then rudimentary cello, starting from scratch on a rental. "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" eventually leads to the real deal in an instruction book entitled "Bach for 'Cello: Ten Pieces in the First Position." Siblin even provides an account of his participation in a "Bach weekend," where he is to rehearse and sing a vocal part in a convened amateur Bach cantata performance.
"Harmony was Bach's specialty," Siblin writes. "At the summit of his harmony was polyphony -- the intricate blending of two or more musical lines." Siblin explains how Bach creates implied harmony -- the illusion of chordal harmony -- on an instrument that cannot play true "chords": "He alternates fragments of different lines from different registers and tricks the listener into thinking he or she is hearing more than one line at the same time…[notes are] broken [or] arpeggiated...played in staggered form, note after note.
The Bach clan was "staunchly Lutheran, rooted in the central German region of Thuringia." Though generally labeled German, "Bach would have considered himself Hungarian." Bach's music makes it is difficult not to consider how much his belief and consequent strivings to compose music worthy of God (who is probably still impressed,) had to do with his accomplishments. "At St. George's Latin School," Siblin writes, "the perfection of God's will was never doubted."
Siblin describes the political climate of Bach's age: "Most of Germany was ruled by petty princes [who]…built ostentatious palaces and adorned their small courts with ceremonial guards, dancers, fencing masters, and musicians, imitating the great absolutist power of the period -- the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. The petty rulers of German lands looked to Versailles as a role model, conjugating their verbs and powdering their wigs accordingly."
Such were J. S. Bach's stomping grounds and means to a livelihood. What little survives of personal accounts -- mostly his letters -- conveys a loving family man and devoted husband challenged by infant deaths and financial struggles. The letters reveal a self-effacing modesty and nobility of character in a man who had obviously tamed a passionate streak. (He apparently walked more than 250 miles each way to visit and learn from the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude.) With even a cursory awareness of his accomplishments and multiple discipline-spanning command, Bach's restraint and character become mountainous.
Born in Vendrell, Catalonia, Spain Young Pablo Casals was playing music before he could speak. He was first instructed by his father, Carlos Casals, a teacher, parish organist and choirmaster, from whom he also inherited his republican politics. "Being a republican in Spain meant first and foremost opposition to the Bourbon monarchy, which got its blue blood from France's Louis XIV. A ruggedly individualistic province like Catalonia stood only to lose from the Spanish Crown's centralizing rule. By the early nineteenth century, Madrid had outlawed Catalonia's penal law, coinage, and tribunals, even the right to speak the Catalan language in schools."
As a young boy Casals saw a chamber trio in the village Catholic center featuring a cellist. "He was instantly won over" and told his father he wanted to play the instrument. Pablo's "push to succeed as a musician came from his mother, Doña Pilar, a conspicuously independent woman, with a regal bearing and long, dark hair coiled neatly in two braids around her head. Pablo was her eldest, and intensely close to her heart. Pilar arranged for the eleven-year old boy to enroll in Barcelona's Municipal school of music." She and Pablo relocated alone to Barcelona, where he excelled, moonlighting in a café trio to help pay for his education.
One day Pablo's father visited and bought him his first adult-sized cello. "The two went looking for sheet music the boy could use for his cafe concerts." This was when young Pablo discovered Bach's "Cello Suites." "He would practice [them] every day for twelve years before mustering the courage to play the suites in public."
By the age of sixteen, "there was no one in Madrid who could teach Pablo anything about the cello. By seventeen, Pablo was fully formed as a virtuoso cellist." Casals becomes a teacher at Barcelona's top music school, then "lead cello for the Liceo Opera House, and star soloist at concerts across the country."
Spain had real problems. "[A] sixteen-year-old was about to become king. Political and economic corruption was endemic. Life expectancy was about thirty-five years. Illiteracy rates averaged about sixty-four percent."
"In 1899, at age twenty-two, Casals left for Paris, ... in pursuit of an international career." He eventually visited Charles Lamoureux, France's foremost conductor, "… who was famously bad-tempered and suffering from rheumatism… [He] was only irritated by the intrusion…Casals played the first movement from Lalo's Cello Concerto in D minor. Lamoureux's disinterest melted away after a few bars; the ailing conductor got to his feet while Casals was still playing, making his way with difficulty to the young cellist. When the first movement was over he embraced Pablo, tears in his eyes, declaring 'Mon petit, you are one of the elect.'" Casals joined Lamoureux's orchestra. "Almost overnight… wide recognition came to me," he later recalled. "I was besieged with requests to play at concerts and recitals. Suddenly all doors were open to me."
Casals would create a mass audience for Bach's masterpieces, which had previously been considered exercises. He would also re-invent his instrument, destroying conventions of proper cello technique.
The suites have their origins in the early 1700s. Averaging around 18 minutes apiece, each instant embattling one's consciousness with information flooding, a music already of great complexity is multiplied by Casals seemingly infinite means of expressive interpretation. Casals: "How could anybody think of Bach as 'cold' when these suites seem to shine with the most glittering kind of poetry? …As I got on with the study I discovered a new world of space and beauty…the feelings I experienced were among the purest and most intense of my artistic life!"
"The cello is the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice." Casals played with a Zen-like focus. An overriding dynamic logic is preserved through mercurial adjustments in the moment. He intently maintains an even-ness of mellifluous tone, navigating gigantic shuddering initial double-stop bowing attacks (never the same twice,) into fluidly morphing flawless trills. With impeccable articulation and phrasing and a soaring vibrato, each moment leads unfalteringly and seamlessly to the next. It often seems like sorcery. He has a reviewer convinced he hears whispers and voices in his performance.
Accustomed to live performance, Casals dreaded facing what he called, "the steel monster" of modern recording technology and its noises he found maddening. It is no wonder that Casals found himself bedridden for a week after each session of recording the Suites, one or two at a time "in a period of acute physical danger and emotional turmoil," as biographer Robert Baldock put it. With analog hiss and scratch Casals' 1930's recordings have an antiquated charm and immediacy, sounding mildly dated due to evolutional shifts in intonation doubtless grievously accelerated by Casals himself. Casals: "Intonation is a matter of conscience."
The prelude of the sixth suite uses a drop-note tuning (a convention guitarists will recognize), which Casals exploits for some very modern sounding, slightly off-unison, ongoing alternating noteplay, with an exotic beauty suggestive of Indian modal music. Russian mystic cellist Mischa Maisky: "Listen to the sarabande of the fifth suite. It sounds like it could have been written yesterday!"
Siblin's sprawling and comprehensive account leaves us wanting more, and he obliges, providing some enticing future direction:
"You don't get very far in the world of Bach without realizing that his vocal music represents the ultimate for legions of listeners. Bach composed wagonloads of vocal music -- some 200 cantatas, as well as the two passions, a few oratorios, a Magnificat, and the Mass in B Minor. File almost all of this material under Sublime, whether it's a single voice simply embroidered with a bass line or a large choir backed by a baroque orchestra brimming with trumpets and drums. The human voice, in Bach… provides wow factor."
Siblin relays a culminating peak from his Bach Cantata weekend: "For a brief moment -- as the high voices mingled with the low and all four registers meshed with the scaffolding and embroidery of violas, violins, flutes, cello and harpsichord -- I experienced my voice as a single wave in a blissful polyphonic ocean of Bach."
When I finished the book I wished I could hear Casals describe what he heard in the suites; their meanings for him, yet of course this is what he has left us, incomparably, in his performances, which want to speak for themselves.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, after hearing the double chorus of a Bach motet, four decades after the composer's death: "What is this?...Now this is something one can learn from!"