Monday, March 07, 2011

The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin

Once upon a time, Johann Sebastian Bach was just a forgotten court musician, the cello was a little appreciated background instrument, and Bach's six suites for cello were considered exercises not worthy of public performance. Bach's sons were better known than their father for their compositions and musical appointments until Felix Mendelssohn conducted the father's mass St. Matthew Passion to great acclaim in 1829. At the time German nationalism was rising and the music of J. S. Bach was given more attention than it ever was in his lifetime. The irony, according to Eric Siblin in The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, is that the great German composer would probably have thought of himself as a Hungarian.

Through the nineteenth century, the cello remained a secondary instrument. Then young Spanish cellist Pablo Casals stunned listeners with his solo cello concerts, drawing more melody and passion from the instrument than people thought possible. He first won the hearts of music lovers in Barcelona, and then he conquered London, Paris, and New York.

Early in his career, Casals discovered a copy the Bach Cello Suites in a used sheet music shop, but he waited several decades before publicly playing the pieces which he championed but considered too challenging for most audiences. To his and music critics surprise, the six Cello Suites were cheered when Casals finally performed them. His musical success combined with his work for war refugees to make Casals a popular voice for social justice. His name joined those of Albert Einstein and Albert Schweitzer as the great humanitarians of their era.

In The Cello Suites, Eric Siblin mixes biography, history, and music criticism into a personal travel memoir that moves through time as easily as across national boundaries. It is a great journey and may inspire some readers to seek Bach and Casals recordings during or after their reading. Libraries should consider putting the books and music on display together.

Siblin, Eric. The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009. ISBN 9780802119292.

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