No Comment, Six Questions — January 4, 2011, 4:19 pm

Bach’s Cello Suites: Six Questions for Eric Siblin

Bach’s cello suites are among the best known works of classical music, now risking popularization to the point of fatigue as they provide background music for cat food commercials. But one hundred and forty years after the great composer’s death they were virtually unknown, until a young, aspiring Catalan cellist came across them in a musty music shop. Eric Siblin has captured an extraordinary romance–that of Pablo Casals, J.S. Bach, and their mutual obsession with the sonic possibilities of the cello. I put six questions to Siblin about his book, The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, now appearing in paperback:

1. You’ve spent part of your career as a rock music critic, played guitar in rock bands, and lay no special claim to knowledge of classical music. What gave you the idea to write a book around one of the jewels of the classical repertoire?

ericsiblin

It was a bit like spinning a globe and having my finger land on a beguiling place. I found myself in Toronto one evening with nothing to do and looked at the entertainment listings in a local newspaper. On a whim, I decided on a recital of Bach’s cello music. It was performed by Laurence Lesser, an eminent cellist from Boston, and by the time the recital was over my internal audio circuitry had been rewired. The music was by turns courtly, meditative, rhapsodic, exotic, rocking, and incredibly earthy.

And the story behind the music, which was summarized in the program notes, made it all the more intriguing. Mystery surrounds the suites. We don’t know why Bach composed such novel music. We don’t know when exactly Bach wrote the music. We don’t even know if the suites were ever performed in his lifetime.

The music itself contains various mysteries. Suite No. 5, for example, was composed for a strange tuning, and Bach wrote a version of the same suite for lute, dedicating it to an enigmatic “Monsieur Shouster.” Suite No. 6 was written for a five-string instrument that disappeared from history. Another puzzle was that Bach’s original manuscript of the cello suites, thought to have been written sometime around 1720, went missing after his death. Adding drama to the story, the cello suites would only became popular a couple of centuries later when a 13-year-old cellist named Pablo Casals stumbled upon a copy of the music in Barcelona.

With all of this echoing in my head I left the concert hall in Toronto that night with a strong feeling that there was a story in the music and I wanted to write it.

2. Your portrait of Casals stresses his politics and his use of his famous cello as a weapon against fascism. How do you reconcile Casals the émigré critic of Franco with Casals the definitive interpretor of Bach’s cello suites?

Three notes establish a gut-wrenching sadness. There’s a slight tremor on the fingerboard, the bow a harbinger of difficult news. The cello, wavering at first touch, recovers its equilibrium and reports a painful chronicle. After the buoyancy of the first suite, the mood has shifted. The key is minor, the three notes a tragic triad. The tones move closer and closer to a harrowing vision, weaving spider-like, relentlessly gathering sound into tighter concentric circles that come to an abrupt stop. Nothing fills the empty space. A tiny prayer is uttered.

—From The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece
Reprinted by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press – © 2009 Eric Siblin

When the ideological barricades went up in Europe in the 1930s Casals, like many, took sides. His position was not surprising given his background. As someone whose father had been an anti-monarchist Republican, and as a native Catalan – which meant being very wary of Madrid’s centralizing powers – Casals was predisposed to favor the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. When Franco and his fascist troops, assisted by Hitler and Mussolini, won the civil war in early 1939, Casals was forced into grief-stricken exile. He remained an anti-Franco activist for the rest of his life, enlisting his reputation and cello for the cause. The most famous instrumentalist of his day, Casals went so far as to silence his cello, refusing to perform in any country that had diplomatic relations with the Franco regime in Spain. Casals would have related to the politics of Bono more than Bach.

His pioneering recording of the cello suites was made towards the end of the 1930s when the Spanish Civil War was convulsing his homeland. That monumental recording, which has never gone out of print, has remained the touchstone for every cellist since. Had the civil war not been raging in Spain, I doubt there would have been the same degree of urgency, desperation, and hopefulness in that epic recording.

Casals brought an unwavering sense of purpose to both his musical and political causes. “Intonation,” he once said, referring to the accuracy of pitch on a string instrument, “is a matter of conscience.” His approach to the cello suites had that kind of moral underpinning. For Casals, the sovereignty of Catalonia was as natural and correct as infusing Bach with earthiness, dance, and humanity.

3. In what sense did Casals “discover” these suites?

Casals was out for a walk with his father one day in 1890 in Barcelona when he stumbled upon the cello suites. Pesetas were paid and the 13-year-old cellist went home with sheet music that would galvanize his career and change the course of music history.

The music had not literally disappeared. Although Bach’s original manuscript was lost, a few copies from the eighteenth century turned up, and it was a printed edition based on one of those copies that Casals found in a second-hand music shop. Yet the music was hardly known and seldom played; cellists who knew of its existence played the suites as études for pedagogical purposes and only very rarely performed a single movement as a concert encore. It was Casals’ personal discovery that brought this baritone masterwork to the world’s attention. It was a slow gestation. He waited a dozen years after finding the suites, slowly mastering them, having no models to go by, before summoning the courage to play an entire suite in the concert hall. That happened sometime in 1901, and it was a radical thing to do. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Casals recorded the entire cycle of suites, marking a half century since he first laid eyes on the music. By then his “discovery” had been passed on to the rest of the world.

4. You quote Nietzsche’s statement that Bach “stands at the threshold of modern European music but he is always looking back to the Middle Ages.” Do you agree? How does this apply to a distinctly secular work like the cello suites?

Casals’s recordings of the Cello Suites were the first-ever complete studio accounts of the music, and destined to be the most famous and far and away the most influential. They were a long time in gestation: the records were released in the early 1940s, more than half a century after he had first discovered the suites. The recording experience itself, forged in the crucible of the Spanish Civil War, took its toll on Casals. A week before going into the studio to record suites four and five in 1939, he wrote to the Gramophone Company that the “two Bach suites are for me the most terrible thing to record.” A month later he lamented that the studio effort “has cost me, besides several months’ work and the exhausting effort of the recordings, a full week in bed, as always.”
—From The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece
Reprinted by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press – © 2009 Eric Siblin

Nietzsche is correct in that Bach, for all his genius, worked largely within the confines of old musical forms. But the quote doesn’t do justice to Bach’s path-breaking genius. Bach wasn’t some sort of aesthetic dinosaur. He stands outside time. His music looks forwards as well as backwards. There are aspects of Bach that sound incredibly modern – listen to the sarabande of the fifth cello suite, which might have been composed yesterday. Or that spot in the gigue of the third cello suite which brings to mind a rock musician cranking out a powerful riff on an electric guitar. That’s the wonder of Bach – he was not limited by the time he lived in.

The cello suites also straddle the past and the future. Bach composed a good chunk of the music while working in the small duchy of Cöthen, where his employer Prince Leopold was of the Calvinist faith, with the result that Bach was being paid to compose secular music. (He wrote many of his most dazzling instrumental works there – the Brandenburg Concertos, the violin sonatas and partitas, and the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, to name a few.) But we should not put too fine a point on the secular/religious divide when it comes to Bach. As a Lutheran born in the seventeenth century, deep religious feeling came with the territory for Bach. Yet there are plenty of examples of Bach composing secular music which he later converted into sacred music and vice-versa. And while the form of the cello suites with their old European dances like the allemande, the courante, and the gigue dates back to the sixteenth century, the music also looks far ahead. So far ahead, in fact, that no major composer would compose music for solo cello again for another two centuries.

5. “Bach’s instruments often feel besides the point,” you write, and you go on to reference Albert Schweitzer’s famous statement that Bach often appears to be writing for some theoretical “universal” instrument. But given that the cello suites are so closely matched to the sonority of a cello, or perhaps a viola da gamba, don’t they suggest a different message?

cello_suites_cover

We’ve naturally come to associate the cello suites with the unique soundworld of the cello and there’s no question that the music is splendidly suited for the cello. But when you listen to the cello suites performed on lute or guitar or piano or marimba, it’s very hard to imagine that the music was not originally composed for those instruments as well. Bach himself actually wrote a lute version of the fifth cello suite, so he clearly didn’t feel the music had to remain loyal to one particular sonority. For the sixth suite Bach switched instrumental gears and composed the music for a five-string instrument that is shrouded in mystery. All of this is part of what makes Bach so compelling. There is a wonderfully transformable quality in Bach’s music that has much to do with his genius. Every age reinvents Bach on its own its terms and in keeping with its own tastes.

I have recordings of the cello suites on a dozen instruments other than the cello and they all work remarkably well. The suites have been rendered in swing jazz format or blended with West African music. Bach’s music in general has been reworked to an astonishing degree, more so than has been the case with any other classical composer. Rock, jazz, swing, electronic, Cuban, African, East Indian, flamenco, turntablism, and other styles have all appropriated Bach with terrific success.

6. What role did Anna Magdalena Bach play in the life of the cello suites?

An Australian musicologist made headlines a few years ago by announcing that Anna Magdalena Bach in fact composed a number of Bach’s works, including the cello suites. I don’t want to give away a mystery that’s resolved only at the very end of the book, but suffice to say that anyone familiar with Bach’s career knows that Anna Magdalena played a crucial role in his long-term success. There is so much about Bach’s life that we unfortunately don’t know. But we do know that he fell for his second wife like a ton of medieval masonry. And lovers of Bach in the centuries since – fans of the cello suites very much included – owe a lot to Anna Magdalena.


Listen to Pablo Casals perform the Suite No. 1 in this archival footage from a concert in the Abbaye de St Michel de Cuxa in August 1954:

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  • Todd French

    For clarification, the 6th suite was written for a 5-string violoncello piccolo – according to the majority of scholars – and several instruments, even from the exact same era, still exist and are performed upon today.

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