The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece
by Eric Siblin (2009)
Grove Press (2011)
336 pp

I’m no musician. When it comes to classical music, I’m a slight dabbler. Still, some of my favorite aesthetic experiences have revolved around classical music. I remember once in college going to see a a Russian woodwind quintet, who was performing at the college later that evening, giving brief lessons to the students. A student playing the bassoon sight read a string of notes, each played, from what I could tell, in perfect meter and pitch. But then the virtuoso played the same string — the difference was incredible. The student’s was technically correct, but it lacked the meaning the professional ascribed to the notes. For me, this was the first time I’d really recognized the difference between skill and talent, where, for me, skill means technical proficiency, or even mastery, and talent represents, err, something more. It was beautiful. But, since I’m a dabbler only, I rarely learn about and even more rarely read a book about music or a musician. One I had heard about this past year, and was reminded of  in two reputable best-of-year lists (KevinfromCanada’s and The Economist‘s), was The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece. I was thrilled when it showed up from Grove Press.

In 2000, Eric Siblin was a pop music critic for the Montreal Gazette, and he was, understandably, getting burned out: “The Top 40 tunes had overstayed their welcome in my auditory cortex, and the culture surrounding rock music had worn thin.” One evening, on a whim, he attended a classical music concert and was swept up in a new passion that would consume the next decade. Three of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites were played by Boston cellist Lawrence Lesser. The music was beautiful, and Siblin decided he needed to learn more about it, and this book is one of the results.

Organized like Bach’s cello suites, the book is divided into six sections, each titled according to one of the cello suites. Within each section there are six subsections, or movements, named after the movements within: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Galanteries (or Minuet for suites one and two, Bourrées for suites three and four, and Gavottes for suites five and six), and Gigue. Generally, the first two movements in each section deal with Bach’s biography, the second two or three with Pablo Casals’ biography, and the last with Siblin’s personal experiences researching the suites.

In general terms, I was already familiar with Bach’s biography, particularly as it is contrasts George Frideric Handel. Bach was born just a month later and a short distance away from Handel, whom he never met. While Handel achieved stratospheric fame during his lifetime, Bach, though highly respected as a technical genius, remained in relative obscurity, never quite making it out of the lower echelons of the various German courts. Siblin pays particular attention to the years in which Bach is supposed to have written the cello suites, specifically highlighting events that may enlighten us about the individual suites’ moods and quirks, though, as Siblin points out, it is all speculation. Bach’s biography is notoriously bereft of solid information.

One of my favorite aspects of The Cello Suites was the biographical sections dealing with world famous cellist Pablo Casals (by which he was known professionally through his life, though his name is Pau Casals i Defilló — he was Catalan, and for much of his life Catalan was outlawed). When Casals was only thirteen years old he discovered the sheet music of Bach’s long forgotten cello suites languishing in a small music store. Casals goes on to make the music — and the cello — famous. Casals’ biography is incredibly turbulent, and Siblin spends most of his time in the years 1936 to 1939, when the Spanish Civil War was in full force, ravaging, among other things, Catalonian culture. It was also during these years that Casals made his famous recording of Bach’s cello suites. This was obviously an emotional time for Casals, and, as with Bach, Siblin speculates (though here the dates are more easily confirmed than with Bach) on how events outside of the music affect the famous recordings.

Siblin also injects episodes of his own personal biography at the end of each section, in the Gigue. Here we learn about the people he met, sometimes through sheer serendipity, who had some connection to the cello suites. Though these bits were less interesting to me than the others, Siblin’s passion for his project (he even decided to at least get some basic experience with a cello and to learn the first cello suite on his guitar) is infectious. It is easy to see just how much this project meant to him. In fact, as the project meant so much to him, that these section were so small led me to appreciate how much control Siblin displayed in the book. He could easily have made his personal experiences the main thread. That he restrained himself to these brief bits and structured his book according to the cello suites and not to his own decade pursuing them shows that he understands and respects the reader’s main interests.

There is another biographical thread that shows up in all of the sections and in all of the movements: that of the cello suites themselves, which is shrouded in mystery. For example, we come to learn that we don’t even know if Bach wrote this music for the cello. The major doubt comes because the last suite is explicitly written for an instrument with one more string than the cello. Another suite is tuned differently. Then there’s the fact that the cello was not regarded as a front-line instrument worthy of solo music at that time (nor was it really until Casals came along — in 1890, the same year Casals discovered the cello suites, George Bernard Shaw said, “I am not fond of the violoncello: ordinarily I had as soon hear a bee buzzing in a stone jug.”). Furthermore, we do not have Bach’s signature score. The closest thing we have is a the score as transcribed by Bach’s wife (leading some to speculate with little foundation that she wrote the suites). And her score doesn’t even have many notations to aid interpretation, so no one really knows how Bach intended this music to sound. While Casals made the music famous, his version has been seen as too romantic for Bach, but no one really knows.

The Cello Suites is a great read, particularly if you have any interest in these things. Siblin will grab onto your interest and won’t let go. I read the book in a few long sittings. Notwithstanding the above, I do have some problems with the book. For one thing, I wanted more music. Siblin spends a brief amount of time, usually in the preludes to his sections, describing the tone and structure of a particular suite, but that is usually it. Consequently, the suites, though the backbone to the entire book, often sit in the background. This is not to say that what I read I didn’t appreciate; I just wanted more, which perhaps speaks to just how much I was enjoying what I got.

A more substantial gripe is that some of Siblin’s writing doesn’t do justice to the moment it narrates. The phrases are familiar and, at times, melodramatic. For example, here is the moment when Casals discovers the suites that will transform his life and music forever:

Father and son made their way through the cramped streets to one second-hand store after another, rummaging for cello music. On Carrer Ample they went into another music shop. As they rustled through the musty bundles of sheet music, some Beethoven cello sonatas were located. But what’s this? A tobacco-coloured cover page inscribed with fanciful black lettering: Six Sonatas or Suites for Solo Violoncello by Johann Sebastian Bach. Was this what it appeared to be? The immortal Bach composed music for cello alone?

Again, my gripe is merely a trifle, and the book does what it set out to do in the form most appropriate for its purposes. This is very much a work of popular history meant to be consumed relatively quickly and hopefully by many people. It is not a work of disciplined scholarship (as the speculations bear witness), but it was created in passion and certainly satisfied this low-tier dilettante’s needs.

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