Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Pablo Casals

I just finished reading "Joys and Sorrows" by Pablo Casals as told to Albert E. Kahn, an autobiographical memoir by Casals of his long and fascinating life. The man was awesome, and his legacy is such an inspiration! Here, he describes his (re)discovery of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello at age 13 with his father in Barcelona:

Then we stopped at an old music shop near the harbor. I began browsing through a bundle of musical scores. Suddenly I came upon a sheaf of pages, crumbled and discolored with age. They were unaccompanied suties by Johann Sebastian Bach-for the cello only! I looked at them with wonder: Six Suites for Violoncello Solo. What magic and mystery, I thought, were hidden in those words? I had never heard of the existence of the suites; nobody-not even my teachers-had ever mentioned them to me. I forgot our reason for being at the shop. All I could do was stare at the pages and caress them. That sensation has never grown dim. Even today, when I look at the cover of that music, I am back again in the old musty shop with its faint smell of the sea. I hurried home, clutching the suites as if they were the crown jewels, and once in my room I pored over them. I read and reread them. I was thirteen at the time, but for the following eighty years the wonder of my discovery has continued to grow on me. Those suites opened up a whole new world. I began playing them with indescribable excitement. They became my most cherished music. I studied and worked at them every day for the next twelve years. Yes, twelve years would elapse and I would be twenty-five before I had the courage to play one of the suites in public at a concert. Up until then, no violinist or cellist had ever played one of the Bach suites in its entirety. They would play just a single section-a Saraband, a Gavotte or a Minuet. But I played them as a whole; from the prelude through the five dance movements, with all the repeats that give the wonderful entity and pacing and structure of every movement, the full architecture and artistry. They had been considered academic works, mechanical, without warmth. Imagine that! How could anyone think of them as being cold, when a whole radiance of space and poetry pours forth from them! They are the very essence of Bach, and Bach is the essence of music.

I have only heard Yo-Yo Ma's version of the Six Suites (and Andrew Cook playing part of the third suite in a live concert last week), but the attraction to a cellist is profound. Bach! Solos for the cello! How excited he must have been! We all owe Casals such a debt of gratitude for his reintroduction of these masterpieces to the world.

Of course Casals did so much more than that! He completely changed how we play the cello, with open arms and obvious passion. His inspiration generated so many new cello pieces composed by the geniuses of the time just for him (and now us) to play. Such a giant!

I look forward to his recordings...

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