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

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

by Eric Siblin


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One evening, journalist Eric Siblin attended a recital of Johann Sebastian Bach's Cello Suites and began an epic quest that would unravel three centuries of intrigue, politics, and passion. Winner of the Mavis Gallant Prize for Nonfiction and the McAuslan First Book Prize, The Cello Suites weaves together three dramatic narratives: the disappearance of Bach's manuscript in the eighteenth century; Pablo Casals's discovery and popularization of the music in Spain in the late-nineteenth century; and Siblin's infatuation with the suites in the present day. The search led Siblin to Barcelona, where Casals, just thirteen and in possession of his first cello, roamed the backstreets with his father in search of sheet music and found Bach's lost suites tucked in a dark corner of a store. Casals played them every day for twelve years before finally performing them in public. Siblin pursues the mysteries that continue to haunt this music more than 250 years after its composer's death: Why did Bach compose the suites for the cello, then considered a lowly instrument? What happened to the original manuscript? A seamless blend of biography and music history, The Cello Suites is a true-life journey of discovery, fueled by the power of these musical masterpieces.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802145246
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 01/04/2011
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 300,555
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Eric Siblin is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker, and the former pop music critic at the Montreal Gazette. The Cello Suites is his first book.

Read an Excerpt



(G major)


We find a world of emotions and ideas created with only the simplest of materials.


THE FIRST MEASURES unfold with the storytelling power of a master improviser. A journey has begun, but it's as if composition is taking place on the spot. The deep-toned strings take us back to the 1700s. The soundworld is happy. The jauntiness youthful. Discovery is in the air.

After a pause that contemplates the future, the cello resumes with aching soulfulness. Things will not come easily. The notes are murmured, stated with courtly purpose, and blasted through with rapture. We peak higher. A new vista opens up, rhapsodic resolution, the descent a soft landing.

This is how the opening notes of Bach's Cello Suites sounded to me as I sat in the courtyard of a seaside villa in Spain that once belonged to Pablo Casals, the Catalan cellist who discovered the music as a boy one afternoon in 1890. As I listened to the music on headphones, shaded by the palms and pines of a lush garden, the shimmering waves of the nearby Mediterranean seemed to roll perfectly in time with the prelude of the first cello suite.

There was no more fitting place to appreciate the music. Although the Cello Suites first flowed from the composer's quill sometime in the early 1700s, it was Casals who, two centuries later, made them famous.

My own discovery of the Cello Suites had taken place one autumn evening in 2000, a "Bach Year" marking two and a half centuries since the death of the composer. I was in the audience at Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music to hear a cellist I'd never heard of play music I knew nothing about.

I had no reason to be there aside from a concert listing in a local newspaper, idle curiosity, and the fact that I was staying at a nearby hotel. But I might have been searching for something without knowing it. Sometime earlier I had ended a stint as pop music critic for a daily newspaper in Montreal, The Gazette, a job that had filled my head with vast amounts of music, much of which I didn't want to be there. The Top 40 tunes had overstayed their welcome in my auditory cortex, and the culture surrounding rock music had worn thin. I still wanted music to occupy a central place in my life, but in a different way. The Cello Suites, as it turned out, offered a way out of the jam.

The program notes for the recital by Laurence Lesser, a distinguished cellist from Boston, explained that "amazingly, for a long time," the Cello Suites were seen as only a collection of exercises. But since Casals had started playing the suites at the dawn of the twentieth century, "we now know how lucky we are to possess these extraordinary masterworks. What most music-lovers don't know, however, is that no known composer's manuscript of these works exists ... There exists no truly reliable source for the suites." This got the journalistic wheels in my head turning: what had happened to Bach's manuscript?

It was in the small German town of Cöthen in 1720 that the Cello Suites were said to have been composed and inscribed by Bach's raven- quill pen. But without his original manuscript, how can we be certain? Why was such monumental music written for the cello, a lowly instrument usually relegated to background droning in Bach's time? And given that Bach regularly rewrote his music for different instruments, how can we even be sure that the music was written for the cello?

From my seat in the Royal Conservatory concert hall, the lone figure producing this massive sound with such modest resources seemed to defy the musical odds. Only one instrument, and one anchored to a very low register, the cello appeared unequal to the task, as if some supreme composer had devised an overambitious score, an ideal text, with little regard for the crude vehicle that was to carry it out.

Watching Laurence Lesser expertly play the suites, I was struck by the bulkiness of his instrument — in former times called the violoncello, or 'cello for short — bringing to mind some lumbering peasant from a medieval string kingdom, rough-hewn and primitive, nowhere near sophisticated enough for the refined music it was playing. But on closer examination I could see the intricately carved wooden scroll and the curvaceous sound holes, shaped like some exquisite baroque time signature. And what was coming out of those sound holes was music more earthy and ecstatic than anything I'd ever heard. I let my mind wander. What would the music have sounded like in 1720? It was easy to imagine the violoncello proving itself in aristocratic company and seducing the powdered wigs.

But if the music is so uniquely captivating, why were the Cello Suites virtually never heard until Casals discovered them? For nearly two centuries after this baritone masterwork was composed, only a small circle of professional musicians and Bach scholars knew of this epic music. And those who did thought they were more technical exercises than anything fit for the concert hall.

The story of the six suites is more than musical. Politics shaped the music, from the Prussian militarism of the eighteenth century to the German patriotism that propelled Bach's fame a century later. When European dictatorships ruled in the twentieth century, the notes became so many bullets in the anti-fascist cello of Casals. Decades later, Mstislav Rostropovich played the Cello Suites against the backdrop of a crumbling Berlin Wall.

After Casals gave the music mass appeal — which happened long after his discovery of the music — there was no stopping the suites. There are now more than fifty recordings in the catalogue and upwards of seventy-five performance editions of the music for cellists. Other instrumentalists found they could transcribe and tackle the Cello Suites: the flute, piano, guitar, trumpet, tuba, saxophone, banjo, and more have all essayed the music with surprising success. But for cellists the six suites quickly became their alpha and omega, a rite of passage, the Mount Everest of their repertoire. (Or the Mount Fuji: in 2007 Italian cellist Mario Brunello climbed to the summit, nearly 3,750 metres above sea level, where he played selections from the Cello Suites, declaring that "Bach's music comes closest to the absolute and to perfection.")

The music is no longer considered overly challenging for the average listener. New recordings of the suites regularly win "disc of the year" honours. And the scratchy old mono recording made by Casals continues to be a top seller among historical titles.

But it is not lighthearted music. A cursory scan of recent performances shows that the suites were played at two major memorial services in England held in honour of the victims of 9/11, at another memorial marking the Rwandan genocide, and at various high-profile funerals, including the massive one held for Katharine Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post. Just recently, at Senator Edward Kennedy's funeral in August 2009, the sarabande from the sixth Cello Suite was performed with aching beauty by Yo-Yo Ma.

If the music has often been employed for sad occasions, it is in large part explained by the dark, moody tones of the cello, plus the fact that the Bach suites require one lonely instrument. Yet the cello is the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice; it is capable of more than just doom and gloom. The Bach suites, most of which are written in major keys, have their fair share of upbeat merrymaking, devil-may-care attitude, and ecstatic abandon. The roots of the music are in dance — most of the movements are in fact old European dances — and dancers have been quick to choreograph the suites. Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Mark Morris, and Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, among others, have all moved to its propulsive rhythms.

The music gets around. Yo-Yo Ma produced six short films that used gardening, architecture, figure skating, and kabuki to illustrate the suites. The rock star Sting made a short film in which he played the first prelude on a guitar while an Italian ballet dancer enacted the melody. And the suites have been heard in several films, most notably (and, alas, gloomily) in several by Ingmar Bergman, as well as in Master and Commander, The Pianist, and the television series The West Wing. The music can be found on discs as varied as Classic FM Music for Studying, Bach for Babies, and Tune Your Brain on Bach, not to mention Bach for Barbecue. The Bach suites have been cited by one opera singer as her favourite music for cooking. Snippets of the music are widely available as cellphone ring tones.

But the Cello Suites haven't quite gone mainstream. They remain "classical" music after all, and have the refined aroma of music for connoisseurs. They were considered exactly that by reviewers — "an item for connoisseurs" — when Casals' pioneering recordings were first released back in the early 1940s. "They are cool and pure and lofty," wrote the critic for the New York Times, "set forth with the simplicity that distinguishes searching art." They still have serious status, fuelled by highbrow reviews that suggest the suites "represent some sort of apex of Western musical creativity" or that the music "has a purity and intensity that approach the Japanese yet remains more accessible to Western ears."

The idea to write a book about the Bach suites, one that is not aimed at classical connoisseurs, came to me when I first heard three of the Cello Suites in that Toronto recital by Laurence Lesser. The idea was vague, but I had a strong sense there was a story there, somewhere, and decided to follow in the footsteps of the notes.

Since then I have heard the suites performed on Spain's Costa Dorada, on the grounds of Casals' former villa, now a lovely museum devoted to the cellist. I listened to a young German cellist play the suites in a Leipzig warehouse, not far from where Bach is buried. Matt Haimovitz, a one-time wunderkind, gave a rollicking account of the music at a roadhouse juke joint in the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa. I attended a master class on the suites given by the eminent Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma at a music camp perched on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. I was at Lincoln Center for Pieter Wispelwey's marathon playing of all six suites, and at a Manhattan conference on Bach in the twenty-first century, where the suites were gorgeously performed on marimba (marimBach!). At a high- rise apartment building on the outskirts of Brussels, I heard a Russian émigré violinist play the suites on an intriguing five-string fiddle that he'd built, convinced it is the mysterious instrument lost to history that Bach really composed the suites for.

The compact discs have piled up — from the Old Testament recordings that Casals made back in the 1930s to the slickly produced discs of recent years, including "authentic" early music approaches and the suites rendered on any number of instruments, in jazzified form, or blended with traditional South African music. In 2007, three centuries after composition, the Cello Suites hit number one on the iTunes classical music chart with a recording by Rostropovich. (Bach seemed to be boasting to the iPod generation that month: another version of the Cello Suites was on the same Top 20 chart, not to mention three other works by the composer.)

By then the music had become a story for me. And it seemed only natural for the story to be structured along the lines of the music. The six Cello Suites each contain six movements, starting with a prelude and ending with a gigue. In between are old court dances — an allemande, a courante, and a sarabande — after which Bach inserted a more "modern" dance, either a minuet, a bourrée, or a gavotte. In the pages that follow, Bach will occupy the first two or three movements in each suite. The dances that come afterwards are earmarked for Pablo Casals. And the gigues that close each suite will be reserved for a more recent story, that of my search.

If I've been on the trail of the music for this long it's because there's so much to hear in the Cello Suites. The genre may be baroque, but there are multiple personalities and mood swings within the suites. I hear barnstorming peasant tunes and postmodern minimalism, spiritual lamentations and heavy metal riffs, medieval jigs and spy movie soundtracks. The ideal experience for most listeners may be as I first heard the music, without preconceptions. But connect the notes, and a story emerges.


The elegant allemandes in the Cello Suites, each preceded by a dramatic opening movement, have been described as slow and pensive pieces of great beauty.


TO PIECE TOGETHER the story of the Cello Suites means getting to know the music's composer. And for anyone born in the past half-century, to become acquainted with Johann Sebastian Bach — really acquainted — means to infiltrate another art form, another era, another frame of mind. To get myself up to baroque speed, I went about listening to massive amounts of Bach's music, perusing second-hand music shops to build a respectable collection, reading everything Bachian I could get my hands on, from eighteenth-century accounts to glossy classical music magazines, and going to concerts bravo'd by mature audiences that were a far cry from the rock circuit.

I also became a card-carrying member of the American Bach Society. The main perk of membership was occasional mailings of the ABS newsletter, which was emblazoned with Bach's personal seal, his initials stylishly entwined and topped with a crown. I scoured the handful of pages trumpeting the latest scholarly research for clues about the Cello Suites. It felt as if I'd joined a secret society. In high school during the 1970s, when musical choice seemed to be between the enemy forces of disco and spaced-out synthesizer rock, being a Rolling Stones fan felt vaguely esoteric. At some point since then they became the band of choice for people practically in my mother's demographic, but back then true Stones fans were not numerous. Two decades later, finding fellow Bach enthusiasts in my social circles was more or less impossible.

So when I learned that the American Bach Society held conferences every two years, and the next one was to take place not far away, at Rutgers University in New Jersey, I eagerly registered. Having done my homework on the Cello Suites I could qualify, sort of, as a bona fide Bachian and rub shoulders with my own people.

Thus in April 2004 I found myself walking across the emerald lawns of Princeton University with a gaggle of Bach devotees, nearly all of whom were scholars and an alarming number of whom were bearded and wearing dark blazers. We had just heard a very high-forehead lecture on Bach and were emerging from a university building, blinking in the sunlight, as a student event called "Spring Fling" was noisily underway. There was face-painting and Hacky Sack, football, a barbecue, and a garage band cranking out REM's rock anthem It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine).

This was so much white noise for the Bach scholars, who were at Princeton on a musicological mission, a colourful field expedition in the otherwise staid world of Bach research. The world's finest portrait of Bach, almost never accessible to the public, was being made available for delegates to the 2004 American Bach Society conference. Only two authentic portraits of Bach are known to exist, both by the same artist, the Saxon court painter Elias Gottlob Hausmann. They are nearly identical, both in oil, and show the composer in the same serious pose. Despite their similarity, they are thought to have been painted on separate occasions. One of the portraits today hangs in the municipal museum of Leipzig, the city where it was painted in 1746. It is in poor shape because of repeated over-painting, as well as having been used once upon a time for target practice by bored students armed with crumpled paper.

The other portrait, painted two years later, is in pristine condition. It is this one that half a century ago made its way into the hands of William H. Scheide, an independently wealthy Bach enthusiast with a long history of studying, performing, and collecting the works of his favourite composer. Normally the portrait hangs in Scheide's Princeton home, but he agreed to display the portrait for those attending the fourteenth biennial meeting of the American Bach Society.

The Hausmann portrait has, more than anything else, fleshed out the popular image of Bach — that of a severe-looking, bewigged, and somewhat corpulent German burgher. It is an image that graces countless CD covers, concert programs, and festival posters, and has gone a long way towards helping listeners imagine a composer for whom scant biographical detail exists.


Excerpted from "The Cello Suites"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Eric Siblin.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Suite No. 1,
Suite No. 2,
Suite No. 3,
Suite No. 4,
Suite No. 5,
Suite No. 6,
Suggested Listening,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“This is one of the most extraordinary, clever, beautiful, and impeccably researched books I have read in years. A fascinating story deftly told—and, for me at least, ideally read with Bach’s thirty-six movements playing softly in the background; a recipe for literary rapture.”—Simon Winchester, author of the New York Times best-seller The Professor and the Madman

“Vividly chronicles [Siblin’s] international search for the original, and unfound, Bach score…Mr. Siblin’s book is well researched, and filled with enough anecdotes to engage even the classical-music aficionado…but the book is best distinguished by its writing. To vivify music in words is not easy. But Mr. Siblin…rises to the task…Read The Cello Suites—preferably with their melodious hum in the background—and you will never look at a cello in quite the same way again.”—The Economist

“This is rich terrain, and Siblin’s book is an engrossing combination of musical and political history spiced with generally vivid descriptions of the cello suites themselves…[Siblin] has given us a compelling portrait of a passionate, prickly Bach, of Casals, a musician who was also politically engaged, and an engrossing cast of secondary characters. Best of all, The Cello Suites makes us want to pop in a CD and really listen to those cello suites. Awesome.”—Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times

“A work of ever-percolating interest. Mr. Siblin winds up mixing high and low musical forms, art and political histories, Bach’s and Casals’s individual stories and matters of arcane musicology into a single inquisitive volume.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“The ironies of artistic genius and public taste are subtly explored in this winding, entertaining tale of a musical masterpiece…Siblin is an insightful writer with an ability to convey the sound and emotional impact of music in words.”—Publishers Weekly

“Engaging and imaginative…a charming narrative.”—Melinda Bargreen, The Seattle Times

“The author has done a wealth of research in pursuit of his new passion, and he writes engagingly…this intrepid writer has worked hard to interest readers in his musical obsession, and there is a great deal to chew on here.”—Priscilla S. Taylor, he Washington Times

“It’s not often that one begins reading a book with mild interest and then can’t put it down, which happened to me with this beautiful book.”—Diana Athill, author of Stet and Somewhere Towards the End

“…pitch-perfect…The Cello Suites is, on all counts, a superior book.”
-QWF McAuslan First Book Prize Jury citation

“…an ambitious, carefully researched, and inventively constructed book written with clarity and verve.”—Mavis Gallant Prize for Nonfiction Jury Citation

“A delightfully quirky quest…Eric Siblin seamlessly weaves together the tale of how Bach’s lost and mostly forgotten manuscript came to be discovered a century later by Pablo Casals, and finally became Siblin’s personal passion.”—Governor General’s Literary Award Jury Citation

“A book of extraordinary charm, insight, and widespread literary appeal.”—BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction Jury Citation

“Siblin firmly believes ‘Bach is what you make of him’—and his book represents just that…No matter what the great composer means to readers, they will surely enjoy Siblin’s fun, fast-paced journey from pop-music scribbler to Bach aficionado.”—Christian Science Monitor

“A book that will fascinate anyone who loves Bach’s music. . .engaging. . .Many of the facts woven into textual fabric glitter like metal threads as Siblin shifts the reader’s focus from one protagonist to the other. The result are rich depictions of Bach in his 18th-century milieu and Casals in his 20th-century sphere. . . The author’s colorful prose conveys substantial charm, and reveals a first-rate travel writer’s sense of place. . .sets biographical and musicological details neatly in context.”—David Lander, Stereophile

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