December 17, 2010

Bach (tout de) Suites.

Considering that the Cello Suites live in the marrow of most cellists, it seems hard to believe that these six masterpieces went almost completely unperformed until 1900. They were not lost. They were regarded as études.

In 1879, a thirteen-year-old Pablo Casals went browsing through scores in an old music shop, but read his own story…

portrait Yousuf Karsh Pablo Casals.
...“Suddenly I came upon a sheaf of pages, crumbled and discolored with age. They were unaccompanied suites 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 the 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 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 any Bach suite in its entirety. They would play just a single section, a Saraband, a Gavotte or a Minuet. 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.”

For the cellist, the Cello Suites are far more than music.  They are a challenge to the cellist's deepest conclusions about life. Mstislav Rostropovich put it bluntly: “The hardest thing in interpreting Bach is the necessary equilibrium between human feelings, the heart that undoubtedly Bach possessed, and the severe and profound aspect of interpretation. You cannot automatically disengage your heart from the music. This was the greatest problem I had to resolve in my interpretation”...

I do not write this from a critical position. It is not a matter of discrimination and taste. I write this as an advocate. Listen to any of the YouTube samples. Throw a dart. There is no wrong choice. There is this, life is infinitely poorer without the Cello Suites. For inspiration, consolation, or mediation, they are, as Casals said, “the essence of music.”

Reading Eric Siblin’s eloquent book has made me think about how I came to conceive my passion for the music of J. S. Bach. For me, no other composer comes near to writing music of such beauty, depth, and transcendence. Unfortunately, the common view of his music is that it is cold, clever, and difficult – ‘mathematical’ is the choice mantra. Bach will seek you out and take you by surprise. For me, as for Eric Siblin, it was Bach’s six Cello Suites.

Eric Siblin was the pop music critic of the Montreal Gazette until the late 1990s, but he was falling out of love with it – a passage quoted from a deeply weary review of a U2 gig bears that out only too well. In 2000, staying in a Toronto hotel, and at loose ends, he goes to a recital “to hear a cellist I’d never heard of play music I knew nothing about.” It was Laurence Lesser, playing the six suites as part of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s ‘departure’. The effect was overwhelming (I well believe it), and the program notes tell a story of transmission and rediscovery of this music that is fraught with chance and risk. This recital set Siblin on a quest to find out as much as he could about this uniquely profound and moving music, and the mysteries surrounding it.

There are three interwoven strands to his book: Bach’s life and work, and the transmission of (probably a fraction) of his musical legacy; the life of Pablo Casals; and Eric Siblin’s own story of discovery. Each chapter titled after one of the movements. It makes for an interesting simultaneously listening and reading experience.


Alistair said...

Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.- Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)

Anonymous said...

what I was looking for, thanks