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

2009, Anansi, 319 pages

Book Blurb

Part biography, part music history, and part literary mystery, The Cello Suites is a dramatic narrative featuring legendary composer Johann Sebastian Bach, world-renowned cellist Pablo Casals, and author Eric Siblin’s own quest to uncover the mysteries that continue to haunt this musical masterpiece.

Author Blurb

Eric Siblin is the bestselling author of The Cello Suites, which won the Quebec Writers’ Federation Mavis Gallant Nonfiction Prize and McAuslan First Book Prize; was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize, and the BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction; and has so far been published in ten territories and seven languages. He live in Montreal, Quebec.

Interpreters, Interpreters, Interpreters!

Artists need interpreters. Composers especially need interpreters. Music is unlike a painting where the viewer can engage with a work directly. And music is unlike a play, where the reader, particularly a reader with a vivid imagination, can engage with the text directly. The composer “paints” or “types” the piece onto a musical score which consists of a series of dots and lines on a five bar line. The case today is that most people are musically illiterate. They cannot read music. For this reason, composers are in especial need of interpreters. Were it not for Felix Mendelssohn, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion would have languished in obscurity. Were it not for Glenn Gould, Bach’s Goldberg Variations may as well have been forgotten. A capable interpreter champions the artist to a new generation of listeners. In light of this, Pablo Casals is the star of Siblin’s book.

In The Cello Suites, Siblin recounts how a young Casals, stricken by the sound of the cello (which, having the same register as a male voice, speaks or sings with a resonant and full sound), began searching for works written for that instrument, and how at age 14, found a dusty copy of six suites for cello solo by Bach in a second-hand shop in Barcelona near the harbour. The Cello Suites were seldom played in concerts. And, for hundreds of years, they had not been performed publicly from start to finish. It was considered to be an etude, an exercise. It was not musical. Casals would change this. Before the first public performance of the six suites with all the repeats, Casals would spend over a decade perfecting his interpretation, mastering each phrase to extract from the notes the soul of the music and the soul of the dance.

Cello Suites Discography

My first recording of The Cello Suites was Janos Starker’s 1965 recording on the legendary Mercury Living Presence label. It was recorded to a 35mm movie film base which offered higher dynamic range than the standard reel-to-reel tape. The film base sounds terrific, but the process of using film base never caught on due to cost. In 1991 Wilma Fine remastered the recording to CD, which is what I purchased. Starker’s recording is an exemplary balance of technicality, rigour, and feeling. He follows the text, yet finds room to let the music speak out. Like many other Mercury Living Presence releases, this is an outstanding recording: quiet background, the full dynamic range is preserved from the pianissimos to the sforzandos.

While reading Siblin’s book, David Watkin’s 2015 recording on the Resonus label arrived at the library. For this recording, he used to period cellos with gut strings and all. It was a very well reviewed recording that won a Gramophone editor’s choice award, so I had high hopes. This is an intensely personal recording. I found the personal elements slow and syrupy. The dance elements (each suite begins with a prelude followed by a sequence of stylized dances) were missing. It would be hard to dance to this recording. There is too much of Watkin’s individuality here. This recording makes me understand why for a long time the suites were not performed in their entirety.

As I finished Siblin’s book, the 2003 Warner Classics remastering of Casals’ recording came in. Casals recorded the six suites over multiple sessions in 1936 (Abbey Road), 1938 (Paris), and 1939 (Paris). Because of the vintage, I had thought it would be a noisy recording with limited range, similar to blues recordings made during this era such as Robert Johnson’s, which were recorded in 1936-1937. Nothing could be further from the truth. You can hear the machine noise in the recordings. But it is not a distraction. The remastering team has done a superb job, and they must have been working with good quality masters. And the playing itself is gorgeous. Very muscular. Intense. Electrifying. It’s also a personal recording. But it’s a personal recording that brings out the dance elements of the music. Listening, it’s easy to see how Casals won over the world. This is music on the calibre that, even if you do not agree with his interpretation, must be listened to. And, if you agree with his interpretation–as I do–then it is absolutely mind-blowing. It’s like listening to Glenn Gould play the Goldberg Variations. Who knew the music could sound like this? Great music, to become great music, needs great interpreters.

Speaking of Interpreters…

I always like tying back the books I’m reading to the theatre project. Tragedies written in other languages are very much like musical works in that, for them to come alive, they need a capable interpreter. My favourite tragedy of them all is Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. My first encounter with the work was Stephen Sandy’s translation, which left me thoroughly unimpressed. After reading Sandy’s translation, I thought the play was unimpressive, and even a little boring. Take a look at the exchange between Eteocles and the chorus after Eteocles finds out he must confront his brother at the seventh gate:

Chorus: In a word, do not go on this way–to the seventh gate.

Eteocles: Set as I am going, words won’t stop me.

Chorus: Gods smile on victory even if won with caution.

Eteocles: No warrior could take such an adage seriously!

Chorus: But shed your brother’s blood? Can you mean it? Surely you would not–

Eteocles: To whom the gods would bring destruction, destruction surely comes.

It sounds like, in the heat of the moment (and this is the moment), Eteocles and the chorus are having a leisurely debate, throwing woolly expressions at one another. The translation fails to capture the desperation and heat of the moment. Compare this Anthony Hecht and Helen H. Bacon’s translation that I fortunately stumbled upon several years later:

Koryphaios: Do not go that road to the seventh gate.

Eteokles: Your words cannot blunt me, whetted as I am.

Koryphaios: Yet there are victories without glory, and the gods have honored them.

Eteokles: These are no words for a man in full armor.

Koryphaios: Can you wish to harvest your brother’s blood?

Eteokles: If the gods dispose evil, no man can evade it.

Hecht and Bacon is so much more direct: compare their blunt “Do not go that road…” to the effuse “In a word, do not go on this way…” in Sandy. Eteocles’ rejoinder is equally blunt in Hecht and Bacon’s translation. Sandy’s translation gives the unfortunate impression that although words don’t stop him this time, on another occasion, perhaps words could stop him. Similarly, Eteocles’ “These are no words for a man in full armor” seems more natural than the artificial “No man can take such an adage seriously.” Hecht and Bacon also preserve the image of Ares harvesting lives on the battlefield; this is missing in the Sandy translation. And finally, Sandy’s “To whom the gods would bring destruction…” sounds too cliché. It was only after I stumbled upon Hecht and Bacon’s translation that I could fall in love with this play. It went from being my least favourite to my favourite. That is how powerful the role of the interpreter is. Just like how ancient societies rose and fell by how their interpreters interpreted the omens, we rely on modern seers such as Casals, Hecht, and Bacon to interpret our modern signs.

In the spirit of Casals and Gould, who brought two forgotten works by Bach back into the limelight, I have attempted to draw attention to the dramatic power of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes in my forthcoming book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Along with Shakespeare’s MacbethSeven Against Thebes is my “exemplar” tragedy. In the same way as Aristotle championed Oedipus rex and Hegel championed Antigone, I will champion Seven Against Thebes.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

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