New Finds

Bach in the Day

A book about six Bach cello suites and the legend Pablo Casals tells a very good story.

Book Cover Back when I was an impressionable undergraduate (as opposed to being an impressionable graybeard), I was heavily into German author Herman Hesse (Siddhartha), devouring his oeuvre and other big chunks of world culture (I should add certain drugs were experimented with, in addition to those that I inhaled). In Hesse’s magnum opus, Magister Ludi or The Glass Bead Game—the nature of the game is not clear nor are the rules—but mastery comes from years of study, synthesizing all manner of seemingly unrelated information. It was then I discovered the Bach (6) Suites for Unaccompanied Cello and which I saw as a possible interpretive schema of the, uh, universe (silly me), somewhat akin to the bead game. Anyway, despite their appearance in various commercials, I am still deeply moved by this music—so much that I have at various times acquired performances by Janos Starker, Pablo Casals, Mstislav Rostoprovich, and Yo Yo Ma.

(Sadly, as far as I know, the brilliant cellist Jacqueline du Pré never recorded them.)

Former Montreal Gazette pop music critic Eric Siblin has recently fallen under that music’s powerful sway and has written a monograph entitled The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece (Grove Press). There is a wonderful story here of which I was not aware. Apparently, Bach’s original score—for what was then considered a second-rate instrument, the cello—was lost until the teen-aged cello student, Pablo Casals, discovered the music in Barcelona. Reportedly Casals played the Suites every day for 12 years before he performed them in public.

I am much encouraged by the publication of this sort of book; it probably has a limited audience, though it need not, as it reads well as a piece of cultural history and historical mystery. And, if you don’t know this music, you owe it to yourself to take a listen.
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