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The Cello Suites

A pop-music journalist falls in love with Bach’s Cello Suites and sets out to discover all he can about the classic masterpiece.

By Michael Taube / January 19, 2010

The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece By Eric Siblin Atlantic Monthly Press 319 pp., $24

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Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suites is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. While some readers may not immediately recognize the title, they’ve likely heard bits and pieces over the years. In popular culture, it’s been featured in films (“Master and Commander,” “The Pianist,” “Autumn Sonata”) and television (“The West Wing,” a 2007 Gatorade commercial). The Sixth Cello Suite was also prominently on display during Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy’s funeral last summer.

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Yet there’s more to the Cello Suites than meets the eye (and the ear). This piece has long been shrouded in mystery, due in large part to the disappearance of Bach’s original manuscript. A dusty French edition of the piece, discovered by chance in a Spanish music shop in 1890 by a 13-year-old prodigy, Pablo Casals, was kept under wraps for 12 years until he mastered every note. And there’s now some dispute as to whether the Six Cello Suites were actually written by the brilliant composer’s wife.

So where does Canadian journalist Eric Siblin, former pop-music critic for the Montreal Gazette, fit in? His introduction to Bach was an unusual one: He went to a concert in Toronto in 2000 by “a cellist I’d never heard of play music I knew nothing about.” The cellist was Boston’s Laurence Lesser, the piece was the Cello Suites, and Siblin was immediately hooked on the “uniquely captivating” music. The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece details his journey through the strange, exciting, and rather perplexing world of a musical piece waiting to be discovered.

There are three stories running concurrently in “The Cello Suites.” The first story is an examination of Bach’s life and work. Admittedly, this is a difficult task, because “aside from Shakespeare, there is probably no other towering figure in modern art about whom we know so little.” The second story is Casals’s career as a musician. As the book reveals, Casals “reinvented the cello” and played to packed audiences – an impressive accomplishment, considering that before his arrival, “cellists did not fill concert halls.” The third story is Siblin’s growing relationship with this piece of music. He discusses everything from retracing Casals’s route to greatness in Spain to the author’s determination to play Bach on the cello, in order to bring him “closer to the suites.”

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