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.

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    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.

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.

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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.”

Interestingly, Siblin shaped his book about music into what could be described as a musical word symphony. There are six sections listed as (you guessed it) “suites,” and the chapters are structured like a musical piece, including preludes, sarabands and gigues. Bach’s musical legacy is the prelude to each chapter/suite, followed by discussions of Casals’s career and Siblin’s search of a Bach for the ages. Although the structure of “The Cello Suites” will make it difficult for some people to keep everything straight, most will appreciate the way that the ebbs and flows of the book match the piece itself.

That being said, Siblin hasn’t created a technical volume of musical history and theory that could be classified as (please forgive me – I can’t resist) “inside cello.” Rather, Siblin firmly believes “Bach is what you make of him” – and his book represents just that.

For instance, the competing interpretations of the Cello Suites could be construed as paying homage to the composer’s genius. Casals’s refusal to play in countries that recognized Spain’s fascist government could be viewed as a way to keep his version of the Cello Suites with those who respected democracy and freedom. The recent revelation that Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena, may have written the piece (Siblin supports the view that Casals’s discovery “was based on Anna Magdalena’s manuscript”) only adds to the mystery of Bach. And the author’s book-long search for the missing original manuscript, which led him to daydream about a “high stakes auction at Sotheby’s in London” with the piece’s true story “laid bare with all the drama one could hope for,” is the “Antiques Roadshow” moment many of us would like to have.

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. And who knows? Maybe it will entice more music lovers to join the search for the original manuscript and find a Bach they can truly call their own.
Michael Taube is a columnist and former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He can be reached at miketaube@yahoo.com.

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