Part biography, part music history, and part literary mystery, The Cello Suites weaves together three dramatic narratives: The first features Johann Sebastian Bach and the missing manuscript of his suites from the eighteenth century; the second follows Pablo Casals and the historic discovery of the music in Spain in the late nineteenth century; and the third is Eric Siblin's own infatuation with the suites in the twenty-first century. This love affair leads Siblin to the back streets of Barcelona and a Belgian mansion; to interviews with cellists Mischa Maisky, Anner Bylsma, and Pieter Wispelwey; to archives, festivals, and conferences; and even to cello lessons — all in pursuit of answers to the mysteries that continue to haunt this piece of music more than 250 years after its composer's death. The Cello Suites is a true-life journey of discovery fuelled by the transcendent power of a musical masterpiece.
How Bach rewired my audio circuitry
My first exposure to Bach’s Cello Suites, after working as a pop music critic for a daily newspaper, rewired my audio circuitry. It took place in a small concert hall where a cellist with a shock of white hair, dressed in formal black attire, was bent over a 17th century instrument. In the hands of Laurence Lesser, the instrument with the intricately carved wooden scroll and curving sound holes seemed to defy the laws of musical gravity. With only four strings and one bow, the cello said so much with so little. I heard courtly music that would have made Louis X1V hit the dance floor, but also riffs that could have been powered by Jimmy Page; there were Celtic jigs and spiritual dirges, a spy-movie theme, near-eastern flourishes, modern minimalism, and the merriment of a medieval tavern fiddler.
The program notes written by Lesser, an eminent cellist from Boston, encouraged my suspicion that there was a story somewhere in the music. Lesser noted that the Cello Suites were all but unheard in 1890 when a thirteen year-old cellist was out for a stroll with his father in the old port district of Barcelona. The cellist was Pablo Casals, and when he stumbled on the sheet music of the Cello Suites in a secondhand shop, both his career and the course of music history were transformed. Casals spent the next dozen years mastering the music before summoning the confidence to play an entire suite in public. This image of a boy cellist discovering the music was the dramatic kick-start for the story I now knew I needed to tell. Soon enough, as I listened to this sublime music again and again, I seemed to hear that serendipitous stroll in the prelude of the first suite.
But Casals was only part of the story. The program notes mentioned a handful of mysteries surrounding the Cello Suites. Why did Johann Sebastian Bach write this unprecedented solo music in the first place? It is thought to have been composed around 1720, but there is no hard evidence as Bach’s original manuscript disappeared. There are other question marks and clues. Suite No. 5, composed for a strange tuning, also exists in a gorgeous version for solo lute dedicated to a “Monsieur Schouster”, about whom nothing was known. And Suite No. 6 was written for a mysterious five-string instrument.
Such questions are typical when it comes to Bach. Unlike his main competitors in the classical music pantheon – Mozart and Beethoven – he has received only passing attention in popular culture. That’s partly a result of the sketchy historical record. Only one authentic portrait has survived, by the Saxon court painter Elias Hausmann, which depicts a bewigged, somewhat dour, solid citizen, a bit on the heavy side, holding a sheet of music for posterity to puzzle over. There’s no sign of the mischievous Mozart or rebellious Beethoven.
Yet Bach’s life was not stuffy. He was very fond of his drink (wine, beer and brandy), his pipe tobacco, his 20 children (10 of whom lived to adulthood), his first wife (who died young), and his second wife (who was young when they married). On one memorable occasion he brawled with a rowdy bassoonist and drew his sword. Another time he was thrown into a duke’s jail.
One thing Bach did not experience in his lifetime – he lived from 1685 to 1750 - was great fame. The road to major success for a composer in his day ran through the opera house, and Bach never lived in a city that supported an opera. He toiled in relative obscurity in places such as Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, Weimar, Cöthen, and Leipzig.
Bach’s fame was like a time-release capsule. Nearly eighty years after his death, the fame started to kick in when a 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn staged a performance of the St. Matthew Passion. It was a box-office triumph that produced rave reviews and led to repeat performances. But the so-called Bach Revival – the first time that a long-dead composer was plucked from the realm of specialists and given a popular audience – remained slow-going.
So when Pablo Casals laid eyes on cello music he never knew existed, it was very much in keeping with the story of Bach. For those musicians who knew of them, the Cello Suites were considered dry, technical exercises, of some pedagogical value, but not fit for the concert hall.
Even a musical giant of the nineteenth century like Robert Schumann, a major booster of Bach, had no luck reviving the Cello Suites when he wrote a piano accompaniment for the music in the 1850s. Schumann felt that adding piano was a way of providing “harmonic braces.” His aim was to make challenging music accessible to the general public – solo cello with training wheels. But Schumann’s pieces were rejected for publication.
When Casals started figuring out the music he didn’t have any model to go by. He had to reinvent the music. Which is fitting, because Bach’s music often seems as if it was invented to be re-invented. This is very much the case for the Cello Suites. Because Bach’s autograph manuscript went missing, the few copies of the music that survived differ in details. We still don’t know what Bach had in mind for tempo, dynamics, bowing, or styles of play. The sheet music, as a result, comes with a poetic license attached. And an ink-blot test. Cellists tend to put their own personal stamp on the music.
Every cellist of the past century, though, would measure their performance against that of a short, balding musician from a small town in Catalonia, who suffered regular bouts of stage fright and clenched his eyes tightly shut when playing. For a long time nobody sounded anywhere near as good.
The earliest evidence I came across of Casals performing a Cello Suite was in the autumn of 1901. He was on a joint concert tour of Spain with the British pianist Harold Bauer. The newspaper Diario de Barcelona noted that on October 17, Casals played “the ‘Suite’ of Bach.” His performance was lauded for its diction and dignity; the prelude and sarabande were praised for sounding robust and belleza. Later in that tour, Madrid’s El Liberal reported that “a Bach suite earned Señor Casals a prolonged ovation.” The music that had lain dormant for nearly two centuries was finally being heard.
But it would take some time before the music would become that great baritone soliloquy so familiar to our ears. It was not until the 1930s that Casals finally recorded all six suites. The Catalan cellist made the recordings during and shortly after the Spanish Civil War that was convulsing his homeland, and that first-ever complete recording of the music sounds terrifically urgent and desperate and hopeful in ways that peacetime might not have produced.
Casals, an anti-fascist Republican, recorded the second and third suites at London’s Abbey Road Studios in 1936, at the very moment that the epic Battle of Madrid was raging and civilians were being bombarded. Suites one and six were made in Paris in 1938 while the Spanish Republic was still holding out against the fascist onslaught. And finally, suites four and five were recorded in June 1939 after General Franco, aided by Hitler and Mussolini, had won the civil war.
The iconic recordings, which have never gone out of print, were released in the U.K. as 12-inch 78 rpm records in two installments in 1938, with suites four and five not seeing the light of day until 1948. That was more than half a century after Casals’s serendipitous stroll in Barcelona.
Since then, the suites have become a rite of passage for cello players. On a recent trip to the Virgin Megastore in Manhattan I found no fewer than 24 versions. Yet Casals’s historic recording remains a top seller. And for the purposes of a writer looking for a narrative in the music, Casals is unbeatable.
Whenever I hit a brick wall trying to write the story of the Cello Suites I would listen to the music, which never failed to point me in some narrative direction. Each of the suites have their own personality. Bach may have never written a teenage cellist from Catalonia into the first suite but he did make it sound optimistic and full of youthful energy. The second suite, for me, has become one of tragedy, with evidence that it might express Bach’s grief at the death of his first wife. The third suite represents love, the fourth struggle, the fifth mystery, and the sixth – bursting the boundaries of all that came before and composed for an instrument with one extra string – transcendence.
When I was at the end of my cello journey, researching the sixth suite, I happened to be in Brussels and one afternoon found a business card advertising a second-hand music shop called Prelude. I was intrigued and tracked it down. It was a bare-bones setup, with a snoozing black dog and a similarly listless salesman. There was precious little to purchase except for some musty stacks of sheet music. I went through the pile earmarked for cello, and recognized the names of pedagogues from the 19th century. Then I leafed through a custom-bound piece of music selling for six euros. The room seemed to spin. It was the Grützmacher edition of the Suites, the same edition that Casals stumbled on in a similar shop in 1890. The old-fashioned cash register rang up my purchase. I had strolled into a scene I had always imagined.