The six Suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach have become the centerpiece of the cello repertoire as well as a recording phenomenon, with some 180 recordings of just the Suite No. 1 currently listed at ArkivMusic. But this wasn’t always the case. Just a few decades ago the Suites were at the fringe of the repertoire, seldom played in concert, largely of interest to specialists and academics. How and why did this change?
Eric Siblin, former rock music critic for The Montreal Gazette, has set out to answer this, interweaving his own story of discovery of these works with biographical details from Bach’s life, including the little that is known of the circumstances of the Suites’ composition, and the life of Pablo Casals, who popularized the works throughout his long performing career.
Siblin has divided his book into six sections, each dedicated to one of the Suites, with one chapter per movement. This somewhat arbitrary arrangement allows the author to move freely between each of his three narrative threads. Short quotation headings for each chapter provide some extra color, like this vivid if odd description of the six Suites by composer Kaikhosru Sorabji: “These works are nightmares, gripping, dry, rattling skeletons of compositions, bloodless, fleshless, staring anatomies.”
The Suites were probably written around 1720 in Cöthen, where Bach was employed by Prince Leopold, possibly begun during the month Bach spent in prison as he tried to get out of that employment (legend has it that he started on The Well-Tempered Clavier there, too). Siblin takes us through the entirety of Bach’s life – his early education, first jobs as a church organist, the years with Prince Leopold, his two marriages and many children, and his long stint in the city of Leipzig. It must be said that a book solely about the Suites would either be short, or very technical and academic. So much of The Cello Suites is actually dedicated to biographies of Bach and Casals, including a host of details and anecdotes that are often interesting, but not entirely germane to the Suites. For instance, it is fun to learn about Pantaleon Hebenstreit, an eccentric musician in the Dresden court who invented a dulcimer-like string instrument, the Pantaleon. But this only comes up because Bach, frustrated at the limitations of his post in Leipzig (where he worked from 1723 until his death in 1750), sought a post in Dresden with the Saxon royal family around 1730.
After Bach’s death, his estate was inventoried, but one thing was conspicuously absent – any mention of his musical scores. Perhaps a third of them went to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel; those scores were auctioned off by C.P.E.’s widow after his death. An autograph score of the Cello Suites, assuming there was one, remains missing to this day. The closest thing, a copy made by Bach’s second wife Anna Magdalena in the late 1720s or early 1730s, ended up in the Prussian Royal Library in Berlin (the claim by Martin Jarvis, professor at Charles Darwin University School of Music in England, that the Cello Suites and other works by Bach were actually written by Anna Magdalena is quickly dismissed by Siblin).
Alongside Bach, we also receive a tour of the remarkable, long life of Pablo Casals. A prodigy who entered Barcelona’s Municipal School of Music at age 11, Casals discovered an old, used score of the Cello Suites in 1890 when he was 13, while on a walk with his father searching for music at second hand stores. Fascinated, he spent the next dozen years learning the works and developing his interpretations. His first public performance of one of the Suites only came on October 17, 1901 in Barcelona. But he was soon playing them all over the world, touring Europe, North and South America as the world’s most famous cellist, performing some 250 concerts a year.
During the Spanish Civil War, Casals started to record the Cello Suites at London’s Abbey Road Studios, completing Nos. 2 and 3. Suites Nos. 1 and 4-6 followed, recorded in Paris in 1938 and 1939. Released in the early 1940s, the recordings were an immediate hit. Taking us through his later years of semi-retirement, Siblin relates Casals’s emergence from exile after World War II, and the 1950 creation of the Prades Festival in that small village on the French side of the Pyrenees that Casals then called home. He refused to return to Spain while Franco remained in power, and only once performed in a Franco-supporting country – the famous United Nations Day concert in October 1958 in New York, where he performed on the same bill as Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, and Ravi Shankar in what was for a long time the most listened-to broadcast in radio history. Casals remained active into his mid nineties; he died in Puerto Rico in 1973.
The third narrative line involves Siblin’s own interest in Bach and the Cello Suites. Having heard a recital of the Suites in Toronto by Laurence Lesser, Siblin decided he needed to know more, embarking on a thorough examination of Bach’s music, learning how to play some of his music on the guitar, and even taking some cello lessons. He also talks about his attempt to perform a Bach cantata, Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (Give the Hungry Man Thy Bread), in an amateur choir in 2008. Put in the bass section, he writes amusingly about trying both to learn his part and to find his way amidst the complexities of Bach’s polyphonic writing.
Siblin has a knack for musical description – he says of the Prelude from the Suite No. 2, “The tones move closer and closer to a harrowing vision, weaving spider-like, relentlessly gathering sound into tighter concentric circles that come to an abrupt stop.” He also notes the distinct characters and backgrounds of the Suites. The dark colors and tragic character of the Suite No. 2 in D minor, for instance, are related to the sudden death of Bach’s wife Maria Barbara in July 1720. The Suite No. 5 is the only one of the six to employ scordatura (the lowest, A, string is retuned down to G), and the only one to exist in a version for lute. No. 6 was written for some five-string instrument (possibly the viola pomposa, an instrument supposedly invented by Bach himself, or the violoncello piccolo, a smaller viola-sized instrument played on the shoulder).
After being practically forgotten for nearly two centuries, the six Cello Suites are now, as mentioned above, at the heart of the cellist’s repertoire, learned as a student and performed throughout one’s life. They’ve been played at major events like the 2009 funeral of Senator Edward Kennedy, choreographed by the likes of Mark Morris and Rudolf Nureyev, and used by filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman (prominently so in his last film, Sarabande). Through Siblin’s research and colorful writing, we learn much about Bach, Casals, and the attempts of an intelligent music fan to enter the world of these six amazing compositions.