Wednesday, March 9, 2011
My latest side trip into the world of J. S. Bach is a paperback I picked up on a whim at our local indie bookshop: The Cello Suites by Canadian journalist Eric Siblin. I was previously unfamiliar with these suites except from guitar or lute transcriptions. Emusic has an excellent recording by Pierre Fournier on DGG Archiv for a decent price, so I availed myself of the opportunity. A wise move, because both book and music are excellent.
Siblin first encountered the cello suites at a recital selected by chance during the unwinding of a pop music critic stint at the Montreal Gazette. The program notes mentioned that no original manuscript of the suites has been located, and Siblin's journalistic interest was piqued. Nine years later, Siblin published his book, a parallel biography of Bach and Pablo Casals, the cellist who introduced the suites to the world. Bach wrote six cello suites, so Siblin divided his book into six parts, one for each suite. The suites each have six movements, following a standard sequence, starting with a Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and concluding with a Gigue. The fifth movement varies between Minuet, Bourrée, or Gavotte. Siblin also subdivided each chapter into the suites' six movements, three for Bach, two for Casals, and reserving the ultimate gigue for the story of his quest.
Siblin shifts perspective in the Bach chapters so that the cello suites are never far from view even as his attention wanders over a wide range of topics, from biography of Bach and his descendants to reception history. Scholars place their genesis during Bach's tenure at Köthen, where he wrote much of his virtuoso keyboard and secular music. So Siblin has a chapter on the political forces that had caused excellent musicians to migrate to Köthen from Berlin, an example of a historical context that Siblin deploys throughout the book. A Near Eastern flourish in the prelude to the fourth suite leads to a digression on whether Bach might have ever heard Jewish music. Each chapter has an entertaining or illuminating anecdote, and together they give a multi-dimensional perspective on these suites.
The Casals chapters of necessity covered world history since Casals was an outspoken peace activist after the experience of WWII and the Spanish Civil War. He discovered the suites while he was foraging used sheet music stores in Barcelona when he was thirteen, and they became a lifelong trademark work. He made his first recording of the suites in 1936 while in exile to England, when the Battle of Madrid was raging. After the war, he refused to play in countries that supported, or even recognized, Franco, including the United States. He broke his vow only in 1958, when he performed in Manhattan as part of a United Nations concert, alarmed by the threat of nuclear war.
The personal reflections in the gigue chapters gave the book a depth of character that went beyond the biographies (and in Bach's case, informed speculation) of the two musical giants. Siblin learned a prelude on guitar, joined a community choir to sing a cantata, and even took a couple of cello lessons, all to get a deeper appreciation for Bach's music. His drive, coupled with the dual biographies, propelled the book forward, made me eager to read another chapter. Siblin's background in journalism informed his writing and made the book easier to read. Between his writing style and the short chapters, The Cello Suites is an entertaining read that I could read late at night when a scholarly book would have required too much concentration.