Monday, 8 November 2010

Book Review: THE CELLO SUITES by Eric Siblin / Review

by Eric Siblin
Harvill Secker / Paperback
320 pages / $39.95 / Page One

This review was published in The Sunday Times on 7 November 2010.

This is a quite lovely meditation on the six Cello Suites by the great German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Considered the greatest cycle of music ever written for the instrument, its creation has puzzled many a historian and musicologist for centuries. Thought to have originated circa 1720 during Bach’s years as kappellmeister in provincial Cöthen, no autograph copy of the original score has ever been found. Pondering on this mystery, the Montreal-based amateur musician Eric Siblin goes in search of the creator, the cellist who popularised the Suites, besides developing a deep and personal relationship with the music.

There are six parts, each in six short chapters, corresponding to the 36 movements of music, and three separate journeys begin. The first two or three chapters of each part centre on Bach’s life, his inspirations, his struggles with authority and ultimate his craft. It is interesting to note that during his lifetime, Bach was little more than a journeyman musician and purveyor of church music. Even his well-travelled sons from two marriages enjoyed a greater modicum of fame than he did.

The middle sections are devoted to the cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973) who chanced upon the scores in a Barcelona bookshop, rescuing them from oblivion by giving public performances and making the first complete recording of the cycle. Casals was a free spirit, a Catalan nationalist and staunch opponent of Franco’s Spanish totalitarian regime who exiled himself in France and refused to perform in countries that supported the junta.

Finally, Siblin’s own sojourns take him to Villa Casals at San Salvador, Brussels for an interview with Latvian cellist Mischa Maisky (a rebel like Casals, arguably the music’s most persuasive modern exponent), and ultimately Bach’s Leipzig. He spares the reader theoretical analysis or discourse on the music and completely avoids technical jargon. The narrative is direct and evenly-paced. Any novice can begin to appreciate this music and its history, best accompanied by Casals’ own 1930s recordings reissued on EMI Classics or Naxos Historical.

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