New Book: The Cello Suites

A new book by Eric Siblin, THE CELLO SUITES: J. S. BACH, PABLO CASALS, AND THE SEARCH FOR A BAROQUE MASTERPIECE (Atlantic Monthly Press) will be of interest to Puerto Rican readers, since it includes a chapter on world-famous Spanish cellist Pablo Casals’ many years in Puerto Rico, where he settled during the last decades of his life and where he died in 1973. Casals first traveled to Puerto Rico in 1955, inaugurating the annual Casals Music festival the following year. On August 3, 1957, at the age of 80, Casals married 20 year old Marta Montañez. They made their permanent residence in the town of Ceiba, and lived in a house called “El Pesebre” (The Manger). Casals left his imprint on the Puerto Rican music scene by founding the Puerto Rico Symphonic Orchestra in 1958, and the Musical Conservatory of Puerto Rico in 1959.

Here are some excerpts from the review of the book by Priscilla Taylor:

Mr. Siblin, a Canada-based journalist, has created a sprawling book that is part “how I fell in love with the Bach Suites just after I’d left my job as a pop music reviewer and was open to something new”; part “how I became enthralled with the life of Bach and his large family of immensely talented musicians”; part “how I tracked the musical and political life of Pablo Casals, the Spanish virtuoso cellist who at age 14 discovered a copy of the ‘Cello Suites’ in a bookstall in Barcelona and studied them for 12 years before performing them in public, thereby rescuing them from the obscurity into which they had fallen over the previous two centuries”; and part “how I was convinced that I could find the long-missing original manuscript of the ‘Bach Suites’ but didn’t quite manage it.”

It’s hard to determine the intended audience for the book, which was first published early in 2009 in Canada: is it other classical music neophytes who might be encouraged to attend a classical music concert or to join an amateur musical group (the author, a guitarist, took enough lessons on the cello to discover how difficult the instrument is to play and wisely settled for learning the “Prelude of Suite 1” in an arrangement for guitar; he also sang along in a Bach Weekend choral performance north of Montreal); is it manuscript collectors who will applaud the author’s tenacity in browsing libraries and bookstores looking for missing Bach manuscripts; or is it general readers who will enjoy the colorful biographies of everybody in the enormous Bach family and of Pablo Casals?

Mr. Siblin’s enthusiasm for the chase is unflagging, but the book’s organization is quixotic, as he writes in attempting to explain it:

“The six Cello Suites each contain six movements, starting with a prelude and ending with a gigue. In between are old court dances – an allemande, a courante, and a sarabande – after which Bach inserted a more ‘modern’ dance, either a minuet, a bourree, or a gavotte. In the pages that follow, Bach will occupy the first two or three movements in each suite. The dances that come afterwards are earmarked for Pablo Casals. And the gigues that close each suite will be reserved for a more recent story, that of my search.”

Got that?

In fact, the reader is left to ramble along with only these cutesy guideposts, and the Bach, Casals, and Siblin-research stories don’t clearly relate to the chapter titles (Suite 1, Suite 2, etc.) or the section heads (Prelude, Allemande, etc.). But the author has done a wealth of research in pursuit of his new passion, and he writes engagingly. Who cannot enjoy his explorations of J. S. Bach’s magic through interviews with master cellists like Mischa Maisky, his accounts of a variety of cello recitals, and his visits to the sunny warmth of Casals’ home in San Salvador, Spain, and Casals’ final home in Puerto Rico?

For the complete review go to http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/dec/27/books-the-cello-suites/

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