Barcelona, 1890. Pablo Casals is fourteen years old, enjoying a walk with his father along the old waterfront district. Together they step into a secondhand shop to explore, and young Casals discovers sheet music for forgotten works by J.S. Bach — a series of suites for cello relegated to the practice room. His father buys it for a few pesetas, what today is known to be the Grützmacher edition, and the music within becomes the young cellist’s passion.
Often Mendelssohn’s production of The Passion of St. Matthew in 1829 is held as the great apex of the “Bach revival,” the overdue (by nearly a century) warm welcome of Bach into the concert hall, but in fact many of his most rewarding works remained overlooked, forgotten or misunderstood for years to come. The Bach revival was, in fact, a very slow process. Nietzche’s famous statement that Bach “stands on the threshold of [modern] music, but he looks back from there to the Middle Ages” was all too relevant when Pablo Casals was a young man.
In the case of the Six Cello Suites, historical uncertainty played a role: no autograph manuscript exists (meaning there was no edition of the scores in Bach’s own hand), and those like the Grützmacher edition discovered by young Pablo Casals offer little insight into Bach’s expectations as to how the suites should be played.
The Six Suites are shrouded by mystery, adding to their enchanting lure. It is uncertain when Bach wrote them, let alone why. Composers in Bach’s time were still supported by patrons, but there is no name attached to the earliest manuscript for the Six Suites. One, the fifth, is also found in a version for solo lute, dedicated to a man otherwise unknown. All may have been intended for an entirely different instrument, say scholars today, one played more like a violin than the cello we know. The sixth for certain was written for an instrument with five strings. Eric Siblin’s delightful book, The Cello Suites: In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece, follows the mystery through the centuries, inevitably landing on the Catalan boy destined to become one of the most famous musicians in the world.
With a young man’s fervor, Casals invented the Six Suites as we know them. He played them regularly (all his life Casals practiced his cello, quipping in his 90s, when asked why he still practiced three hours a day, that he was ‘beginning to hear some improvement’). He performed the suites as early as 1901, while touring with pianist Harold Bauer — but he did not begin to record them until 1936, long after he had introduced so many of his own idiosyncrasies into the performances that the Six Suites would be forever marked by his personality.
Before Casals finished recording the Six Suites he would leave his homeland, Catalonia, never to return — one of thousands of exiles driven away by the Spanish Civil War. Casals was an ardent supporter of the Second Spanish Republic, even after they were defeated by the Nationalists — for many years he refused to perform in any country that recognized General Francisco Franco’s government, finally making an exception to perform at the White House for John F. Kennedy in 1961.
The long siege of Madrid sat like a cloud over the years Casals recorded the Six Suites. He was in EMI’s then-new Abbey Road Studio recording the second and third suites at the same moment Emilio Mola was marching some 20,000 troops supported by German and Italian tanks into the city, and made his final recordings, of suites four and five, in Paris in June 1939, just months after the city had finally fallen to the Nationalists. In the interim thousands died under Franco’s savage aerial bombardments.
Casals’ Six Suites are of a war-torn world as surely as is Picasso’s Guernica. It is difficult to hear anything less in the aching “Sarabande” of the second suite, or the angular, striking “Prelude” and “Courante” of the fifth, which seems at times a call to arms. Picasso, like Casals, never returned to Spain — exiles, in their own way, are the secondhand goods of the world.
Casals’ Six Suites clocks in around two and a half hours. They were originally issued on England’s HMV label, and today clean copies fetch a fair price — Angel Records’ reissues of the recordings are fairly common and rarely very expensive. In one format or another (from 78rpm discs to CDs) they have never fallen out of print.
In the context of Casal’s life, of the Spanish Civil War, of their near-death in obscurity, the Six Suites for Cello remind us of the fragility of everything we create. How different things may have been if Casals and his father had not stopped into a secondhand goods shop that bright morning. How differently would the suites have been received if he had recorded them years earlier, during peacetime, perhaps even in Catalonia.
The music itself came close to being lost before its revival. With Bach’s original manuscripts long gone, perhaps it came down to a single copy that was reproduced, creating the Grützmacher edition Casals found. Perhaps some error was reproduced with it. And what of the mysterious five-string instrument for which the sixth suite was composed? Perhaps it sat on a secondhand goods shelf but was never purchased — or perhaps it was a victim of wartime, just as the tens of thousands who lost their lives during the long siege of Madrid.
Many recordings of the Six Suites have been made in the years since, as each great cellist approaches the challenge — Rostropovich waited until he was sixty-eight, Yo Yo Ma recorded them at thirty. All offer greatly improved fidelity over the recordings Casals made nearly eighty years ago, but little else. That audiophiles continue to dismiss the Casals recordings, mono of course, for their analog hiss, is further proof they know a great deal about stereo equipment and very little about music.
No matter the quality of the sonics, there is always something missing: it’s a spark, the confidence of a Catalan and the defiance of an exile. The certainty that while we may all be secondhand goods, there is always a hope we will be discovered.