October 20, 2018

‘The Cello Suites’ brings music to life

If you do not already own a recording of Bach’s suites for the solo cello, you will certainly buy one before you finish reading Eric Siblin’s superb new book, “The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece” (Atlantic Monthly Press: $24.00).

Siblin is a journalist, a rock music critic and a filmmaker rather than a musicologist, and he was inspired to write about the Cello Suites after he took his seat in the recital hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto in 2000 “to hear a cellist I’d never heard of play music I knew nothing about.”  Like so many others over the last century or so, he was enchanted and beguiled by what he heard, but he was also curious to know more about a piece of music that he calls “the alpha and omega” for cello-players, “a rite of passage, the Mount Everest of their repertoire.”

“Why was monumental music written for the cello, a lowly instrument usually relegated to background droning in Bach’s time?” he wondered. “What would the music have sounded like in 1720?  [I]f the music is so uniquely captivating, why were the Cello Suites virtually never heard until [Pablo] Casals discovered them?”

All of these questions, and many more, are answered with charm, wit and savvy in the pages of “The Cello Suites.” There is something almost magical in how Siblin is able to bring the music alive using only words on the printed page, although I confess that Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of the Cello Suites was playing in the background as I read his book and as I wrote this review. Indeed, I will never listen to any composition by Bach in quite the same way again.

Siblin brings Bach himself fully alive. Bach’s first job was as “a violinist and ‘court lackey,’” a position that included “valet services.”  At the age of 18, while working as a church organist, he was charged with drawing a dagger on a fellow musician whom he taunted as a “nanny-goat bassoonist.”  He was admonished for “playing the organ too long during church services,” after which he responded by “play[ing] exaggeratedly short pieces,” and he was “scolded for allowing a ‘strange maiden’ into the organ loft.” 

Then, too, Siblin allows us to see how the most sublime works of musical composition were undertaken under the most stressful circumstances.  When Bach was passed over for a promotion to “Capellmeister” of the court band of the Duke of Weimar, for example, he asked for permission to accept an appointment at another court, and his employer responded by locking him up in the dungeon of the ducal castle. For that reason, Siblin speculates that “Bach quite possibly started writing the first cello suite in jail.”

Siblin also reminds us that Bach and his music never achieved fame in his own lifetime. “The silence could not have been any deeper,” writes Bach scholar Friedrich Blume, “if his compositions had never existed at all.”  When Mozart heard a Bach motet, only four decades after the composer’s death, he asked: “What is this?” Not until the Spanish Catalan cellist Pablo Casals discovered the Cello Suites and re-introduced them to the concert stage at the turn of the 20th century did they begin to attract the attention that they now enjoy. And it was not until the 1940s that recordings of the Cello Suites by Casals were released, “the first-ever complete studio accounts of the music,” as Siblin explains, “forged in the crucible of the Spanish Civil War.”

In a sense, “The Cello Suites” is a triple biography — we learn about the lives of Bach and Casals and the music itself.  Siblin cuts back and forth between these three narratives in a kind of dazzling verbal counterpoint, and he manages to touch on almost everything there is to know or say about Bach, ranging from the secret messages that Bach may have encoded into his compositions using the kabbalistic number symbolism called gematria to the improvisations of the Bach Remix Competition in Eugene, Ore., where “Bach’s little organ fugue was mixed with hip-hop beats and spoken word by competing turntablists.” 

But he always brings us back to the Cello Suites in all of their richness, power and subtlety. “The genre may be baroque, but there are multiple personalities and mood swings within the suites,” he writes. “I hear barnstorming peasant tunes and post-modern minimalism, spiritual lamentations and heavy metal riffs, medieval jigs and spy movie soundtracks.”  He even detects a “Hebraic musical phrase” in the prelude of the fourth suite, and he speculates that Bach might have heard strains of Jewish music when wandering into the trade fair in Leipzig “to purchase, say, a pipe from a Jewish tobacco merchant.”

Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and blogs on books at