Monday, October 15, 2012

The Cello Suites by Eric Siblin

Just as Johann Sebastian Bach managed to pack entire worlds into his six Cello Suites, author Eric Siblin does the same in his book devoted to Bach's classic work. In Siblin's The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals and the search for a Baroque Masterpiece (787.41858 SIBLIN), Siblin follows in engaging, readable fashion the two men responsible for bringing the suite to the masses: its storied composer and the preeminent performer who brought it to the masses.

Bach wrote the Cello Suites sometime in the early 1700s but it wasn't until the fateful day Catalan cellist Pablo Casals, then only a boy, discovered the sheet music in a 1890 that the piece truly began its foray into popular culture. During the nearly two centuries in between, the suites were regarded as nothing more than a collection of exercises. Casals, who attained rock star status (for a classical musician) as a solo cellist, changed all that.

Siblin weaves history, culture, politics and even a bit of mystery — the original manuscript has never been found — into the story behind the Cello Suites.
It was in the small German town of Cöthen in 1720 that the Cello Suites were said to have been composed and inscribed by Bach's raven-quill pen. But without his original manuscript, how can we be certain? Why was such monumental music written for the cello, a lowly instrument usually relegated to background droning in Bach's time? And given that Bach regularly rewrote his music for different instruments, how can we even be sure that the music was written for the cello?
If every there were such a thing as a classical music adventure, Siblin takes us on one. In his quest to ferret out the secrets of the Cello Suites, the former pop music critic for The Montreal Gazette becomes "a card-carrying member of the American Bach Society." He attends a scholarly conference at Princeton devoted to the Baroque composer. He attempts to learn cello. He journeys to Europe to interview musicians, visit archives, attend performances of the Cello Suites and retrace Bach and Casals' footsteps.

We are left with a much more complete sense of the suites' colorful history and the way it has almost serendipitously found a life of its own in the 21st century.

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