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Casals and the Art of Interpretation
By David Blum
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 1977 David Blum
All rights reserved.
THE FIRST PRINCIPLE
Technique. wonderful sound ... all of this is sometimes astonishing – but it is not enough.
'As Western students of Oriental culture have discovered, the First Principle does not lend itself to precise translation,' said my Chinese friend, an art historian. 'It is something definite, yet it is indescribable. It is how you feel when you enter a room and sense that everything in it is somehow harmonious; you know that you are at peace there. It is how your life suddenly seems to change when you fall in love. It is the way in which your spirit comes into subtle accord with the movement of life around you; at the same time it is an experience within yourself – at the very centre. It is active and passive, embracing and releasing; it is a profound sense of being.'
We were discussing ch'i-yün, the first of the Six Principles set down by the art critic Hseih Ho in the fifth century A.D. in what is thought to be the earliest document stating the fundamental canons of Chinese painting. It was maintained that in order to become a master, the artist must prove himself in the following skills: vitality of brushstroke, accuracy in portrayal, versatility in colouring, care in arrangement of composition, transmission of tradition through copying the works of earlier masters. But the foremost task lay in the fulfilment of the First Principle, which has sometimes been defined as 'breath-resonance life-motion'. For only by coming into harmony with the vital cosmic spirit or breath could the painter convey through the movement of his brush the mysterious vitality of life itself.
'The other five principles may be acquired through study and perseverance,' said my friend, 'but ch'i-yün comes from within. It develops in the silence of the soul.'
I recall one morning when Casals rehearsed Wagner's 'Siegfried Idyll' – the 'symphonic birthday greeting to his Cosima from her Richard', written in commemoration of their son's birth. After the opening bars had been played very beautifully, Casals stopped the orchestra, closed his eyes, and quietly clasped his hands together. For a long moment he became quite still, absorbed in contemplation. His transfigured expression reflected a oneness with the spirit from which this music is born: infinite devotion, profoundest love. Then, without a single word, he indicated that the orchestra should begin again. A ware or not of how or why they had been moved, the musicians brought to their playing a more inward quality of feeling, drawn from a source of deep tenderness; and from this source the entire work sang as if shimmering from a golden mirror. Although Casals paused to rehearse points of detail, the continuity of feeling remained unbroken. The long transitional passage has never been more delicately woven: the trills were suspended like threads of magic light; there was alchemy in the air. The woodwind and strings, in turn, gave gentle invocation to the new theme:
'Although it is pianissimo,' Casals said, 'every note must sing!' The pulse quickened; the music flowed ardently – inevitably – towards its climax. At the entrance of the horn call Casals stopped, desperate for words; finally he blurted out: 'Joy! It is the announcement of the birth of his son. He is so happy!'
I have never heard anyone so utterly express the meaning of a given word as did Casals. When he said 'joy' ... 'lovely' ... 'tender' ... each word conveyed a resonance of feeling, as did his playing of a phrase by Bach. No person meeting Casals for the first time would come away unmoved – if not unshaken – by these simple words which had not lost their connection with their origin in spirit. Who else could risk saying 'Be sincere' and strike to the heart's core?
This sense of wonder, of touching upon an original experience, was the essence of Casals' art; the manner in which this wonder was crystallized into supreme music-making was the secret of his greatness.
Far from the bliss of the 'Siegfried Idyll' is the Schumann Cello Concerto, a work of feverish unrest and dark foreboding. Clara Schumann recounts the harrowing scene in which her husband, having been tormented by the alternating visitations of angels and demons, began correcting his Cello Concerto, 'hoping that this would deliver him from the perpetual sound of the voices'. In keeping with his usual teaching procedure Casals first asked his student to play through a large section of this work, after which he made appropriate comments about intonation, improved fingering and other pertinent matter. As always, his explanations were brief and directly to the point. Casals then began to play, taking the student through the piece phrase by phrase. As he did so, he became increasingly immersed in the emotional atmosphere of the work. 'Pain, pain ...' he called out. 'All is pain – the poor man!' In one passage Casals' bow slashed upon the string and then forged a hair-raising crescendo, culminating in a sforzando that had the intensity of a shriek; the answering phrase came as an inconsolable lament:
Within the space of a few minutes the lesson had imperceptibly transformed itself from a fascinating account of cello playing into a uniquely moving human experience. 'Doloroso ... doloroso!' Casals' voice rose almost in a wail. 'Everything in this concerto is espressivo. '
For Casals, the formulation of feeling and the interpretation of music emanated from a single source and flowed together in a single stream. Notes which stood apart from this stream were 'cold – without meaning'.
'Announce the hero!' he exclaimed, when a student was about to begin the Dvorák Concerto. This was no mere rhetoric. Dvorák's work was, to Casals, an heroic drama, passing through every vicissitude of expression. The tale of Casals' refusal to perform the concerto with a conductor who disparaged it is no myth but a true instance of his deep involvement. Towards the end of the last movement where the cello subsides in a long diminuendo, Casals conceived the moment of final expiration as portraying 'the death of the hero'.
The Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto in A minor presented another kind of drama. Casals reminisced: 'This work is an old friend of mine; I played it with Saint-Saëns when I was twelve. Saint-Saëns explained to me that this concerto was inspired by the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven. It opens with a storm; then come moments of calm.'
'Here, where the theme comes in D major, we begin to see some blue in the sky':
'And, as in Beethoven, there is a peasants' dance; here we must play lightly and simply – with very little vibrato':
Not all his descriptions were so precise. Sometimes no more than a few words, barely spoken above a whisper, would give a hint of the inner vision which illuminated the re-creative process.
'As in a dream,' he said, when rehearsing a passage from the slow movement of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony:
At the beginning of the third movement of Beethoven's D major Cello Sonata:
he commented, 'These are not notes – they are only a first impression; they seem to say "what comes now?" – mystery, mystery ...'
Casals did not consider the rococo' style, as found for instance in works of Haydn and Boccherini, to be an archaic remnant of the past. 'We must play this music with all its grace – it is so free, fresh and lovely. Not one note dry!' In the first movement of the Haydn D major Concerto, he assigned leading operatic roles: here, in the low register, the cello was to sing 'like a basso cantante'; there, in the upper register, 'with the elegance of a prima donna'. The very highest notes were formed into enchanting arabesques: 'Always something lovely, always singing ...'
But Casals well understood that the world of the rococo was but one side of Haydn's art. His interpretations brought to vivid realization the contrasts of dark and light in the Symphony No. 95, the interplay of charm and rusticity in the 'Surprise' Symphony, the romantic longing in the Adagio from the 'Farewell' Symphony. When reading through the score of the 'Mourning' Symphony (No. 44) he exclaimed to me: 'Haydn could do anything!'
Some musicians would restrict and categorize the degree of expression which may be brought to the performance of music of the 'classical' period. Casals was not the person to withhold the First Principle from any musical interpretation. He did not undervalue the depth of feeling' with which our ancestors experienced the music that they composed and performed. Those living in the eighteenth century did not regard their art as 'classical'; it was a living event.
'Would you like to know how I have expressed and even indicated the beating, loving heart?' wrote Mozart. 'By two violins playing in octaves .... You feel the trembling – the faltering – you see how the throbbing breast begins to heave; this I have indicated by a crescendo. You hear the whispering and the sighing ...'
When Casals conducted Mozart's Symphony No. 40, the mood of impassioned agitation spoke to us immediately. 'We must not be afraid to give expression,' Casals exclaimed. 'There are very few markings of course. Mozart knew all that was in the piece. He was the composer; he was the one who suffered.' Where the second subject comes in G minor (Ex. 8), Casals gave voice to the feeling inherent in the phrase with but a single word: 'Grief!' – indicating with his baton that the initial note should come like a heartwound. The descending chromatic notes were allowed time to speak their sorrow. In the fifth bar came a new wave of expression, more intensive than the first. At the conclusion of each phrase there arose lesser waves of unstilled anguish:
When, in the coda, the first subject is passed from one instrumental group to another, Casals urged that the phrases be sung with fervent intensity: 'I hear only notes – no despair!'
Casals' gestures when conducting were never rigid or mechanical; they went with the musical phrase and had a natural line of beauty which no school of conducting can teach. He used a score, in his advanced years sat on a chair, and approached the conductor's art with true simplicity. He would often begin a rehearsal by working in detail; a quarter of an hour could be devoted to two or three phrases. His aim exceeded technical perfection; it was to reveal the power of life inherent in music. For example, the opening bars of Bach's First Orchestral Suite are easy to play, but, as Casals pointed out, they can just as easily sound 'heavy and monotonous'. Rehearsing with care that each semiquaver be given dynamic gradation, he shaped a lyric contour. 'Every note has to have a different sonority,' he insisted; 'it is a song.'
The phrase was gone over repeatedly, each time gaining in eloquence and vitality. Finally Casals said, 'Something like that' (how often were these words heard from him!), meaning that the goal, though elusive, had been touched upon. Now, stopping less often, he gave the orchestra rein to play through longer sections, the musicians, already brought to a high pitch of awareness and sensibility, responding to his every indication of expression.
Casals' rehearsals were challenging, creative experiences for all present. Having played as principal cellist under both Toscanini and Casals, Frank Miller comments: 'Casals, such a great musician both as cellist and conductor, would seek out the essential meaning of a work as did Toscanini, but each in his own way, for they were such different personalities. Like Toscanini, Casals tolerated nothing less than the complete revelation of the music's heart and soul and inspired the profoundest respect from the musicians who played under his direction.'
Casals communicated an unreserved joy in the process of music-making. As a cellist he knew full well that one must sometimes take risks to be expressive. To encourage the horns to produce an uninhibited crescendo in a difficult passage from the third movement of Beethoven's 'Eroica', he said: 'Let us make the crescendo right to the end of the phrase. Play without fear. If the note doesn't come out, you're welcome all the same.'
The note did come out, and with rousing vigour.
In the Andante con moto from Mozart's Symphony No. 39, at the arrival of the following forte passage:
Casals called out, 'Full – full!' He rose from his chair and spread out his arms in a great gesture of openness and acceptance, saying, 'Like this – like this!' The musicians responded with playing of luminous warmth. Their capacity for expression had suddenly been enlarged by Casals' fidelity to the voice of his own feeling.
A remark that Casals often made, and which typified him as man and musician, was 'play frankly'. He would apply these words to the end of a phrase which had to convey a sense of completeness:
to semiquavers which should be stated directly and simply:
the forte chord which follows each lyrical phrase at the opening of the Andante cantabile from Mozart's 'Jupiter' Symphony:
To 'play frankly' is not to eschew subtlety and refinement. It is to play, where the music so demands, forthrightly, without sentimentality; to state what we feel unashamedly and unhesitatingly.
How can one do justice in words to the range of Casals' expression? No musician could evoke more sense of power from an instrument or declaim a passage with more intensity. His performance of the Finale of Brahms' E minor Cello Sonata was a titanic experience; relentless in its drive, the quavers fell like hailstones. 'Give all your strength,' he said, when teaching the following passage from the fust movement of Beethoven's D major Sonata:
'Break your cello! It is better to have character in what you play than to have a beautiful sound.'
It was a different Casals teaching the second movement of the Lalo Concerto:
'Lovely, lovely – there is nothing of violence here. It is so elegant, so Spanish. With grace – beautiful, poetic! I haven't played that for thirty-five years at least, and I still remember.'
Casals brought to the Elgar Concerto an intensity of feeling and wealth of inflection which had not hitherto been associated with that work. Neville Cardus describes Casals' performance: '... the question of the evening was whether the so-called "Englishness" of Elgar would elude him ... let it emphatically be said that the work has never before sounded so eloquent, so beautifully and so finely composed as now. ... The slow movement put some of us for a while under an obligation not to breathe. The falling sequences of the coda, one of the most heartfelt in existence and one of the most original in "shape", were as though sorrow and sympathy stood before us· wringing their hands.' Some critics complained that Casals' approach lacked a certain 'austerity'; it was too 'foreign' (i.e. emotional). Elgar had thought differently. He valued Casals' interpretation, he said, because Casals had made the concerto sound like 'such a big work'.
Such a big work – but Casals was such a small man, and a simple man. The music came not from histrionics, flourishes, excesses, but from the way it moved him in his inner life. Such was the richness of his soul that, on the one hand, his music touched the peasant earth with all its indomitable strength and exuberance; on the other, it held discourse with the sublime.
An indelible impression: Casals playing a slow movement of Bach, his eyes closed, his concentration removed from all daily anxieties and ambitions. He seems surrounded by a vast, unfathomable silence from which emerges the voice of his cello. He plays for himself and yet not only for himself; for each of us is, in his own way, alone with that voice, speaking to us in tones of inexpressible purity.
While the painters of ancient China agreed that the indispensable attribute of a great artist was his ability to convey the indefinable quality embodied in the First Principle, it was also understood that an artist will not succeed in expressing the First Principle until he has mastered each of the requisite skills. Form remains lifeless when not animated by spirit; yet, lacking knowledge and method, the energy of spirit will not be transmitted to the work of art.
In subsequent chapters we will look at the main features of Casals' teaching, the canons of his artistry, each of which is related to a unifying goal, that which the Chinese call ch'i-yün.
Casals once said: 'You will see where to make the vibrato, the crescendo, the diminuendo of the notes – all those things you have to have present, but present more in your feelings. Not present only here,' he said, as he tapped on his head, 'because it is not profound enough; but here' – and he drew his hand to his heart.
Excerpted from Casals and the Art of Interpretation by David Blum. Copyright © 1977 David Blum. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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