The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece

The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece

by Eric Siblin


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The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin

One evening, not long after ending a stint as the pop music critic at the Montreal Gazette, Eric Siblin attended a recital of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Cello Suites.” There, something unlikely happened: he fell deeply in love with the music. So began an epic quest that would unravel three centuries of intrigue, politics, and passion.

Part biography, part music history, and part mystery, The Cello Suites weaves together three dramatic narratives: Bach’s composition of the suites and the manuscript’s subsequent disappearance in the eighteenth century; Pablo Casals’s historic discovery of the music in Spain in the late nineteenth century, and his popularization of the suites several decades later; and Siblin’s own infatuation with the suites at the dawn of the twenty–first century. His search to learn all he can about the music leads Siblin to Barcelona, where Pablo Casals, just thirteen and in possession of his first cello, roamed the back streets with his father, in search of sheet music. To their amazement, they found Bach’s lost “Cello Suites” tucked in a dark corner. Casals would play the suites every day for twelve years before finally performing them in public—and making them his own.

As Siblin pursues the mysteries that continue to haunt this music more than 250 years after its composer’s death, he asks the questions that have stumped modern scholars: why did Bach compose the suites for the cello, which was considered a lowly instrument in his day? And what happened to the original manuscript of the suites, which vanished after being hastily copied by Bach’s second wife?

The Cello Suites is a journey of discovery, fueled by the transcendent power of a musical masterpiece—and of the listeners who, like Siblin, have loved it through the ages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802119292
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 12/15/2009
Pages: 319
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Eric Siblin is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker, and the former pop music critic at the Montreal Gazette. The Cello Suites is his first book.

Read an Excerpt



Atlantic Monthly Press

Copyright © 2009 Eric Siblin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1929-2

Chapter One


The elegant allemandes in the Cello Suites, each preceded by a dramatic opening movement, have been described as slow and pensive pieces of great beauty. OXFORD COMPOSER COMPANIONS: J. S. BACH

To piece together the story of the Cello Suites means getting to know the music's composer. And for anyone born in the past half-century, to become acquainted with Johann Sebastian Bach - really acquainted - means to infiltrate another art form, another era, another frame of mind. To get myself up to baroque speed, I went about listening to massive amounts of Bach's music, perusing second-hand music shops to build a respectable collection, reading everything Bachian I could get my hands on, from eighteenth-century accounts to glossy classical music magazines, and going to concerts bravo'd by mature audiences that were a far cry from the rock circuit.

I also became a card-carrying member of the American Bach Society. The main perk of membership was occasional mailings of the ABS newsletter, which was emblazoned with Bach's personal seal, his initials stylishly entwined and topped with a crown. I scoured the handful of pages trumpeting the latest scholarly research for clues about the Cello Suites. It felt as if I'd joined a secret society. In high school during the 1970s, when musical choice seemed to be between the enemy forces of disco and spaced-out synthesizer rock, being a Rolling Stones fan felt vaguely esoteric. At some point since then they became the band of choice for people practically in my mother's demographic, but back then true Stones fans were not numerous. Two decades later, finding fellow Bach enthusiasts in my social circles was more or less impossible.

So when I learned that the American Bach Society held conferences every two years, and the next one was to take place not far away, at Rutgers University in New Jersey, I eagerly registered. Having done my homework on the Cello Suites I could qualify, sort of, as a bona fide Bachian and rub shoulders with my own people.

Thus in April 2004 I found myself walking across the emerald lawns of Princeton University with a gaggle of Bach devotees, nearly all of whom were scholars and an alarming number of whom were bearded and wearing dark blazers. We had just heard a very high-forehead lecture on Bach and were emerging from a university building, blinking in the sunlight, as a student event called "Spring Fling" was noisily underway. There was face-painting and Hacky Sack, football, a barbecue, and a garage band cranking out REM's rock anthem It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine).

This was so much white noise for the Bach scholars, who were at Princeton on a musicological mission, a colourful field expedition in the otherwise staid world of Bach research. The world's finest portrait of Bach, almost never accessible to the public, was being made available for delegates to the 2004 American Bach Society conference. Only two authentic portraits of Bach are known to exist, both by the same artist, the Saxon court painter Elias Gottlob Hausmann. They are nearly identical, both in oil, and show the composer in the same serious pose. Despite their similarity, they are thought to have been painted on separate occasions. One of the portraits today hangs in the municipal museum of Leipzig, the city where it was painted in 1746. It is in poor shape because of repeated over-painting, as well as having been used once upon a time for target practice by bored students armed with crumpled paper.

The other portrait, painted two years later, is in pristine condition. It is this one that half a century ago made its way into the hands of William H. Scheide, an independently wealthy Bach enthusiast with a long history of studying, performing, and collecting the works of his favourite composer. Normally the portrait hangs in Scheide's Princeton home, but he agreed to display the portrait for those attending the fourteenth biennial meeting of the American Bach Society.

The Hausmann portrait has, more than anything else, fleshed out the popular image of Bach - that of a severe-looking, bewigged, and somewhat corpulent German burgher. It is an image that graces countless CD covers, concert programs, and festival posters, and has gone a long way towards helping listeners imagine a composer for whom scant biographical detail exists.

So, as the Bach scholars made their way across the Princeton campus, their excitement was palpable. The Bach portrait and William H. Scheide were waiting in the special collections room of the John Foster Dulles Library of Diplomatic History. The Bach crowd, eighty-five strong, filed into the wood-panelled room and clustered around the portrait.



"Like the Mona Lisa."

"So serious."

"It sort of hits me in the stomach, right inside there, like,


"It has a kind of energy."

"Should we bow three times or something?"

The portrait did have a convincing intensity. The buttons on the composer's coat glistened, his white shirt sleeves radiated crispness, the wig was springily soft and his complexion flushed, as if the composer had drained a few glasses of the Rhineland wine he favoured. From inside the thick gold frame Bach seemed to be casting an all-knowing, wary eye over the proceedings.

William H. Scheide, ninety years old, wearing a powder-blue jacket and a red tie patterned with music notation (which may or may not have been from a Bach cantata), gave a brief talk on the other Bachiana in his collection - original manuscripts in the composer's hand and a rare letter. Then he was asked the question on everyone's mind: how he came into possession of the portrait. "A long time ago," he replied, leaning on a cane with a ski-pole grip as a handle. "I can barely remember it anymore."

The upshot is that Scheide, whose family made its fortune in the oil business, heard about the portrait sometime after the Second World War and arranged for an art dealer in London to purchase it from its owner, a German musician by the name of Walter Jenke. The owner had left Germany in the late 1920s, settling in Dorset, England; he returned to Nazi Germany a decade later to retrieve the portrait, which had apparently been in his family since the nineteenth century.

The Hausmann portrait has helped cultivate an image of Bach that is far more severe and serious than he probably was. "Part of the reason that people think of Bach as an old fuddy-duddy," music commentator Miles Hoffman once observed on National Public Radio, "is because there's only one fully authenticated portrait of him, and it shows him as an old guy with a powdered wig looking very stuffy and stolid." Hoffman made a point of saying that Bach was in fact a man of passion, the sort of man who got into a sword fight with a bassoonist, was thrown into a duke's prison at one point, and fathered no less than twenty children.

The viewing of the portrait fit nicely with the theme of the biennial conference, which was titled "Images of Bach." Along with concerts and cocktails, scholarly papers were delivered with titles ranging from "When an Aria Is Not an Aria" to "'I Must Live Amid Almost Continual Vexation, Envy, and Persecution': A Psychological Reading of J. S. Bach's Relation ship to Authority." The keynote speech was delivered by Christoph Wolff, a German-American musicologist and Harvard professor who is the world's foremost Bach expert. In his lecture, Wolff suggested that the iconic Bach portrait should not be seen as some sort of casual snapshot. "It is an official pose," he said. "The sitter likely wanted to be painted in this way. We can assume that Bach wanted to shape the image."

In the portrait, Bach is holding a sheet of music: a highly complex piece, his own composition, known as the "triplex canon." By doing so, Wolff argued, "Bach tried to avoid his fame as a virtuoso, playing down his (professional) office ... and taking a backseat as a human being ... all deferring to his oeuvre."

By saying that Bach had his portrait painted with an eye towards posterity, controlling his posthumous image as he wanted it to appear, Wolff was challenging a common impression of Bach. The conventional image of the baroque master is that of someone who worked day to day without any thoughts of posterity, cranking out masterworks as a matter of course and not being overly concerned about his popular reputation or the shelf life of his music. In Wolff's view, Bach in fact took an active role in "promoting his afterlife." He did what he could to safeguard examples of his art and to secure his place in history. Even in the Hausmann portrait, by holding a highly complicated piece of music (a "puzzle canon" that is like a mathematical riddle), "the man with the restrained smile wanted the viewer to feel challenged. It worked in 1748 - and it works today."

Wolff then took questions from the audience. One questioner, a heavy-set man with his hair in a ponytail, sporting a bow tie and peering through oversized tortoiseshell glasses, took Wolff's comments a step further. He accused Bach of being behind "a concerted campaign to control everything he could about what posterity thought of him."

This was the amateur Bach expert Teri Noel Towe, well known in Bach circles and, despite being a self-described "passionate and obsessed eccentric," well respected by the nine-to-five scholars. A New York City lawyer specializing in intellectual property law, Towe said he was outraged that Bach's first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, did not manage to get more in the way of personal details about the composer. Although Forkel was writing decades after Bach's death in 1750, he was in touch with Bach's sons, especially Carl Philipp Emanuel (C. P. E.). "I would love to put C. P. E. Bach on the witness stand," Towe said. He complained that there is no mention in Forkel's biography, published in 1802, of what Bach looked like, his height, his weight, or what his favourite dessert might have been.

"At the same time," Wolff replied, "eighteenth-century biographers were not interested in desserts."

"We don't know what he ate," piped up a musicologist in the audience, "but we know what he drank!"

"And smoked!" added another scholar.

The debonair silver-haired Wolff agreed, noting that when Bach travelled he was put up in the best hotels and consumed the highest-quality beer and pipe tobacco. "It is quite clear that he indulged. He liked the good things in life."

But all Bach scholars bemoan the lack of hard historical information available on their subject. Aside from Shakespeare, there is probably no other towering figure in modern art about whom we know so little. There is nothing like the heartfelt letters Mozart wrote to his wife, or the stream-of-consciousness notebooks that Beethoven left behind. When documentary signs of life occasionally pop up for Bach - and they do pop up - it makes the search for an elusive personality all the more enticing. But Bach's biographers have their work cut out for them.

"It is difficult," Wolff said, "to see the man behind the portrait."


Excerpted from THE CELLO SUITES by ERIC SIBLIN Copyright © 2009 by Eric Siblin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Suite No. 1....................1
Suite No. 2....................51
Suite No. 3....................93
Suite No. 4....................131
Suite No. 5....................173
Suite No. 6....................223
Suggested Listening....................302

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“This is one of the most extraordinary, clever, beautiful, and impeccably researched books I have read in years. A fascinating story deftly told—and, for me at least, ideally read with Bach’s thirty-six movements playing softly in the background; a recipe for literary rapture.”—Simon Winchester, author of the New York Times best-seller The Professor and the Madman

“Vividly chronicles [Siblin’s] international search for the original, and unfound, Bach score…Mr. Siblin’s book is well researched, and filled with enough anecdotes to engage even the classical-music aficionado…but the book is best distinguished by its writing. To vivify music in words is not easy. But Mr. Siblin…rises to the task…Read The Cello Suites—preferably with their melodious hum in the background—and you will never look at a cello in quite the same way again.”—The Economist

“This is rich terrain, and Siblin’s book is an engrossing combination of musical and political history spiced with generally vivid descriptions of the cello suites themselves…[Siblin] has given us a compelling portrait of a passionate, prickly Bach, of Casals, a musician who was also politically engaged, and an engrossing cast of secondary characters. Best of all, The Cello Suites makes us want to pop in a CD and really listen to those cello suites. Awesome.”—Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times

“A work of ever-percolating interest. Mr. Siblin winds up mixing high and low musical forms, art and political histories, Bach’s and Casals’s individual stories and matters of arcane musicology into a single inquisitive volume.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“The ironies of artistic genius and public taste are subtly explored in this winding, entertaining tale of a musical masterpiece…Siblin is an insightful writer with an ability to convey the sound and emotional impact of music in words.”—Publishers Weekly

“Engaging and imaginative…a charming narrative.”—Melinda Bargreen, The Seattle Times

“The author has done a wealth of research in pursuit of his new passion, and he writes engagingly…this intrepid writer has worked hard to interest readers in his musical obsession, and there is a great deal to chew on here.”—Priscilla S. Taylor, he Washington Times

“It’s not often that one begins reading a book with mild interest and then can’t put it down, which happened to me with this beautiful book.”—Diana Athill, author of Stet and Somewhere Towards the End

“…pitch-perfect…The Cello Suites is, on all counts, a superior book.”
-QWF McAuslan First Book Prize Jury citation

“…an ambitious, carefully researched, and inventively constructed book written with clarity and verve.”—Mavis Gallant Prize for Nonfiction Jury Citation

“A delightfully quirky quest…Eric Siblin seamlessly weaves together the tale of how Bach’s lost and mostly forgotten manuscript came to be discovered a century later by Pablo Casals, and finally became Siblin’s personal passion.”—Governor General’s Literary Award Jury Citation

“A book of extraordinary charm, insight, and widespread literary appeal.”—BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction Jury Citation

“Siblin firmly believes ‘Bach is what you make of him’—and his book represents just that…No matter what the great composer means to readers, they will surely enjoy Siblin’s fun, fast-paced journey from pop-music scribbler to Bach aficionado.”—Christian Science Monitor

“A book that will fascinate anyone who loves Bach’s music. . .engaging. . .Many of the facts woven into textual fabric glitter like metal threads as Siblin shifts the reader’s focus from one protagonist to the other. The result are rich depictions of Bach in his 18th-century milieu and Casals in his 20th-century sphere. . . The author’s colorful prose conveys substantial charm, and reveals a first-rate travel writer’s sense of place. . .sets biographical and musicological details neatly in context.”—David Lander, Stereophile

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