Biographies present readers and their writers with peculiar challenges. The expectation that a subject’s life should be covered from start to finish often leads the historical record to be treated like a wallpapering project – cover every nook and cranny, and the subject may come fully to life.
In The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece (House of Anansi Press), Eric Siblin avoids this outcome by giving his pursuit of a pair of musical lives a thoroughly personal spin, and by making the music that links Bach and Casals as important a character as its composer and its most famous interpreter.
The many lives of the six Cello Suites propel Siblin’s book. Composed by Bach in the early 1720s, the Suites receded into relative obscurity after Bach’s death. Their reappearance on the contemporary musical scene was almost entirely influenced by Pablo Casals, the Catalan-born cellist who became one of the most celebrated musicians of the postwar era. Siblin approaches the story of Casals’ adolescent discovery of the Suites with great sympathy. One senses, not only in Casals’ outing with his father that led to the discovery, but also in his mother’s devotion to his career, a great family romance supporting the development of musical genius.
Casals’ championing of the Suites challenged musical assumptions: the Suites were dismissed as études, appropriate as technical exercises; the instrument they were played on was not thought to be an “important solo instrument”; and as some 19th-century experts would have it, Bach was a “mere old-fashioned wig stuffed with learning.”
Siblin reveals how changing attitudes toward the Suites and their composer reflect broad cultural shifts in the18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Bach’s musical career was a success, but he was by no means a leading musical figure in his lifetime. His music, Siblin tells us, “continued to have no popular resonance well into the 19th century.” For a composer who was a part of the Nazi pantheon, it is ironic that his revival was largely motivated by a converted Jew, Felix Mendelssohn, the grandson of Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.
Siblin does not duck the subject of how Bach’s work traffics in what might be characterized as everyday 18th-century German prejudice toward Jews. In this, it is the author’s willingness to insert himself into his narrative that enlivens the material and removes it from a more conventional biographical approach.
He describes a 2006 performance of Bach’s St. John Passion by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra as “reaching sublime heights,” but then confronts the uncomfortable facts: “Seated in the acoustically ideal second-tier balcony, I was well placed to enjoy the music… I can’t say the words killed the experience for me, but they did add a measure of discomfort.
“From the first reference to Jesus being taken away by ‘Jewish police,’ the drama bluntly hits the listener over the head with the fact that [Pontius] Pilate resists crucifying him. It is the Jewish crowd that clamours for crucifixion… Perhaps the anti-Semitic component of the story was a commonplace touchstone of faith.”
In impressive detail, Siblin evokes the Suites’ creation, their staying power and their contemporary relevance. When set alongside the passages he quotes from authoritative Bach biographies, his approach seems remarkably fresh, direct and unencumbered by the tone of reverence and scholarly distance that renders many biographical portraits inert.
An element of the story to which Siblin is particularly attracted is the loss, at some point over the course of centuries, of Bach’s original manuscript for the Cello Suites. Its absence lends a degree of mystery to the music. We cannot be sure how Bach intended the Suites to sound. There is even some question concerning the instrument he intended them for. And most strangely, not too long ago, an Australian academic argued that their composer was in fact Bach’s wife, herself a trained musician.
This mysterious chapter in the life of the Cello Suites is reminiscent of other great cultural losses that personalize our relationship to the art under discussion, since we can all see ourselves as part of the dreamed-of recovery. Siblin expertly includes in his narrative “the thrill of the chase, the detective story behind it, the possibility that a manuscript with secrets to tell has been lodged in a salt mine or is biding its time in a dilapidated German castle.”
Eric Siblin’s The Cello Suites will be in bookstores on March 21.
Norman Ravvin is the chair of the Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies. His books include Hidden Canada: An Intimate Travelogue and the novel Lola by Night.