I don’t read a lot of non-fiction and review even less on this blog; indeed, except for essays, this is the very first review of a non-fiction work on KevinfromCanada. On the other hand, almost always when I am reading there is music in the background — classical or soft jazz — and I am a sucker for books that explore mysteries in the literary, art and musical worlds. Siblin’s book may be non-fiction, but it is written in a form that every novel reader welcomes; a detective story, this time about a musical suite, told in an entrancing fashion.
Bach’s Cello Suites number six and have long been a source of musical fascination. From Siblin’s early pages:
It was in the small German town of Cothen 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 cello, a lowly instrument usually relegated to background droning during 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?
That paragraph defines part one of Siblin’s story: an intricate composition, with no original manuscript version, known to serious musicians but regarded merely as etudes, all from a composer somewhat overlooked in his time as he bounced from one minor German court to another, but now one of significant prominence in the three B’s (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms) with societies, conferences and festivals that celebrate his work. Oh, and this section is not without gossip potential. Bach’s patron at the time the cellos suites were composed played the viola de gamba (a kind of cross between the viola and cello which is now almost unplayed); perhaps the suite was written for cello, rather than viola de gamba, because he knew that it was too complex for his patron to play?
Enter part two. A young Catalan, Pablo Casals, has been attracted to the cello as an instrument. He has been sent for training to Barcelona and, at 13, Pablo and his father are wandering the streets:
Father and son made their way through the cramped streets to one second-hand store after another, rummaging for cello music. On Carrer Ample they went into another music shop. As they rustled through the musty bundles of sheet music, some Beethoven cello sonatas were located. But what’s this? A tobacco-coloured cover page inscribed with fanciful black lettering: Six Sonatas or Suites for Solo Vionlincello by Johann Sebasitan Bach. Was this what it appeared to be? The immortal Bach composed music for cello alone?
It would be 12 years before Casals would ever play one of the suites in public, some years more until they were first recorded — almost two centuries after they were composed. What a commercial miss. While no composer’s manuscript exists, ever since the iTunes store opened, a version of the Cello Suites has never been out of the classical top 20.
Each of the six Cello Suites has six movements — a prelude; followed by an allemande, a courante and a sarabande (originally dances, transformed even by Bach’s time into instrumental effects); a “modern” dance movement (minuet, bourree or gavotte); and a closing gigue (yes, that is related to jig). Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Siblin’s book is that he structures it to reflect the structure of the suites.
The Cello Suites has six chapters, each of which are divided into six sub-sections, reflecting the structure of the suites themselves. The first two or three movements in each chapter are devoted to telling Bach’s story. Regardless of his reputation now, it was not so great in his lifetime. He not only composed, he lived — drink, tobacco and fathering children (20 by my count) were also part of his life. While he apparently wanted to assure he had a legacy, his papers and memories were spread around by his inheritors — the absence of an original manuscript for the suites is not all that is missing from Bach’s history and pieces are still being found in shoeboxes.
The second part of each chapter is devoted to reporting on Siblin’s search of Pablo Casals and his story. If you like cello music at all, you know Casals — were it not for him, the Cello Suites would probably still be in some dusty drawer. But Casals was more than that; a Catalan, he rebelled against Franco Spain, bitterly resented the refusal of both the U.K. and U.S. to dethrone Franco after the war and refused to appear in either country until the United Nations persuaded him that the nuclear threat was worth a return to the stage. Casals story in Spain is a musical reflection of the authors and architects of his national colleagues who have, perhaps, attracted more attention. His Barcelona is every bit as real as Gaudi’s, but it is heard and not seen. Siblin’s explorations of Casals’ life are a major attraction of the book.
The final section of each chapter is devoted to Siblin’s personal story as he searched the history of the Cello Suites, their composer and the musician who brought them to prominence. Yes, they read like an article from Vanity Fair, but they are every bit as much a part of this story as Bach’s or Casals’. The author was entranced, set himself a goal and these reminders of persuing that goal in the modern world are every bit as much a part of the story as Bach and Casals.
The result is an intriguing work; one that I have no trouble recommending, particularly if you have any interest in literary, artistic or musical detective work. Siblin heard, and was impressed, by a work and went in search. He is no academic or musicologist and makes no claim to either distinction — he is someone who likes music, heard some and set himself a task. He has delivered admirably. The story is both fascinating and reasonable; there are 30 pages of footnotes (which I did not read) for those who want to explore it further. And there are some musical references in an appendix which did end up costing me money when I read them (see below). I am sure that academics will grumble about the book; I am equally sure that it will inspire more readers to investigate Bach and his Cello Suites further than any of their articles. The book is not perfect — the story of the suites came relatively early in the lives of both Bach and Casals and some of the latter chapters here read as a tidy-up of history, but I was more than willing to forgive that.
A final admission: I received a review copy of this book from House of Anansi Press yet this “free” book may turn out to be one of the most expensive volumes in my library. Because of references in this book, I have bought yet more versions of the Cello Suites (I did already own Casals); cello works by Mischa Maisky and yet another version of The Well-Tempered Clavier (Casals started each morning by playing a few sections, then moved on to a few from the suites). In short, if you like your reading with music, don’t overlook this book. I’ve been listening to a couple of those purchases while I wrote this review and that experience has only confirmed how good this book is.