The Cello Suites, by Eric Siblin

Copy courtesy House of Anansi

The time is autumn 2000. Eric Siblin has recently ended “a stint as a pop music critic” at the Montreal Gazette. He is in an hotel in the centre of Toronto, sees an ad for a classical music concert at the Royal Conservatory of Music next door and is enticed to attend: “The Top 40 tunes had overstayed their welcome in my auditory cortex, and the culture surrounding rock music had worn thin.” Siblin goes to the concert: three of Bach’s Cello Suites, played by Laurence Lesser, a Boston cellist, and discovers a new passion. The next several years of his life will be dominated by a search centred on the Cello Suites and their history; this book is its result.

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.

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22 Responses to “The Cello Suites, by Eric Siblin”

  1. whisperinggums Says:

    This sounds like a great book Kevin – a definite one for my TBR pile. Must admit though, that I find it hard to read and listen to music (Oh dear a woman who can’t multi-task!). I often find myself stopping reading to listen… I can write blogs and listen to music though!

  2. Michel Says:

    Sounds quite attractive, indeed.
    There is a version on gamba, played by Paolo Pandolfo, which is quite intresting to listen to. By the way the main difference between cello and gamba is that the latter has a plane back panel and no inside piece connecting front and back panels (called “âme” in French, i.e. ‘soul’). Contrabass is built that way, being a big gamba rather than a big cello. This central piece of wood spreads the vibrations all over the instrument and regulates the physical tensions between the different pieces. It gives the cello the ability to project a clear sound to a larger environment, while the gamba tends to enter in physical resonance when played too hardly (which creates a more confused sound).
    I like the version on teorb (big lute) by Pascal Montheillet.
    Comparing different versions by different players is very exciting., indeed.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    whisperinggums: The first time through this book, I read with music in the background — and eventually took the Cello suites off and put the Well-Tempered Clavier on. I knew even then that a reread would be required. Second time through, I read — then set the book down to listen. First Casals’ version of the Suite under discussion, then Rostrapovich. Then back to the book. You are quite right — linear tasking, not multi-tasking. And since I was listening on headphones, I frequently went back into the Clavier in the Bach and Siblin sections, simply to have the background in place.

    • whisperinggums Says:

      LOL Linear tasking, now that makes me feel much better. That’s probably how I’ll do it too when I manage to get the book. I like Bach and Cello – and good non-fiction which, like you, I don’t read a lot of – so am really keen to read this one…

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Linear tasking is vastly under-rated in the current world, alas. Maybe it would be more accurate if I called it “sequential tasking”, but that starts to sound more obscure than should be desired.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Michel: Thank you ever so much for your informed comment — I am a music “listener”, but a rank amateur when it comes to actually understanding the different versions and, most important, what makes them different. Siblin does spend some time discussing the many different instruments that the Suites have been transcribed for, with particular attention to the lute and other stringed-instruments with more than four strings. I’ll look out for both the gamba and big lute versions that you mention — thanks for the information.

  5. Trevor Says:

    I was looking forward to this review, Kevin. I’m trying to expand my knowledge of music and my ability to talk about it, so this book sounds like a great stepping stone that would also incorporate my love of reading.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: The journalist in me found this to be a fascinating story — Siblin knew “music” but not Bach when he started (and I admit Bach was not one of my favorite composers when I started reading it). I was intrigued by the way that the author developed three stories in three very different time frames, using the Suites as the unifying theme. And I agree that one of the best things about it is the way that it links music and reading — if you hark back to Headlong and the way that Frayn links art and reading there, this does the same thing with a different art. A significant success, for me at least.

  7. Guy A. Savage Says:

    Kevin: Have you read Michael Frayn’s Headlong?

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I have and I liked it very much, although it was before I started doing this blog. Trevor read it recently (review here: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/category/frayn-michael/ ) on my recommendation and I agree with his assessment. I did think about it while reading this book, although the fact that it is a novel obviously had an impact.

  9. Rob Says:

    Fascinating. I recently spent a long-haul flight listening to Yo-Yo Ma’s version, which was sublime, but bought (very cheaply as it happens) Jaap ter Linden’s version on a period instrument. It is endlessly engaging music. I must get this book!

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rob: The Suites are ideal airplane music since they do want attentive, as opposed to background, listening. Siblin does write a bit about the many instruments that they have been transcribed for. He’s a guitarist himself, but did take some cello lessons along his journey. That did not work out to well — so he eventually did train himself to do a movement or two of the guitar version. Incidentally, I think part of your comment got lost in transmission — if you resend, I’ll do some editing to make it whole.

  11. Rob Says:

    Hi Kevin – no, that was it. Maybe it’s a usage thing- by period instrument, I mean a baroque cello. Ter Linden is a big noise in the authentic early music world.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rob: My mistake. Sorry. Without giving any spoiler, you will love a late part in the book where Siblin runs into a guy who has invented/rediscovered a five-string cello, convinced that it was the instrument Back wrote the Suites for (since Suite 5 implies a five-string instrument). I am enough of an ignoramous, that I have no opinion on this. This exchange is a good sample of the arcane debate that Siblin does such a good job of cataloguing.

  13. Rob Says:

    Hey, I bet I’m a bigger ignoramus than you! I’m not really knowledgeable about music technically, but I know what I like, and this books looks like a good starting point to develop my understanding.

  14. The In-Shelf – February 2010 « Lizzy’s Literary Life Says:

    [...] The Cello Suites – Eric Siblin  Impulse purchase prompted by KevinfromCanada’s magnificent review. [...]

  15. Trevor Says:

    I was happy to go home last night to find a copy of this book from Grove Press! I started it this morning and am enjoying Casal’s Cello Suites as I write this.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for bringing this back up — a year later I remember it with great fondness (and it comes back to mind every time I put the Suites on the player). All three “story” lines worked for me and remain in memory. It is a rare achievement.

  17. Tom C Says:

    I missed your review of this one – it is one I have just ordered from the library. As a long term struggler with some of these on the guitar and mandolin it sounds like an ideal read for me. Lisa of ANZ LitLovers has just posted a review of the book and referred back to your review. I have posted a video of my attempting to play one of the preludes on my blog

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: I knew your mandolin work and will check out your post. In the latter part of the book, Siblin does write about some of the transcriptions for other interests — as well as describing his own halting efforts at learning the cello. Given what I know of your interests, I am sure you will find this very good.

  19. Karyn Says:

    I am intrigued by this review of “The Cello Suites”, and have chosen this and ten others from your recent posts for my next group of books to read.

    This is to congratulate and thank you – your reviews are always intriguing and I always use KFC as a precious jewel for what books to read next. As we are living in a developing country without a book store, rather than browsing in a book store, which I always enjoy, and do so when we travel, I continually rely on KFC and order the e- books. Much appreciated and many thanks!

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Karyn: Many thanks — and I hope I have not let you down. The Cello Suites does come to mind every time I here a movement from Bach’s work, so I hope you have that at hand as well :-) .

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