by Marshall St. John

An ongoing serial story of the most influential cellist of the early 20th century.

note: unedited version

Pablo Casals discovered Bach's Suites for Solo Cello when he was thirteen years old. What a memorable day that was for young Pable. His father had come to Barcelona to pay him a visit, and brought him his first full-sized cello. Father and son were making a day together, and decided to go shopping for some sheet music that Pablo could use as he performed at the Cafe Tost. Here he was making a meagre living while attending school, by playing waltzes and excerpts from popular operas, for the pleasure of those dining at the Cafe. Once a week he played a few pieces of real substance.
At a small, dusty old music store on a street named "Ancha," near Barcelona's harbor, Pablo discovered some cello sonatas by Beethoven, and the Bach Suites. He was familiar with Bach, of course. While he was yet very young, his father had introduced him to the Well Tempered Clavier, and it had become Pablo's habit to begin the day at the piano, playing Bach, saying that this "sanctified the house." But he had never before seen these Bach Suites, now so familiar to all cellists. He had not even known they existed! Now, as he saw them for the first time in his life, he was immediately enthralled and absorbed by them. He read through all the Suites as soon as he arrived home. For the rest of his life he practiced and played the Suites daily, as his spiritual food. Casals reverenced Bach, and he did not dare to perform one in public until the age of twenty-five, after a decade of study.
At that time, the very early twentieth century, no other cellist cared to perform an entire Bach Suite at a recital or concert. They were considered to be either too academic and dry, or too uninteresting for most audiences, without some sort of accompaniment. Indeed, it must be admitted, that any cellist who performs a Bach Suite strictly by himself is baring his technique and musicality to the highest degree, and that's a risky thing to do! Casals was astonished that anyone could think the Suites dry, or like an exercise book of scales for intermediate cellists, for he looked at the Suites from his own very Romantic soul, and found them to be full of the deepest meaning and pathos.
It is interesting that while Casals invested the Suites with a hitherto unknown Romanticism as far as their emotional conten was concerned, he simultaneously modernized the technique with which they were performed. Cellists prior to Casals used fingerings that incorporated quite a bit of sliding around from note to note. Casals' fingerings demanded more stretching, and leaps of the left hand, rather than sliding, creating a much cleaner and more musical impression. Tim Finholt comments on this in his very interesting "Survey of Bach Suite Editions:"
"Hugo Becker also came from the time of pre-Casals cello technique. I am fortunate to have a recording of Hugo Becker playing. Every time I listen to it, I praise Casals for putting an end to Becker's and his predecessors kind of technique, which employs the "old fashioned" practice of repeatedly sliding between notes (slide up, slide down, slide up, slide down). Casals developed the technique of hopping, stretching, shifting between half-steps, and anything else to avoid the distracting audible shifts."


(This section is a book review by Marshall St. John, of David Popper, by Stephen Deak.)
Stephen De'ak was born in Hungary in 1897, and died in California in 1975. He grew up in a musical family, his brother and sister playing violin, and his father (though a civil engineer) had a strong appreciation of good music. When De'ak was seven he started cello lessons, and entered the Royal Academy of Music at the age of eleven. He studied under the famous cellist David Popper from 1911 to 1913, and made his concert debut in 1919 at the age of twenty-two. In 1927 De'ak joined the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and later taught at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. He joined the University of Southern California faculty in 1943. His "Modern Method for the Violoncello" has been used my multitudes of beginning cellists.
In 1973 De'ak wrote a biography of David Popper (author of the well-known "High School of Cello Playing," and many cello compositions). This book, titled simply "David Popper," (with a forward by Janos Starker), was published in 1980 by Paganiniana Publications. It is a book that every cellist would find enjoyable and profitable to read. Popper was one of the truly great masters of the cello, and is perhaps only second to Pablo Casals in bringing cello technique up to its present embodiment. Here follows an excerpt from De'ak's biography of Popper, in which we find Popper's contact and appreciation of Pablo Casals. I hope that this excerpt will whet your taste for De'ak's book, and that you will find a copy to purchase.

"It was noticeable that Popper closely observed the rapid rise of Casals. Casals' first concert in Budapest had been on February 8, 1911, and Popper had been unable to attend because he was in Gries with his son. As we noted in his letter to Schiffer, he had wished to know what Casals had played, by him. At the close of the last group Casals had played three pieces by Popper: "Warum," "Mazurka" (Op. 11) and "Arlequin." The choice of these popular pieces must have pleased the composer.
"On subsequent recitals Casals performed Popper numbers on the program, including: "Tarantella," "Chanson Villageouise," "Spanish Serenade," and "Vito."
"It was my (De'ak) privilege to witness the exit of an era which was fast vanishing and the beginning of a new musical approach: the uncompromising submission and sublimation of the artist to the will and ideas of the composer. This trend was of course not entirely unique. Clara Schumann, Bulow, and Joachim had taken the first steps in this direction.
"In art, as well as in appearance, Casals was not the prototype of a nineteenth century romantic. He was short in stature, already balding in his thirty-fifth year, an austere, intensely concentrated ascetic visage when on the stage, eyes closed when he played: a solitary messenger of the great masters, through their most intimate language. The new audiences of the twentieth century instantly sensed the fresh musical experience, which was both a leap into the new century, and a reinterpretation of the old. Casals brought a unique sound even to Popper's music, with which, by the way, the master was not in complete agreement. Casals was very well acquainted with all of Popper's works, and many, many years later--in 1960--he said to me, "...I played almost everything Popper wrote!"
"In the fall of 1912, Popper suggested that I meet him at his house and that we go together to hear Casals that evening. Since Mrs. Popper did not intend to go, he had an extra ticket. I felt privileged to take her seat, and to escort my teacher to the concert."

"As I remember, the "Serenade" and "Chanson Villageoise" were on the program, and Casals played the "Mazurka" for one of his encores. We sat in the upper loge, in relative privacy. During the concert I watched Popper's reaction. His serious appraisal of the performance showed in the expression of his face, and he applauded after each number. But a slight puzzlement veiled the otherwise interested countenance. The striking difference between the prevailing bowing with loose wrist and straight thumb, and Casals' bowing, seemed most obvious when he played at the upper part of the bow without lowering his wrist, and compensated by the gradual pronation and elevation of his arm. But the upper arm position was radically altered when the bow was applied on the "C" string. It was drawn in close to the body, with wrist fairly straight. These observations were possible because our loge was located on the second floor of the concert hall almost above the right side of the podium.
"Another first impression was Casals' limited use of slides. These were accepted by nineteenth century string players as a technical device for large leaps, as well as for intensely expressive effects, without regard for the distortion of musical playing.
"Casals had developed his unique style with an unconventional kind of fingering which, among other things, employed frequent extensions. We were surprised and struck by his performance. His bowings and fingerings combined in the production of a flawless technical brilliance and a luminous tone, with infinite degrees of dynamic variation.
"Following the concert we did not attempt to go back stage to congratulate Casals. It was impossible to reach the artist's room because the entrance was blocked by hundreds of autograph seekers. I found out later that Popper and Casals had been involved in a discussion about gypsy music (probably in a restaurant or coffeehouse)."

"We took the subway to his (Popper's) home, and I (Stephen De'ak) was grateful for the noise, which prevented any conversation. However, in the pauses of station stops, Popper made some general comments (about the Casals concert they had just attended), such as: "beautiful tone," "excellent technique," "fine musicianship" and "splendid intonation." Then, finally, he said " spite of all these, he did not touch my heart!"
"With this remark Popper indicated that the style of his own art was rooted in an earlier tradition, and that he felt uncomfortable wihen confronted with a new aesthetic language and a new cellistic technique.
"Popper faced the challenging problem that every artist--misician, painter, poet or writer--experiences when the new generation comes forward with an innovation in style. Popper's own playing had represented a move forward and away from the artists who preceded him. However, a link existed--a foothold from which to leap forward. But for him to be in full agreement now with the progressive trend would mean negation of lifelong convictions on which his art and his success had been built. At the present, there are movements which are drifting away from the type of performance which was new in the early twentieth century.
"The profound revelation which I experienced when hearing Casals for the first time disturbed my loyalty to Popper. At that time, I was very confused. I was aware that I was witnessing a meeting of two giants of the 'cello, and I was quite overwhelmed both to my faith and admiration for my own teacher, Popper, and by the exciting and very convincing style of playing of the new musical sun on the horizon--Casals."


Reprinted with permission from Maestronet

>From Violins and Violinists December 1943 Casals and the Bach Suites By MAURICE EISENBERG Pablo Casals was the first artist to play an entire unaccompanied Bach suite in public. In doing so he not only revealed to the musical world the extraordinary beauty of these masterpieces of monadic writing and polyphonic structure, but opened new horizons for all string virtuosi. Before the advent of Casals the æcello suites were considered more in the nature of musical exercises than of musical interest to the public. After Casals, thanks to his interpretive genius and utter comprehension of their inner depth and meaning, these works today are to the æcello what the Goldberg Variations are to the harpsichord. Casals brought the glimmer of light to the real Bach and influenced the whole course of contemporary playing in all mediums as far as this composer is concerned. Where all had been pomposity, he brought simplicity; where there had been deadness and pallor, he brought the breath of life and quickening of beauty and color. Casals realized the immense musical value of the æcello suites at a very early age and spent years in the profound study of these works. Their rich, wonderful polyphony had remained lost to the world simply because no æcellist before him had been gifted with the startling imagination, sensitivity and amazing technical command of his instrument to encompass all their difficulties of performance and conception. One cannot imagine, for instance, that a conscientious musician like Schumann would have been blinded into thinking them monodically conceived just because they were monodically penned, had there been a æcellist around to give living denial. As things were, Schumann thought he was performing a service to music by ostensibly completing them with his piano accompaniments. Schumann should not be blamed overmuch, for up to our own time two of my early æcello teachers, Professors Hugo Becker of Berlin and Julius Klengel of Leipzig, who were considered the outstanding æcellists of the day, still played the Bach suites like the most uninteresting Czerny exercises. When I discussed CasalsÆ new approach with them they argued that he was a genius and his kind of performance was peculiar only to him because of his extraordinary æcellistical achievements. CasalsÆ æcellistical achievements were certainly extraordinary, but his interpretations were even more so. Coming at a time when the post romantic era of bad taste was at its height and artists thought more of projecting their own ôstylesö than that of the composerÆs, CasalsÆ approach was like a gust of fresh air admitted into an overheated and stuffy room. He penetrated into the inner style and meaning of each composer, of Boccherini no less than Bach, with a sincerity and depth that was revealing. A phrase under his hands was no longer merely a phrase, but a breathing, pulsing thought with infinite meaning. With Casals the mechanics of his art was secondary; the thought was uppermost. He never played a thing twice the same way. Yet each time the character, message and dynamics were absolutely perfect. His mastery of rubato is one of the seven wonders of the world in my mind, free yet still within the original dimensions and scope. I shall never forget the time Casals tried to show a young æcellist how to begin the Boccherini concerto. After he had played the passage, the student blurted out with some perplexity, ôBut, master, thatÆs not how you play it in your own recording.ö ôNo,ö replied Casals, ôthat may be so, but this time this is the right way to play it.ö If the young æcellist remained bewildered, it is just as well; for there are some things which simply cannot be taught. Once, also in Paris, an amusing thing happened. A certain noted French æcellist came to hear Casals at work day after day. While the master played he took down the bowings and fingering of a Bach suite four separate times and each time they were all different. Finally the poor man gave up in disgust. When I asked Casals about this incident, he replied jestingly, ôI have three different fingerings; one for myself, one for my pupils and one for my colleagues.ö The art and mastery which Casals achieved with the æcello is even more astonishing when one considers the physical handicaps of the instrument. Unlike the violin, where chords and double stoppings make possible harmonic as well as polyphonic structure and performance, the æcello, for reasons such as the dimensions, spacing of strings, etc., is reduced to only monodic treatment and playing. To do more, i. e., to bring out the complex structure, line and color of a Bach suite, the æcellist can but rely on his art of suggestion, which he achieves by means of accentuation, vibrating and holding of certain notes, coloring dynamics and, above all, pure intonation. Of the six suites, the last, in D, is æcellistically the most interesting and difficult. It is not for these reasons that I have chosen to play it at my coming recital at Town Hall, but because it is so seldom heard. It was not originally written for the æcello, but for a five-string instrument called the viola pomposa, which some authorities claim to have been invented by Bach himself. Played like a violin, it looked like a viola and was tuned like a violoncello with an E string added. High and rapid passages were much easier to play on it.


Pablo Casals, Lillian Littlehales, 1929, W. W. Norton & Company
History of the Violoncello, Lev Ginsburg, 1983, Paganiniana Publications
Pablo Casals, Frederic V. Grunfeld, 1982, Time-Life Records, Great Men
of Music
The Great Cellists, Margaret Campbell, 1989, Trafalgar Square Publishing

Copyright Marshall C. St. John

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