CELLO EVENT


PABLO CASALS AS ICON

by Jonathan C. Kramer, Ph. D.
North Carolina State University

On Oct. 9, 2004, my colleague Selma Gokcen and I will present a program at the 92nd St. Y in New York City called Pablo Casals, Artist of Conscience: An Homage to the Great Cellist and Humanitarian. Through words, texts, and music, we will explore the intellectual, artistic, cultural, and spiritual roots of Casals' musical thought; and his contributions to the expressive potential of his instrument and the art of interpretation. Throughout his long career as an internationally acclaimed artist, he was a symbol of the aspirations of his oppressed countrymen, a beacon of freedom in a world darkened by Fascism, and as an old man, the center of pilgrimage for the greatest musicians of his time, and a leading activist for peace.

Great lives take on public, posthumous, symbolic meaning. They come to represent a value or constellation of values that their lives, to an exceptional degree, embodied. They in a sense transcend the particulars of their biography and become icons of those values. Casals lived through that period of human history -- the World Wars, the Great Depression -- which Robert Musil famously characterized as "An Accursed Era." It was an era that provided succeeding generations with a rich panoply of iconic figures of evil, tyranny, megalomania: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and of course, Generalissimo Franco; and standing opposite, those of great goodness, beauty, courage, integrity, and hope: Einstein, Schweitzer, Gandhi, and Pablo Casals.

We are undertaking this program because we believe that with the perspective gained in the thirty years since his death, Casals looms ever larger in stature. We felt a need to acknowledge the fact that one of the great iconic figures of the 20th century was an artist, was a musician, was a cellist. By telling his story again, we are calling on cellists, musicians, and artists to claim him as a kind of secular patron saint ... to serve as a model of the courage and decency with which we might infuse our own lives and careers.

Yet there is some embarrassment in such hagiography. There seems now to be a squeamishness and unease with the whole business of myth-making; of elevating mere mortals to the status of icon. Modern scholarship has been deft at revealing flaws, inconsistencies, and the compromises historical figures make during their sojourns as mortals. Of late, Thomas Jefferson has shared a place with William Clinton in the peccadillo gallery. A recent poem in the New Yorker magazine bemoaned the poet's inability to read Shelley, now that she knows the details of his scandalous biography.

Because great figures are flawed, like the rest of us, we have difficulty making use of them the way myths and legends were used in the past to represent, to embody, to personify core values. The irony is that one need not be perfectly evil to serve as the embodiment of evil ... Stalin was kind to children, Mao wrote poetry, etc. So in our collective imagination, we seem to now have far more villains than heroes, yet the need is great. Though flawed, Casals was good ENOUGH to serve as the embodiment of goodness, great ENOUGH to personify greatness. That is our claim.

Despite the hesitancy to create legends and acknowledge heroes, giving homage to the great Catalan cellist seems now more appropriate then ever. I believe he would have found his image carved in soapstone and resting on a mantel to be an embarrassment. But there his picture hangs on my wall, pipe between teeth, cello cradled between his knees, reminding me that the art of the interpreter is no less than the revelation of truth through acts of conscience.

In his long life, he combined consummate artistry and great moral courage, and achieved a standing in the musical world that was both unique and unprecedented. He has become an icon of great goodness, artistic and moral integrity, nobility of character; and there is another attribute as well we find as we parse Casals-as-icon. Franz Schubert's epitaph reads: "The art of music here entombed a rich possession; but even far fairer hopes," and he has come to symbolize a life cut short. Casals' life was one richly and fully lived. Whether in the end he felt the fulfillment of his life's great purposes (after all, at his death, Franco was, astoundingly, still ruling Spain), he becomes an icon also, like his beloved Bach, of a life fulfilled.


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