J. S. Bach
J. S. Bach

Pablo Casals discovered Bach's Suites for Solo Cello when he was thirteen years old. What a memorable day that was for young Pablo. 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 meager 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 (there is an edition with a piano accompaniment, not by Bach) 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 content 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."

Copyright © 1996, 1997 Marshall C. St. John