Interview with Pablo Casals

An Excerpt from
The Way They Play, Vol. 1
by Samuel and Sada Applebaum©
Published in 1972 by
Paganiniana Publications

The occasion was a memorable one. We had met Casals a number of times before, but here on this lovely day at the Marlboro Festival in Vermont, we were accompanied by a perceptive and close friend, Alan Branigan, music critic of the Newark (New Jersey) News. Alan later described the auspicious event by writing:

"The scene was a large, knotty-pine paneled hall in a grove of trees. On the informal stage was an orchestra with some of the world's finest musicians as its members. Attention was centered on the conductor, a short-stooped man who leaned over the score and beat time infrequently. On occasion he would rise in a tremendous surge of imperious musicality. The music that emerged was sumptuous, highly eloquent and very moving. The little man on the podium was the giant of today's musical world, the Catalonian cellist-conductor, Pablo Casals."

To be there, to be part of this commanding scene, was to experience a living, dynamic music lesson. Casals' concepts, rather than specifics; his connection of the specific to the large idea, was an extraordinary thing to witness.

Later we discussed with him the principles of interpretation. "One has to be sensitive to the relative importance of one note to another, such as the second note of the measure, the fourth note, or the last note. One must make a profound study of crescendos and diminuendos; yes, of small bits of crescendos and small bits of diminuendos within the measure."

"You know," he spoke feelingly, "a 'double' piano must be as beautiful and as moving as a double 'forte.' We want clarity of pronunciation. I like precision in performance and neatness. I like freedom to hold certain notes a bit longer than others even if they are printed as the same length. Of course," and Casals looked at us impressively, "this freedom must be within great order.

"As for dynamics, a passage in forte does not mean that all the notes are to be played forte. An eight bar phrase in forte can include little diminuendos and crescendos. The important thing," he streesed, "is to find the note which has the magic power. The note or notes which precede this magnetic note must be played as though they are leading into the magnetic note. However, they should not be permitted special emphasis.

"The notes which follow the magnetic note must be played in such a way that the listener is aware you are leaving a note with magnetic power," Casals added.

"A diminuendo," he continued, "must be carefully analyzed and subdivided, even if the diminuendo is on one note. If a note or notes lead to a point where a crescendo begins, be very careful to subdivide this diminuendo in a logical way."

"What about long notes that are not specifically marked?"

"All long notes," he urged, "should be played interestingly. They should have a small crescendo or a diminuendo and these must be played as though you are leading to a note, or going away from a particular note. And here again," he advised, "sudivide the long note in order to guide you in the rise and fall of that note. Even the vibrato, must help you in making crescendos by becoming much more intense. In diminuendo, less intense."

Casals is adamant about intonation. He has had his pupils repeat passages until there is absolute accuracy of intonation. To a pupil playing a sonata with piano, he recommends, "do not be afraid to be out of tune with the piano. It is the piano that is out of tune. The piano with its tempered scale is a compromise in intonation."

He is very exciting rhythmically. "The rhythmic passage must always have vitality," he insists.

The cellist dislikes notes that are slightly shortened. Probably his most salient asset as a teacher is his ability to involve the pupil completely in the message of a phrase and a composition as a whole. "Portamentos must come from the heart! They are not with the fingers!" He referred us to the protamento at the begining of measure twelve in the Andante of Bach's D major Gamba Sonata.

As a performer Casals is breathtakingly superlative. Theodore Strongin of The New York Times wrote the following concerning the performance of the Bach Suites:

"Casals has created a full-blooded complete universe of his own and his love of Bach bursts through like the sun. All four Suites are juicy, lively, robust, energetic, and colorful performances."

Casals reiterates, "Variety is the law of nature. Nothing in nature is repeated in exactly the same way. Nothing. And so with music.

"Furthermore, I would like to say that forte means dynamic changes within a forte or in the range of expression and sonority in keeping with a forte. The same can be said of a piano or of a fortissimo and pianissimo."

"What general rule applies for notes that descend or ascend?"

"I like to put it this way," replied Casals. "When we have a group of descending notes we have a diminuendo. It is not always so, but most always. However, there is one thing we must get away from," and Casals looked at us fully, "That is literally following the marking in the music. What is not written in the music, oh yea, that is of the greatest importance!"

As a teacher he requests rainbows of a student playing the Minuet No. 2 of the Bach G Major Suite. "I want rainbows!" he demanded and eloquently gestured with his hands to outline rainbows of varying sizes. His gestures corresponded to short and long ascending and descending phrases. "So much music is like that. When we think this way we have already created a guide for ourselves."

Again he stated his favorite principle; "Two notes should never be played in the same way." Here he cited as an illustration, Beethoven's Opus 102 Sonata No. 1, second measure. "The second note should be played a bit stronger than the first."

"How do you feel about notes that are held for a length of time?" we asked.

"You must always do something. I feel very strongly about notes which are held. If a long note follows a forte or is in a foret, we must make a dinimuendo. If a long note follows a piano or is within a piano, try making a crescendo."

While discussing vibrato we learned that Casals feels, "There should be, first of all, a great deal of variety, and there are times when we should not use any vibrato. This occurs in the soft passages in the Adagio in Beethoven's Opus 102 No. 1. These are subtle skills. In forte passages it is good to use a great deal of vibrato. In diminuendos to a piano it would be very effective not to use any vibrato at all."

On tempo: "One has to learn the art of not playing in tempo. I might be so general as to say we must learn the act of not playing the notes precisely as they are written."

Pablo Casals makes his home in Puerto Rico, in Santurce. Recently he mused, "I used to think that eighty was a very old age. Now I am ninety. I do not think this any more. As long as you are able to admire and to love, you are young. And so much to admire and love! Look at the sky, the trees, and flowers.

"Nature is what has inspired me. It is my teacher and the source of my meditations. Nature has helped me, not the philosophies of the study.

"I see God in Bach. Every morning of my life, first nature, then Bach. I treat music as something divine, as I treat every human being. No two grains of sand are the same, and no two humans are the same. It is God's miracle."

Pablo Casals was born December 29, 1876 near Barcelona, Spain. His musical successes, his indomitable moral strength through bleak vicissitudes; his self exile in anguish from his beloved homeland; his world inspiring Festivals of music, which are more than performances, relate the history of our revolutionary times. Casals' background creates a true homage to a master human being.

We have talked with Casals about Trio Opus 38 of Brahms. "How monotonous it would be," he declared, "if all these eight notes were played with equal length. So here we need to present variety, not in dynamics alone, but in the amount of time we go to notes which are equal in length. Notes that are more important than others are to be held a bit longer, but the audience must still be aware of the fact that eighth notes are being played. When we take liberties, there must be great order!"

Concerning the cadenza to the Boccherini Concerto, again the reiteration, "There must be liberty with order. Where there is fantasy there must be logic and order."

While participating in the presentation of a master class, it is impossible not to take note of Casals' exactitude regarding intonation. "Intonation is a life long job. In the first position the stretch of the hand is not natural and so we have to make a special effort to play in tune. Frequently, the second finger will be too high in the first positon. Trills are particularly vulnerable. The upper finger must be sure to reach high enough or the trill will be out of tune."

Regarding fingering Casals has many definite ideas to offer us. "As a general rule I like to avoid jumps. I prefer extensions. You are in a better position then to measure the distance between notes and jump only when you need to. For solidity I prefer to use the third finger when possible instead of the fourth. I find it strontger and I am sure to hit the note in tune."

"Violinists certainly understand this," we agreed.

"I like to feel that what I can do with the third finger I do not permit myself to do with the fourth finger. To make certain that I get perfect fifths I frequently tune the G string just a shade higher to make a perfect fifth with the D string."

Returning to trills, he "objects to trills that are too fast in a slow movement. I never like to start them in full speed. When we have a trill on a long note we first play the note, or we might say first comes the presentation of the note, then the trill, then the continuation of the sound with a crescendo or a diminuendo. Frequently a trill will have two accent."

"Does the same principle apply when a note is preceded by the same note as the one with which the trill begins?"

"In that case do not start the trill with the higher note. An example of this would be the 20th measure of the Adagio in Bach's Gamba Sonata in D major."

"When the accent is not pertaining to a trill, how would you recommend it be handled?"

"Herein," replied Casals. "lies much skill and thought. A salient point I wish to make is that the accent must be on the beginning of a note and must be followed by a diminuendo. Do not start the note and then create the accent. The diminuendo which follows the accent," he advised, "must be carefully planned. If it is to be diminuendos, I should like to add that frequently a diminuendo should replace a ritardando. Many times it is best not to have a diminuendo plus a ritardando."

"Could we discuss the bowings in general?" we asked him.

"As a general rule I feel that young musicians should try to avoid enslaving themselves to the bowings which are marked. Rather than this, change them frequently to create a quality and sonority of tone that you conceive in your mind."

"But what about long notes?"

"By all means, change bows even in the middle of a long note. To develop good bow technic we should learn to hold long notes that are even on all dynamic levels. In public performance," he assured us, "feel free however, to change bows on long notes.

"In the past musicians have felt that they should use all of the bow always. I disagree. We want to use only as much bow as we need, and only in that part of the bow we wish to play. As for chords," he said, "I am not always happy by following the tradition of playing chords with two strings at a time. It is not always the most musical way to play chords. Many times I do not like to use all the bow in chord playing. I like to concentrate on the bass note, making sure it has a rich sound and there is no harm in ending on the highest note and holding it."

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