Guilhermina Suggia was born in Oporto, Portugal. Her father, Augusto Suggia, was a well-known physician, and amateur cellist, and her family was of the upper class. She was in love with music in general, and the cello in particular from a very young age. Her father was her first teacher. She made her first public appearance as a cellist when she was seven.
She made rapid progress as a cellist, and by the age of twelve she had become the principal cellist of the Oporto City Orchestra, and also began performing regularly with the string quartet of Bernardo Moreira de Sa.
She received the patronage of the Portuguese royal family, and when she was 13 (1902) she was sent to study with the famous Julius Klengel at the Lepzig Conservatory. In Leipzig she performed as a soloist with the Gewandhaus Orchestra under the baton of Artur Nikisch. It was also in Leipzig that she and Pablo Casals, who was a friend of Klengel, got to know each other. She lived in Paris from 1906 to 1912, where she studied with Casals. (He had actually first heard her play when she was but eleven years old, in Portugal.) When Casals learned she had come to Paris, where he also lived then, he invited her to visit him, and become his student. Casals also learned that Suggia's father had died, and that she was having some financial difficulty, so he invited her to stay at his Villa Molitor house, under the care of his housekeeper, Mme Coderq, while Casals was away touring.
Casals and Suggia had a tempestuous romantic relationship. It is known that Casals proposed marriage, and that Suggia was addressed on her concert tours for several years as MMe P. Casals-Suggia; however it is not certain that they ever actually married officially. Dr. Lev Ginsburg wrote in his History of the Violoncello about their Moscow performances: "In November 1908, he (Casals), together with his wife and his pupil Guilhermina Suggia, performed the Moor Concerto for two cellos, and the Saint-Saens Concerto with the orchestra under the baton of Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov."
Their romance ended in 1912 after a bitter quarrel between Casals and Donald Frances Tovey, apparently over Suggia, who then settled in London, where she remained many years performing and teaching. She was a dedicated advocate of Casals' cellistic principles. She played with a beautiful tone, and her performances of the Lalo Concerto were especially well-received by the critics. Sometimes she performed with Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at Queen's Hall.
H.L. Kirk described Suggia's appearance in his biography of Casals: "Tall and well formed, with olive skin and very dark hair, she had an explosively gay laugh and an instinct for center stage. Exuberant and attractive although not beautiful, she had an independent mind and spirit as well as bohemian tastes her teacher did not approve. From the beginning she was unpredictable and temperamental..." (page 199)
A famous portrait of Suggia was done by the painter Augustus John. This portrait captures some of her exciting flamboyant personality, and it now hangs in the Tate Gallery. In the mid 1940's, she retired to Portugal, emerging only once in 1949, to perform at the Edinburgh Festival.
Suggia owned both Montagnana and Stradivarius cellos. The Strad was dated 1717, and she bequeathed it to the Royal Academy of Music, to be sold, and the proceeds to be used to set up a scholarship. The cello was purchased for 8,000 Pounds in 1951, the year following her death. The Suggia award is now one of the most sought after awards for young cellists.
Other photographs of M. Suggia may be found HERE.
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