From The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search 

for a Baroque Masterpiece


Reprinted by permission of House of Anansi Press

It was a leisurely stroll through the streets of Barcelona, past

the heroic monuments and flower stalls, the Gothic arches

and fashionable cafés, that rescued the world’s greatest cello

music from obscurity. To imagine the scene, which took place

one afternoon sometime in 1890, we have to picture Pablo Casals

and his father walking along the Ramblas, the city’s most cele-

brated avenue, shaded by plane trees, lined with neoclassical

mansions, and teeming with markets selling fresh flowers,

local produce, and birds in cages.

At thirteen, Pablo was small for his age, shorter even than

the cello he was carrying, with close-cropped black hair, search-

ing blue eyes, and a serious expression out of synch with his

youth. His father, visiting from Vendrell, had a few hours to

spend with the young cellist who was making a name for him-

self in the big city —  they called him el nen, “the kid.” Pablo,

who preferred his Catalan name of Pau, was working seven

nights a week in a trio at the Café Tost, which was well known

for its coffee and thick hot chocolate beverages. Earlier in the

day Carlos had bought Pablo his first adult-sized cello, and the

two had their eyes open for sheet music the boy could use for

his café concerts.

They strolled in the vicinity of the Columbus monument,

towering sixty-two metres above the eight bronze lions at its

base. It was a fiercely proud Columbus, the world’s highest,

clutching a parchment in one hand and pointing to the

Mediterranean with the other, as if suggesting future discov-

eries. At some point Pablo and his father would have left the

singing birds of the Ramblas and entered the tangle of narrow,

twisting streets near the waterfront. Ironwork balconies were

draped with laundry and flowers. The occasional stone gar-

goyle screamed mutely. There was a faint smell of the sea.

Father and son made their way through the cramped streets

to one second-hand store after another, rummaging for cello

music. On Carrer Ample they went into another music shop.

As they rustled through the musty bundles of sheet music,

some Beethoven cello sonatas were located. But what’s this? A

tobacco-coloured cover page inscribed with fanciful black let-

tering: Six Sonates ou Suites pour Violoncelle Seul by Johann

Sebastian Bach. Was this what it appeared to be? The immortal

Bach composed music for cello alone?

Pesetas were paid for the sheet music. Pablo could not

unglue his eyes from the pages, beginning with the first move-

ment, the prelude to everything. He glided home through the

twisting streets to the rhythm of a music that was taking shape

in his imagination, the sensual mathematics of the score filling

him from footsteps to fingertips.

He would have heard the first prelude as an opening state-

ment, improvisatory, like a leisurely stroll that ends serendi-

pitously. The ground is prepared for all that follows: structure,

character, narrative. The comfortable pulse undulates into

more intricate passages. The baritone soliloquy grows in inten-

sity, solidifying, gathering strength, ascending a great height

where a vast panorama reveals itself. The stakes are raised.

Struggle is pressed into service. In time, a satisfying denouem-


Pablo looked again at the score. He would practise it every

day for twelve years before mustering the courage to play the

suites in public.


From The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search

for a Baroque Masterpiece

By Eric Siblin


Reprinted by permission of House of Anansi Press






Eric Siblin/www.ericsiblin.com