By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 7, 2012
Considering that the Bach Cello Suites live in the marrow of millions and millions of music lovers, it seems hard to believe that these six masterpieces, written around 1720, went almost completely unperformed until almost 1900. They weren't “lost.” They were just regarded as études --- as exercises.
And then, in 1890, 13-year-old Pablo Casals was browsing through scores in an old music shop near the harbor in Barcelona. But let him tell it:
Suddenly I came upon a sheaf of pages, crumbled and discolored with age. They were unaccompanied suites by Johann Sebastian Bach --- for the cello only! I looked at them with wonder: Six Suites for Violoncello Solo. What magic and mystery, I thought, were hidden in those words? I had never heard of the existence of the suites; nobody --- not even my teachers --- had ever mentioned them to me. I forgot our reason for being at the shop. All I could do was stare at the pages and caress them. That sensation has never grown dim. Even today, when I look at the cover of that music, I am back again in the old musty shop with its faint smell of the sea. I hurried home, clutching the suites as if they were the crown jewels, and once in my room I pored over them. I read and reread them. I was thirteen at the time, but for the following eighty years the wonder of my discovery has continued to grow on me. Those suites opened up a whole new world. I began playing them with indescribable excitement. They became my most cherished music. I studied and worked at them every day for the next twelve years.
Yes, twelve years would elapse and I would be twenty-five before I had the courage to play one of the suites in public at a concert. Up until then, no violinist or cellist had ever played one of the Bach suites in its entirety. They would play just a single section --- a Saraband, a Gavotte or a Minuet. But I played them as a whole; from the prelude through the five dance movements, with all the repeats that give the wonderful entity and pacing and structure of every movement, the full architecture and artistry.
They had been considered academic works, mechanical, without warmth. Imagine that! How could anyone think of them as being cold, when a whole radiance of space and poetry pours forth from them! They are the very essence of Bach, and Bach is the essence of music.
Yes, but are they variations on 16th and 17th century dance pieces --- brilliant formal exercises? Did Bach write them all, or was the handiwork of his wife present? And did....?
I've read a lot of commentary on the Cello Suites, and I have returned to report that the answers to these and other academic questions are of scant interest to me. I doubt you'd care much either. The whole and entire point of the Bach Cello Suites, for modern listeners, is the emotion we hear in this music. With Casals, we find a Bach who "has every feeling: lovely, tragic, dramatic, poetic.” He knows how to enter our souls. And once there, he helps us look into ourselves.
Casals made the Suites into meditations: holy music. Forget the jaunty beginning and the nod to dance music; to hear Casals is to watch Bach think. What you get is a complete experience --- holistic music, healing music.
What this suggests is that, for the cellist, the Cello Suites are about far more than music. They're a challenge to the cellist's deepest conclusions about life. Mstislav Rostropovich put it bluntly:
The hardest thing in interpreting Bach is the necessary equilibrium between human feelings, the heart that undoubtedly Bach possessed, and the severe and profound aspect of interpretation... You cannot automatically disengage your heart from the music. This was the greatest problem I had to resolve in my interpretation... For the MP download, click here.
The Casals recording is the first; it's not radical to argue that it's the greatest. (To buy the Bach Cello Suites recorded by Pablo Casals from Amazon, click here. For the MP download, click here.) Yo-Yo Ma's recording has many admirers, though some feel it's just a bit too slick. (To buy the Bach Cello Suites recorded by Yo-Yo Ma from Amazon, click here. For the MP download, click here.) My ear is hardly subtle enough to make these judgments, but over time, I find myself sympathetic to the Rostropovich recording; for me, it achieves the balance between feeling and form that the suites deserve. (To buy the Bach Cello Suites recorded by Mstislav Rostropovich from Amazon click here. For the MP download, click here.)
But I don't come from the critical position; this isn't a matter of discrimination and taste levels. I'm here as an advocate. Listen to any of the YouTube samples. Throw a dart.
There's no wrong answer. There is a right one: Life is infinitely poorer without the Cello Suites.