Pablo Casals and the Bach Cello Suites: Journey to a masterpiece

Casals Oct 23 11

To mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Pablo Casals in October 1973, Oskar Falta examines the great Catalan cellist’s ‘rediscovery’ of the Bach Cello Suites, and the continuing legacy of his highly personal approach to the music

‘You play Bach your way, I’ll play him his way,’ concluded the celebrated harpsichordist Wanda Landowska after a discussion she had with Pablo Casals. Looking back at Casals’ interpretation of Bach’s Cello Suites BWV1007–12 and how he brought these works into the limelight, could we come to a closer understanding of what really was his way?

Casals first came across an edition of the Cello Suites in Barcelona in 1890, when he was 13 years old. Owing to the absence of musicological research at the time and several biographers’ blind trust in Casals’ word, the story surrounding the discovery contains some apocryphal elements. ‘Suddenly I came upon a sheaf of pages, crumbled and discoloured with age,’ he recalled in Albert E. Kahn’s book Joys and Sorrows: Reflections by Pablo Casals (1970). Along the same lines, Robert Baldock’s 1992 biography of Casals describes his find as ‘battered’, and Eric Siblin in his popular volume The Cello Suites (2009) gives an account of the score being discovered amid ‘musty bundles of sheet music’, portraying its cover as ‘tobacco-coloured’. These sources give such a strong and mysterious impression of antiquity, as if Casals had just chanced upon the long-lost manuscript in Bach’s own hand. And yet, if the score was in such a miserable state, age was not the cause, as it was published only 24 years previously…

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