The Cello Suites: in search of a baroque masterpiece

Tuning into his musical side, Stephen Town sharpens up his Bach with the latest donation in his Nightshelf series.


Siblin, E., The Cello Suites : in search of a baroque masterpiece, in the University Library at LM 7.3 SIB

Cello wall by Ian. Used under
a Creative Commons licence.
A pleasure in retirement will be the opportunity to spend more time on music, and to return to practicing the Bach Cello Suites, which I have been doing (to not much avail) for over 45 years. My next donation, by Eric Siblin, will add to the very few in our collection about cello playing. Siblin is a journalist and a recent convert and enthusiast, but the style is not as irritating as I feared after reading reviews of this work. Siblin is passionate about the music and the story, and whilst there is occasional hyperbole and exaggeration, this is an easy and engaging read. He is of course not the first to tell the tale of the rediscovery of the suites, but it is a story worth re-telling. The greatest cellist of recent times, Pau Casals, found the forgotten scores in a Barcelona music shop, and assiduously practiced them for twelve years before their first public performance. Since then they have become a staple of the repertoire.

Casals’ stand as a Catalan and a Republican led to his refusal to play in countries that recognised the Franco regime in Spain, and this was one of my earliest and formative influences in political understanding. This also helped a great deal when I was teaching in Barcelona, where feelings still ran high against Franco twenty years after democracy was restored, in part because he was still on the coinage in circulation.

Eric Siblin, The Cello Suites, London 2011.
Styles of playing these suites have changed since I began to learn, as part of the reinvention of ‘authentic’ baroque performance, but I hold fast to my original score, as the bowing and fingering were marked up by my teacher, who was herself a student of Casals. Casals said there is no special rule for interpreting Bach, but I treasure this potential link. I hope this book may inspire others to seek out the music for listening, if they have not already done so, and maybe hear the Casals recordings, which we have in the John Barry collection.

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