Book Review:
The Cello Suites
By Eric Siblin
Published by Grove Press
270 pages

Bach and his music. Boring? Pablo Casals, that old Spanish cello player. Boring? Combine the two in one book? Boring squared? Not at all. This fine study it totally interesting and innovative in many ways.

Eric Siblin has penned a truly interesting and well researched book about these two musical men and their connection through a set of six pieces written for the cello. Siblin, who has made a name for himself by reviewing rock music, suddenly found himself wrapped in the classical music world of Bach and Casals as he learns of the story of the search for the original copy of the six cello suites by Bach, and how Pablo Casals single handedly brings these pieces to the world.

The structure of the book is unique; there are 36 chapters in the book, one named for each movement of the six suites, including preludes, allemandes, courants, gigues, sarabandes and gavottes. Each chapter centers on biographical work on Bach or Casals, or on the families of either man, or on the nature of the music, or on Siblin’s own reflections as he experiences these pieces, or on music history.

One would think that such material would be dry and thunderously dull. Think otherwise, reader. Siblin uses his writing to present a book that offers a conversational tone about his subjects, allowing the reader to settle into his chair and enjoy the lives of these men, and of these works of music. The language, though scholarly, is not highbrow. This is not for musical snobs only; it reads well for all.

We meet Bach and his family. We read of his moves from German town to town as he builds a career that he hopes will increase his stature with each city. We meet the princes and lords of the German city –states as they parry over his skills, and as he performs for and against other musicians. We meet his kids, his wives, especially Anna Magdalena, and how many of them build their own musical careers.

We meet Pablo Casals as a child in the Catalonian part of Spain, and how he develops his love for the cello. We meet his mother, his family, and ultimately his wife – when they marry, he is 80, she is 21. We watch Casals tour with his cello. We see his directorial work as he creates his own musical group. We learn of Casals and his political influences in Europe, starting in the 1920s, then on into the Spanish revolution in the 1930s, on into World War II and even into the halls of the United Nations, and then into Puerto Rico, where he concludes his time on earth, having been a consummately admired musician.

The suites themselves become characters in a way as Siblin describes the personality of each of the suites. Once intended as mere practice pieces, because of Casals’ recording of them in the 1920s, they became true virtuoso pieces for all cellists. Siblin also delves into the unknown of the pieces. He wonders who the suites were intended for. He asks if they were indeed meant for the cello or for a unique five-stringed instrument of his own devising.

THE CELLO SUITES is interesting, informative, and a good read. Congratulations, Mr. Siblin, on your fine job.