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Eric Siblin’s ‘Cello Odyssey

Eric Siblin, The Cello Suites: J S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, © 2010, ISBN 978-0-8021-1929-2, Pp. 320, $24.00.

Eric Siblin had his “Aha! moment” and his introduction to classical music simultaneously when he attended, out of curiosity, a performance in Toronto by cellist Laurence Lesser, retired president of Boston’s New England Conservatory, of the 6 Suites for Solo Cello by J. S. Bach in October 2000, the 250th anniversary year of the composer’s death. The experience moved him, a former pop music critic for the Montreal Gazette, to use his investigative journalism skills to seek and learn as much as he could about the music, its composer, its re-discoverer, greatest proponent, and 1st recorder (though not in a single session, or even year), Catalan cellist Pau Casals, all in their geographical and historical contexts, traveling to many of the places they knew. So the book, his 1st, is a double biography.

He learned that there are mysteries to be solved concerning the music itself, so became a detective, but did not solve all of them. The original manuscript of the Suites is lost, and Siblin did not find it; the closest to it is a copy made by Anna Magdalena Bach. The date(s) of composition is/are uncertain, but there are internal and external clues; the 6 were probably not all composed at the same time. There is a suite for lute that is identical to the 5th, so Siblin tracked down the original manuscript of it, and purchased a facsimile. It has a dedicatee, about whom he had to learn what he could, because it is not someone closely associated with Bach, and his identity had not been satisfactorily determined. The 6th is written for a 5-stringed instrument (the cello has 4); it is not certain which one or why. There are thus ‘Whodunit?’, ‘Where is it?’, and ‘How come?’ aspects to the work that presents the fruits of a scholarly research project.

He also embarked on a personal journey, beginning to learn to play the cello in order to more fully understand its impact on Casals, other cellists, listeners, and himself, locating an exercise book called Bach for the ‘Cello, and learning a few pieces in it. He ultimately learned to play the prelude of the 1st suite, having found an exercise book with it written in tablature, on his own instrument, the guitar, although he had previously played only rock music. He also participated in a Bach Weekend choral retreat at the Canadian Amateur Music Center on Lake MacDonald, in the Laurentians NW of Montréal. He met by coincidence and befriended Walter Joachim, retired principal cellist of the Montréal Symphony Orchestra, a Jew who had fled the Nazis, near the end of his life. Anti-Semitism was rampant in Bach’s time, too, and this is examined. The book is thus also part memoir.

One senses that Siblin was not only interested in the story, but consumed by an insatiable thirst not only to know but to comprehend. The thirst became a passion and an obsession. He bought recordings, and explored all the various adaptations, such as Walter/Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, the Swingle Singers, who did some movements, and Jacques Loussier, and transcriptions for piano by Schumann (who added piano parts for all 6) and Godowsky (who transcribed Nos. 2, 3, and 5). He bought scores. He understands that, if you are truly committed, you have to follow your interest and your dream as far as you can, and conveys that drive. Regular readers will understand why this book appealed enormously to this writer because of all of these aspects!

The pages are jam-packed with information, carefully researched and documented in end notes (and a few notes at the bottom of some pages), supported by a bibliography and an index. But it is all distilled and communicated in an engaging manner into a text that pulls the reader in and takes her/him along as well as informing. The writing style is familiar, colloquial, not dry and erudite, yet the erudition is there. There is an occasional repetition of facts from an earlier section that annoys, as if Siblin assumed his readers would not remember them; or perhaps this occurred because, like the cello suites, the various sections and pieces of the 3 narratives were written at different times and assembled later?

The structure and layout of the book also help keep it from being dryly linear. Siblin divides his text into 6 chapters entitled “Suite No. X,” each subdivided into 6 sections with the titles of the actual movements of the corresponding cello suite, thus keeping the music in the forefront of the reader’s mind. Generally, though not always, the opening section, always “Prelude,” and the closing one, always “Gigue,” deal with Siblin’s personal quest. The 4 remaining sections are generally split into pairs, the 1st devoted to Bach, his family, acquaintances, other contemporary musicians, and related contemporary issues, and the 2nd devoted to Casals and his contemporaries and times. It sounds artificial, and in a way it is, but it works because it follows all 3 stories chronologically and interweaves them into a web-like fabric, while the shifting among the threads holds the reader’s interest and moves all 3 forward simultaneously. Each “Suite” is preceded by a colored title page, the recto featuring a brief musical figure, 3 or 4 notes, and the verso, a reproduction of the 1st page of the corresponding cello suite from the Anna Magdalena manuscript (p. 248), the 1866 Grützmacher edition of which Casals found in 1890 in a side-street used sheet music shop when he was 13. Siblin found his copy of that edition equally fortuitously in Brussels in 2006, in a similar store, named Prelude, which also sells vinyl recordings and books.

A few details need to be cleaned up before a 2nd printing or edition. For example, the confusion over the location of the American Bach Society conference at Rutgers University (in New Brunswick, NJ), with an un-mentioned organized side trip to Princeton, frequently mentioned in later paragraphs, needs to be clarified in the opening chapter, where it unnecessarily disconcerts early on and makes one wonder about the accuracy of what is to follow. A note refers to the 2nd Sonata for solo violin in d (the key of Suite No. 2) when ‘Partita’ is meant. Another refers to an epigraph other than the one printed, whose source is not given, and the quote that is the subject of the note is in the text, not the epigraph. The use of different spellings of Rein(c)ken needs to be eliminated in the text (p. 58), where they occur 2 lines apart, and explained in a note.

One subject Siblin discusses concerning Bach is his interest in numerology. On page 220, he says that the numerical equivalent of J. S. Bach is 41, and on page 231, he says that of Bach is 14. The latter is correct to a point, but in the Pythagorean system with which I am familiar, all such numbers should be reduced by adding together the digits to produce a number between 1 and 9, so Bach is 5; J. S. Bach should be 16, reduced to 7. If he is referencing a different system, he needs to say so and explain it. If “Bach left no will” (p. 232), then he did not leave (p. 234) or “bequeath” (p. 235) anything to Johann Christian or any other of his sons; what they inherited was what the authorities and an executor gave to them. Careful editing and/or proofreading should have caught these blemishes in an otherwise truly fine work.

© 2009 Marvin J. Ward

Note: This review originally appeared in and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.

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