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Guilhermina Suggia: Cellist
by Anita Mercier

ISBN: 978-0-7546-6169-6
Publication Year: 2008 in hardback format
Number of Pages: 165
£50
ASHGATE Publishing
Experience Classicsonline

Any book about an artist like Suggia is a welcome event but this contribution by Anita Mercier is much more than that. This is a loving, respectful tribute to a fabulous musician and fascinating woman, thoughtfully written and expertly put together. Anita Mercier is a member of the Liberal Arts Faculty at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, which she joined in 1995. She is a specialist in political theory and gender studies and was a recipient of the Erskine Prize for Faculty in 2004.

The subject of the book, Guilhermina Suggia (1885-1950), was a Portuguese cellist of great artistry, a virtuoso of the instrument, a woman far ahead of her time and one of the most remarkable soloists of her generation. Her first teacher was her father, Augusto Suggia, who recognised early that his daughter was a prodigy. Suggia gave her first concert at the age of seven and became a member of the distinguished Moreira de Sá String Quartet while still a teenager. During a visit to Lisbon, where she performed, Suggia made a big impression on the then Queen of Portugal, Dona Amélia, who ensured the young cellist was awarded a scholarship. This was to study in Leipzig, with one of the best teachers of the time and a most respected musician: Professor Julius Klengel.

Augusto Suggia was an unusual father for those days if one bears in mind the strict Catholicism of Portugal and the very conservative views regarding women everywhere in Europe. He helped both his daughters pursuing a musical career (her older sister Virgínia was a talented pianist) and most remarkably, he did for Suggia what was then normal practice only for an eldest son: He dedicated his life to further her career. Not only did he allow her to go to Leipzig but he also accompanied her, sacrificing himself and his family, to help the talented Suggia gain the foundations for a solid career as a solo musician. Her debut was with the celebrated Gewandhausorchester, in Leipzig, one year after having initiated her studies there with Klengel. It marked the beginning of a truly international and brilliant career as a cellist. She never looked back.

Suggia's life was no less fascinating than her career. She was unconventional, fiercely independent, determined, dedicated and completely focused. At a time when women were not allowed to play in orchestras; when they were supposed to marry and once married to give up their profession, should they have one at all, Suggia simply refused to follow the norm. She lived out of wedlock, for several years, with celebrated fellow cellist Pablo Casals; she pursued her career with great determination, managing it mostly on her own, negotiating fees, directing promotion and organising her concert schedule. She settled in England, after World War I, as the country was much better suited than Portugal to the kind of career Suggia intended and fully achieved. She did eventually return to her native country when she reached middle age. There, she finally married, at forty, Dr Carteado Mena; a man considerably older than her but well educated, open-minded and who accepted the freedom and independence that Suggia required to continue her career successfully, which indeed she did almost until her death in 1950. The last great public appearance of Suggia's glorious career, at the age of 64, was her performance on 27th August 1949, at the Edinburgh Festival, with the BBC Scottish Orchestra.

It is therefore unfortunate that an artist of such stature and such a fascinating, warm personality should have nearly been forgotten both in England, her adoptive nation, and perhaps even more so in her native Portugal. Partially, however, this may have been Suggia's own fault, as Ms Mercier explains in the book: On the one hand, she kept her personal life very private and chose not to share it; on the other, she was a keen performer who revelled in the thrill of the stage and a live audience. She did not like recording and was never happy with the sound of it. Therefore, precious little survived of her legendary performances. There are a few remastered recordings available and these are listed at the end of the book.

Anita Mercier has managed to write Suggia's biography in a wonderful, fluid style. The book is truly beautiful, both to the eye as well as to the mind. It has a simple, black hardback cover, with a protective jacket that features Suggia's striking portrait, painted by Augustus John (1878-1971). It can still be admired at the Tate Gallery, in London. The paper is of superb quality; it feels simultaneously crispy and smooth to the touch, however the font used is perhaps a little too small. Mostly and foremost, however, this book is lovingly written. It is a treat, a page-turner! I just couldn't put it down once I started reading it. This fact is not solely due to Ms Mercier's accomplished, flawless writing but also to the fascinating personality of the subject and this radiates from the pages like a beacon of light. Mercier obviously conducted thorough, detailed researches, successfully and effectively interchanging the narrative with extracts of newspapers' reviews of Suggia's concerts and letters, as well as letters, articles and accounts by her friends, family and contemporaries. These are all rare documents; not many have survived but Mercier persisted and gained access to documentation archived in Oporto, Suggia's native city.

Ms Mercier intelligently organised the narrative in eight logical chapters, arranged in chronological order, and named after significant stages or facts in the great cellist's life. At the end of the book, Mercier cleverly added three appendixes: the first contains Suggia's own published writings, the second is a list of her concerts, which is impressive even on its own, and finally the obituary, written by Milly B. Stanfield and published in The Strad in September 1950. To complement the narration and description of facts and events, Mercier managed to obtain a remarkable collection of photographs, featuring Suggia with friends, family or fellow artists, as well as a few portraits of the artist and her cello.

I simply loved this book. As a biography, it is definitely one of the best I have ever read, remarkably insightful and beautifully written. This makes it all the more difficult for me to say that I fear it will not sell very well. In spite of the undeniable quality of the book and the fascinating subject, the retail price of £50 for a 165-page hardback is undoubtedly exaggerated and too expensive. Hopefully, Ashgate Publishing will be planning a paperback edition, next year, at a more attractive and affordable price!

Margarida Mota-Bull


 


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