The Cello Suites
by Eric Siblin
Allen & Unwin, 2009
319 pages, paperback
ISBN 978-1-74237-159-7

In 2000, Eric Siblin had just finished working as a pop music critic for The Gazette, a daily newspaper in Montreal, with a limited ability to the play guitar and no real interest in classical music. On a trip to Toronto, he saw a listing for a recital at the Conservatorium and went along without really knowing why he was doing so. The recital featured the Bach Cello Suites. The music and the story behind it - the fact that no autograph manuscript exists - struck a chord (pardon the pun) with Siblin and set him on a eight-year mission which culminated in this book. He became a member of the American Bach Society, journeyed to Leipzig, to the villa of Pablo Casals on the Costa Dorada, listened to the Suites in performance on disc and in recital, and spoke to numerous cellists, including Pieter Wispelwey and Mischa Maisky.

The other main focus of the book is on Pablo Casals, as the cellist who “rediscovered” the Suites and became their ambassador. Siblin tells his story as well, not just the musical side but the political one. Siblin recounts Casal’s passionate devotion to his homeland of Catalonia and the events of the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent Franco regime which Casals despised, and which resulted in his exile.

The chapters in the book are titled after the 36 movements of the Suites, and are “structured” so that each Suite begins with Bach’s story, continues with that of Casals and finishes with a more personal account of Siblin’s journey.

The account of Bach’s life didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but it was a very readable version nonetheless, but I knew little of Casals and his political struggles against the Fascists.

I particularly enjoyed Siblin’s story of joining a group of amateurs on a retreat in rural Canada where they were learning to perform one of Bach’s cantatas. The realisation of how little his functional ability to play the guitar prepared him to sing Bach was amusing and instructive.

As you will have gathered, this is not an in-depth analysis of the Bach Cello Suites from a performance or musicological standpoint. Rather, it is a story and fairly light reading, suitable for a chapter at a time at night. It is the account of one man’s fascination with music, the desire to know more about its composer, the lost manuscripts and the cellist who reintroduced the music to the world. Even if you know much about the lives of Bach and Casals and the Suites also, I do recommend this.

David J Barker