Meditations on Bach #8: Two Quotes from Pablo Casals

by Peter Saint-Andre


Here are two quotes from the great cellist Pablo Casals, who re-introduced the Bach Cello Suites to the world in the early twentieth century...

For the past eighty years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning for me. It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being. The music is never the same for me, never. Each day it is something new, fantastic and unbelievable. That is Bach, like nature, a miracle! (Joys and Sorrows, p. 17)


My father used to come once a week from Vendrell to visit me. We would go for walks together, sometimes wandering into music shops looking for music scores; and after a few hours he would have to go back home. The repertoire of the ensemble at the Café Pajarera was broader than the Café Tost; I continued my solos, and of course I needed more music. One day I told my father I needed especially to find some new solo music for the Café Pajarera. Together we set off on the search. For two reasons I shall never forget that afternoon. First, my father bought me my first full-sized cello -- how proud I was to have that wonderful instrument! Then we stopped at an old music shop near the harbor. I began browsing through a bundle of musical scores. Suddenly I came upon a sheaf of pages, crumbled and discolored with age. They were unaccompanied suites by Johann Sebastian Bach -- for the cello only! I looked at them with wonder: Six Suites for Violoncello Solo. What magic and mystery, I thought, were hidden in those words? I had never heard of the existence of the suites; nobody -- not even my teachers -- had ever mentioned them to me. I forgot our reason for being at the shop. All I could do was stare at the pages and caress them. That scene has never grown dim. Even today, when I look at the cover of that music, I am back again in the old musty shop with its faint smell of the sea. I hurried home, clutching the suites as if they were crown jewels, and once in my room I pored over them. I read and reread them. I was thirteen at the time, but for the following eighty years the wonder of my discovery has continued to grow on me. Those suites opened up a whole new world. I began playing them with indescribable excitement. They became my most cherished music. I studied and worked at them every day for the next twelve years. Yes, twelve years would elapse and I would be twenty-five before I had the courage to play one of the suites at a public concert. Up until then, no violinist or cellist had ever played one of the Bach suites in its entirety. They would play just a single section -- a Sarabande, a Gavotte or a Minuet. But I played them as a whole: from the Prelude through the five dance movements, with all the repeats that give the wonderful entity and pacing and structure of every movement, the full architecture and artistry. They had been considered academic works, mechanical, without warmth. Imagine that! How could anyone think of them as being cold, when a whole radiance of space and poetry pours forth from them? They are the very essence of Bach, and Bach is the essence of music. (Joys and Sorrows, pp. 46-47)

Peter Saint-Andre > Journal