- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 27, 2009

By Eric Siblin
Atlantic Monthly Press, $24, 19 pages

There’s no question that the Bach Suites for unaccompanied cello have a great following: Mstislav Rostropovich chose to play them at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, they comforted mourners at the funerals of Katharine Graham and Ted Kennedy, and now they top the classical music iTunes chart. A performance of the music by cellist Laurence Lesser in Toronto in October 2000 (on the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death), at which Eric Siblin first heard the suites, inspired him to immerse himself in the music and its history.

Mr. Siblin, a Canada-based journalist, has created a sprawling book that is part “how I fell in love with the Bach Suites just after I’d left my job as a pop music reviewer and was open to something new”; part “how I became enthralled with the life of Bach and his large family of immensely talented musicians”; part “how I tracked the musical and political life of Pablo Casals, the Spanish virtuoso cellist who at age 14 discovered a copy of the ‘Cello Suites’ in a bookstall in Barcelona and studied them for 12 years before performing them in public, thereby rescuing them from the obscurity into which they had fallen over the previous two centuries”; and part “how I was convinced that I could find the long-missing original manuscript of the ‘Bach Suites’ but didn’t quite manage it.”

It’s hard to determine the intended audience for the book, which was first published early in 2009 in Canada: is it other classical music neophytes who might be encouraged to attend a classical music concert or to join an amateur musical group (the author, a guitarist, took enough lessons on the cello to discover how difficult the instrument is to play and wisely settled for learning the “Prelude of Suite 1” in an arrangement for guitar; he also sang along in a Bach Weekend choral performance north of Montreal); is it manuscript collectors who will applaud the author’s tenacity in browsing libraries and bookstores looking for missing Bach manuscripts; or is it general readers who will enjoy the colorful biographies of everybody in the enormous Bach family and of Pablo Casals?

Mr. Siblin’s enthusiasm for the chase is unflagging, but the book’s organization is quixotic, as he writes in attempting to explain it:

“The six Cello Suites each contain six movements, starting with a prelude and ending with a gigue. In between are old court dances - an allemande, a courante, and a sarabande - after which Bach inserted a more ‘modern’ dance, either a minuet, a bourree, or a gavotte. In the pages that follow, Bach will occupy the first two or three movements in each suite. The dances that come afterwards are earmarked for Pablo Casals. And the gigues that close each suite will be reserved for a more recent story, that of my search.”

Got that?

In fact, the reader is left to ramble along with only these cutesy guideposts, and the Bach, Casals, and Siblin-research stories don’t clearly relate to the chapter titles (Suite 1, Suite 2, etc.) or the section heads (Prelude, Allemande, etc.). But the author has done a wealth of research in pursuit of his new passion, and he writes engagingly. Who cannot enjoy his explorations of J. S. Bach’s magic through interviews with master cellists like Mischa Maisky, his accounts of a variety of cello recitals, and his visits to the sunny warmth of Casals‘ home in San Salvador, Spain, and Casals‘ final home in Puerto Rico?

Mr. Siblin has done admirable research on Bach’s other music and the compositions of his sons, and has tracked down innumerable music scores and CDs. He comments knowledgeably about whether Casals played the suites too romantically - the manuscript of the “Cello Suites” that Casals found contained no notations on tempo, dynamics, bowing, and the like, and Casals didn’t complete his recording of the entire six suites until half a century after discovering them.

“Like Casals,” the author comments, “other cellists have anguished over their versions, approaching Bach’s masterpiece with reverence and fear. Even the great Rostropovich was reluctant to record the music. Late in his career when he finally plucked up the courage to record all six suites, he explained on the performance video how cautious he’d come to feel. ‘I am now sixty-three years old. … Only twice in my life have I recorded a Bach suite. Forty years ago I recorded the second suite in Moscow … and in 1960 I recorded the fifth suite in New York. In both cases I cannot forgive myself. I acted rashly.’”

Not all Bach lovers love the “Cello Suites.” As Mr. Siblin points out, the fact that no more than two cello strings can generally be bowed at the same time limits how much harmony can be achieved.

“Melody - successive notes strung out in a horizontal timeline - moves straight ahead chronologically. But harmony is a vertical stacking of notes. … So how does Bach accomplish harmony with just one cello? How does he compose for a situation in which he cannot stack the notes vertically and pull off his trademark polyphony? He does it by creating ‘implied harmony.’ He hints at it, suggests it, plants the seed of harmony. He removes as many notes as possible to strip the polyphony down to its bare essentials and let the listener fill in the blanks. He alternates fragments of different lines from different registers and tricks the listener into thinking he or she is hearing more than one line at the same time.”

This intrepid writer has worked hard to interest readers in his musical obsession, and there is a great deal to chew on here.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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