Eric Siblin on his writing process

Reading Eric Siblin’s The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, I found myself very curious about Eric’s writing process.  (My review of the book is below.) I’ve struggled with writing my own book, on improvisation and creativity and playing classical music.  It seems to want to be several books, none of them quite long enough to warrant it’s own volume.  Eric’s book combines four different stories and he found an organizational structure which enabled him to combine them.  He very kindly agreed to answer some questions via email.  Our correspondence (published with his permission, of course) is below.

Q. Do you see a parallel between Casals’s personal discovery of the Suites as a teenager and your own discovery of them in adulthood? Is that why you focus on Casals rather than, say, Yo-Yo Ma, whose own career has been so involved with the Suites?

A. I never thought of it along those lines. But the theme of discovery certainly ran through my mind on a regular basis while writing the book. And there was a magical moment in my research when I stumbled upon a Grutzmacher edition of the suites in a second-hand music shop called “Prelude” in Brussels and experienced a sort of Casalsian déjà-vu. Because the first historical scene that came to mind when I set out to write the book was a young Casals strolling in the old port district of Barcelona in 1890 when he stumbled upon the music (also a Grutzmacher edition) my own “discovery” of the sheet music had a wonderful sense of coming full circle, of actually stepping into a “prelude” I had always imagined.

Why did I focus on Casals and not on, say, Ma, Rostropovitch, Starker or Bylsma? In my initial attempt to figure out what makes this music tick I of course read up on Casals and was struck by how dramatic his life was from a storytelling point of view. I also have a deep interest in history, which is one of the things that appealed to me about classical music – it has such an eloquent past. In that sense it’s the polar opposite of the Top 40 pop world, which tends to be very much about the here and now.

Fundamentally my book is an attempt to tell a story based on a piece of music and for that purpose Casals was a terrific narrative thread. I quickly came to feel that his life was a compelling 20th century counterpoint to the story of Bach, who was born back in 1685 and whose life is shrouded in so much mystery.

Q. You are, among many other things, a music writer.  You love the Suites, but in the book you don’t write much about the music itself.  You focus on the life of the Suites (and the manuscripts) and the lives they’ve changed.  How did this focus–including the choice not to write much about the music itself, or comparing recordings, come about?

A. The main reason why the book does not spend more time delving into the music in purely musical terms is that I simply don’t possess the necessary technical know-how or vocabulary. I have no literate music background; although I play guitar, I have always played by ear (or with “guitar tablature”). I learned how to read the bass clef in a rudimentary way when I took cello lessons during the writing of the book, but otherwise I’m quite illiterate musically, certainly in the classical sense.

But there is another reason why there’s not more musicological material in the book. I was writing for the general reader, perhaps the music lover, but not necessarily a classical music expert, and wanted to keep the narrative ball moving. I tried as best I could to get the facts right, but my primary allegiance was to story line.

That said, I also wanted to embed the music in the text as much as possible, hence my organization of the chapters according to the suite movements; and whenever I could speak to the music itself in human terms I tried to do so. I also began every suite with a descriptive passage about what the music sounds like to me (in non musicological terms).  And whenever something strictly musical jumped out at me, I tried to use it. For example, when 20 seconds into the gigue of Suite No. 3 I hear the riffing of a rock guitarist, I write about it. Or when the prelude of the fourth suite suddenly goes off on an exotic tangent, I play with it. That fourth prelude is also an example of my decision not to use overly technical musical language even when I was able to. At some point I learned that that exotic passage in that prelude is called a cadenza. I was tempted to show off my new knowledge. But I figured my average reader would not know what a cadenza means, so I resisted the temptation.

Q. This book is obviously the product of a lot of research and reflection.  Organizing the different stories you tell–Bach’s life, Casals’s life (especially with the Suites), the missing autograph manuscript, and your own–into one book was quite a challenge.  How did the form of the book evolve?  What role did your editor(s) and informal advisers (like friends) play?

A. Very early on I had the idea to mirror the structure of the music in the text itself.  I liked the idea for several reasons, because it was a way of injecting the music directly into the book and, on a more superficial level, using the lyrical names of movements like sarabande and gavotte as chapter titles.  It also served as a sort of narrative GPS for me in the writing of the book. Having never written a book before it was a daunting project. But knowing there would be an extremely effervescent third prelude following the sad second suite, to take one example, helped me see the narrative light at the end of the tunnel. Take the prelude of the second suite. It sounds sufficiently tragic to me that as I started to follow Bach’s life it seemed clear that the biographical event most likely to dovetail the music at that point in time was the death of his wife.

But there was a downside to this attempt at following the music, which was that I was trying to fit the narrative pieces into a vast musical mosaic, trying to make the story melancholic when the music suggested as much, and so on. I pulled my hair out a fair bit over this. Ultimately I relaxed the symmetry in order to complete the book. And when a publisher accepted the finished manuscript that’s one of the things my editor focused on – urging me to relax this overly rigid attempt to make the words mirror the music. There were even discussions about whether I should drop the musical structure of the book altogether. At one point I did drop the preludes and gigues etc. from the text in order to focus on narrative flow. But I knew I would put that structure back in so I never lost sight of the musical template. It became less of a straitjacket in the editing process.

Otherwise the book evolved in a quite an organic way that reflected my own research. I tended to research it one suite at a time, writing it more or less one suite at a time, so that when I made to Suite No. 5, for example, I was consumed with finding out what the relation of the lute suite to the cello suite is (Bach composed a version of the first cello suite for lute – BWV995); who this mysterious Monsieur Schouster might have been (dedicatee of the lute suite); which led me to what was going on in Saxony and the capital of Dresden in Bach’s day; the mind-blowingly minimalist sarabande of that suite; the solo cello works of  the Italian cellist Gabrielli; and the notion that Bach’s music can be played with artistic impunity if not total charm on absolutely any instrument. So the music itself very much guided me and spurred me on.

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