(I never knew when I started a blog that someday I’d start receiving review copies, just as if I was a print journalist. So full disclosure to all five or six of you who read me: Grove/Atlantic sent me a free copy of this book.)
You’re ready for something new in your life, decide to go to a concert of something you’ve never heard before, and fall in love. That’s what happened to Eric Siblin, a writer who had recently ended a stint as a pop music critic for the Montreal Gazette. The concert was Larry Lesser playing Bach cello suites. With that cellist and this extraordinary music, no wonder he became enraptured.
And, obviously, more than a little obsessed. I’ve been reading Eric’s award-winning book The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, the American edition of which is just being released. It’s three or four books, or at least stories, in one. There’s the tale of Eric’s deepening interest in the suites and his quest to learn as much as possible about them; the story of how Pablo Casals brought them into concert life; a fine synopsis of the life of J.S. Bach and the research about where and when the suites were written; and the history of the extant manuscripts (none of which, to the eternal dismay of cellists and musicologists, are in Bach’s hand). Eric’s a great storyteller, and each of the narratives (including his encounters with various cellists, including Mischa Maisky) is fascinating.
He organizes the book into six sections totalling thirty-six chapters, one for each movement of the suites. Each “suite” in the book starts with “movements” discussing Bach, then Casals, and finally Eric’s journey. I found this particular method of organization a bit confusing; on the other hand, if you’re less interested in thread than the others, after a few pages the subject changes. Eric had a huge amount of material to deal with, and from the reviews I’ve read, this way of handling it works quite well for most readers.
The book’s written for a general audience; there’s no musical analysis and surprisingly little description of the music itself (which, since music is so hard to describe in words, is perhaps one of the book’s strengths; on the other hand, I love metaphorical descriptions of music, and would have enjoyed reading more of Eric’s reactions to specific movements). I knew a good bit about Casals, having read and reread Joys and Sorrows many times as a teenager, but there was much here I didn’t know. The book brings together the musicological research on the history of the manuscripts quite well, and manages to make it not just interesting but fascinating. (Most musicologists seem dedicated to the quest to make sure that even the most fascinating information is presented in as mind-numbingly boring a manner as possible.)
The passion that comes through is inspiring. I love the suites, but recently I hadn’t been playing them much as part of what you might call my recreational music life. Like most college cello professors, I practice pieces I’m going to perform, look through music my students are working on, prepare classes, read and write endless streams of email, teach, go to meetings, etc., all with not enough time to get everything done. Perhaps the thing I love most about this book is that it got me to set aside time to play Bach–for myself.
That, in and of itself, would be enough reason to buy the book (which, by the way, I see Amazon has heavily discounted). If you’re looking for musical analysis, or detailed comparisons of recordings, and if you are thoroughly up to date on the history of the manuscripts and the lives of Bach and Casals, you won’t find much you don’t already know (although Eric’s story may still be of interest). Most amateur cellists and even many professionals will find much new in this book, as I did, and will connect with the love for the suites Eric communicates so well.
Hey, I’d buy myself one or put it on my Christmas list if I hadn’t received a free copy.