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The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece Hardcover – February 23, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The ironies of artistic genius and public taste are subtly explored in this winding, entertaining tale of a musical masterpiece. Music critic Siblin parallels short, fluent biographies of composer Johann Sebastian Bach, whose six suites for solo cello were long disparaged as minor student exercises, and cello virtuoso Pablo Casals, whose landmark recording of the pieces catapulted them into the classical canon. Their lives are a study in contrasts: Bach is an obscure workaday musician who feels wasted being merely the cantor of a Lutheran boarding school; Casals, a musical superstar and anti-Fascist exile, is a romantic hero. Siblin intertwines his own story of trying to engage with the suites. He takes cello lessons, savors a rich variety of performances, including one on the marimbas, and embarks on a search for Bach's long-lost manuscript to discover clues to the enigmatic score. (Scholars aren't even certain the suites were written for cello.) Siblin is an insightful writer with an ability to convey the sound and emotional impact of music in words. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* A former pop-music critic, Siblin was transported to the eighteenth century when his imagination was captured by a performance of Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello. He embarked on a journey—part historical, part personal—to discover for himself the music that has remained a pillar of the cello repertoire since Pablo Casals recorded the suites in 1936. Siblin traveled to Leipzig looking for traces of the German composer, and to the Catalonian coast of Spain to trace the steps of the suites’ first modern master. Included in his thorough research are interviews with cellists such as Mischa Maisky and Anner Bylsma, who describe the complexities of the music and the challenges it presents to the soloist. In Siblin’s history of the composer, Bach is far from the stuffy image often applied to classical music; he appears restless, brash, and proud, occasionally landing in jail for upsetting a patron. Siblin’s writing is most inspired when describing the life of Casals, showing a genuine affection for the cellist, who, caught in the throes of the Spanish civil war and World War II, used his instrument and the suites as weapons of protest and pleas for peace. --Elliot Mandel --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 319 pages
  • Publisher: House of Anansi Pr; First Edition edition (February 23, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0887842224
  • ISBN-13: 978-0887842221
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,303,439 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

73 of 79 people found the following review helpful By S. McGee TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover
When Eric Siblin wandered into a classical musical recital one day in Toronto, he was unaware that the music he would hear would transform his life. On the program were the solo suites for cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, and Siblin, a onetime rock/pop music critic, is blown away by a kind of music he had never heard before, consciously, and might never have deliberately sought out.

This book, the chronicle of series of musical and personal journeys of discovery revolving around the Bach cello suites, is the result. It immediately appealed to me because of my own love for the music -- although unlike Siblin, I'm not a musician of any kind and unlike him, 'classical' music has always been a part of my life. But I kept reading because of my own fascination with Siblin's tale and the way he has chosen to tell it: weaving together three separate strands of a narrative in much the same way that Bach might have woven together musical themes to produce the final work. The first of these strands revolves around Bach himself; the composer's background and how the history of his compositions can be tied to his own life and experiences in a variety of German princely courts of the 18th century. The second is the lifelong love affair between the 13-year-old Pablo Casals (a future superstar cellist), who stumbled across the then almost-unknown cello suites in the back streets of Barcelona, and the music that have ended up becoming some of Bach's best-known and most-loved works. (Without Casals, the suites could have languished in obscurity, rarely played; now they are a part of the cello repertoire that most cellists aspire to perform.
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54 of 64 people found the following review helpful By Olly Buxton on September 17, 2010
Format: Hardcover
A philosophy lecturer of mine once remarked that the recently converted make the most passionate fundamentalists. Eric Siblin, a professedly retired rock critic (I'm not sure how one "retires" from a pastime) makes a good example. Stumbling across a performance of Bach's Cello Suites some years ago, Siblin was captivated, converted, and has since leapt into the study and exploration of these narrowly (but profoundly) celebrated pieces with great gusto. (Interestingly, I could find none of Siblin's rock criticism online anywhere. I was curious to see how good it was.)

Being no more familiar than Siblin was with the Cello Suites, I bought myself a recording (Pierre Fournier's) and had it on high rotation while I read. For fellow neophytes, then, these are pieces for an unaccompanied tenor instrument that itself usually (but not always) fulfills the role of an accompaniment to a "treble" instrument like a violin. Bach's six Cello Suites span a couple of hours, and you'd be forgiven for supposing that it would be, therefore, a challenging listen. First go-round, for a non-enthusiast, it is. I must say, though, that having listened to it repeatedly over a week I find it bouncing uncontrollably - and pleasingly - around my head all day. But all the same, I don't think I'm ready to jettison Led Zeppelin just yet. There again, I'm not really the converting type.

At any rate, on account of their inaccessibility the Cello Suites were commonly supposed, for a long while, to be simply rehearsal exercises. Which is where Siblin picks up the story.
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47 of 55 people found the following review helpful By tova on April 21, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This book is a wonderfully crafted combination of biography, history, musicology, detective story and personal discovery. Like the Suites themselves, it has a variety of themes and moods which in the end all fit together in a most satisfying way to connect the stories of Bach, Casals and the writer's passion for the music.

It's neither a heavy tome nor a heavy read but it is nourishing entertainment
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Reader on May 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Pablo Casals, the great Catalan cellist, happened to purchase a second-hand copy of the 1866 edition of the Bach cello suites (edited by the great Leipzig cellist Friedrich Wilhelm Grutzmacher, who died in 1903) in a bookstore in Barcelona in 1890. There are three 18th century original manuscripts of the Bach cello suites, none of them in Bach's handwriting but all three are contemporaneous with Bach. At least one of them was copied out by Bach's wife, not surprising since she was his copyist. While the title of this book is "the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece," in fact no one was searching for the cello suites, which had never been lost (there are actually fifty-some editions of these suites). Casals did not "search" for the suites, nor did he "find" them. Perhaps in order to plump up some mystery issue to keep readers turning the page, the author does not make this clear until you are far into the book. I found this annoying, as if the author didn't trust the reader to decide that the intertwined lives of Bach and Casals would be interesting enough to hold your attention. In fact, the book has a wealth of interesting details about Bach's life and personality and brings Casals deservedly back into the public eye. Unfortunately, the author's description of the suites themselves is long on descriptive adjectives but short on actual musical interpretation or understanding. The cellist Walter Joachim understandably told the author to learn the cello if he really wanted to understand the cello suites; what he really meant was "try to understand something about classical music." It's admirable that a pop critic became a fan of this music but this quote sums up his lack of basic musical knowledge: "Bach implies harmony.... He hints at it, suggests it, plants the seed of harmony." (p. 56). Clearly some basic music analytical skills are lacking here. In any event, worth reading for the stories of two great men and their times.
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