Eric Siblin’s Book Tells of Love Affair with Bach’s Cello Suites

Eric Siblin tells his love-at-first-sight story of meeting Bach's six suites for solo cello(Photo: Atlantic Monthly Press)
Eric Siblin tells his love-at-first-sight story of meeting Bach's six suites for solo cello(Photo: Atlantic Monthly Press)

If you’ve ever seen an opera, you know there are two categories of musical love: there’s love, and then there’s luuuuuv.

In the opera world, the first kind of love, in which two people fall for each other and live happily ever after, gets, to put it mildly, short shrift. Even the Mimi-Rodolfo love affair that in Act I of Puccini’s La Bohème seems so promising ends in tragedy, and the weddings that by convention end comic operas rarely engender the warm fuzzies that willful suspension of disbelief would dictate. 

Luuuuuv and the pathologies behind it are what generate the conflict that sustains most operas; they are the key ingredients in works like Richard Strauss’ Salome, in which love takes on the onyx hue of obsession.

Something akin to obsession (albeit at a great remove from Salome’s creepiness) propells Eric Siblin‘s book The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010). Formerly pop music critic for The Montreal Gazette, Siblin tells his own love-at-first-sight story of meeting Bach’s six monumental suites for solo cello and of his journey to try to find out how this music made him fall for it.

But he also tells how cellist Pablo Casals lovingly coaxed the suites out of oblivion amidst mid-twentieth-century political turmoil and of the suites’ origins in the life and times of their (musically and biologically prolific) composer. The result is a deeply human tale of how Bach’s music lodges itself in the soul and how, once it does, the soul will thirst for it forever.

One could take issue with the book’s originality from an historical standpoint. Siblin’s accounts of the genesis of Bach’s cello suites and Pablo Casals’ resurrection of them have been told before, recorded as they are in musicological studies of this or that aspect of Bach’s life and works and in this or that newspaper account of Casals’ performances of the suites after their nearly two hundred-year dormancy.

But Siblin makes no claims of musicological originality or trained musicianship. Quite the contrary: he candidly declares himself an amateur guitarist and professional journalist (not musicologist) who, shortly after ending his employment as a pop music critic, almost at random attended what was to be a life-changing  concert of the Bach cello suites. Siblin’s description of this chance encounter with Bach’s music nearly pulses with sensuality:

“The first measures unfold with the storytelling power of a master improviser. A journey has begun, but it’s as if composition is taking place on the spot. . . .  After a pause that contemplates the future, the cello resumes with aching soulfulness. Things will not come easily. The notes are murmured, stated with courtly purpose, and blasted through with rapture. We peak higher. A new vista opens up, rhapsodic resolution, the descent a soft landing.”

This is the rhetoric of Monteverdi arias, not of unaccompanied cello suites. What gives?

Siblin’s quest to answer this question – why he found this music so compelling – is the human story that makes the book tick.

It is this quest that leads Siblin to attend a conference of the American Bach Society and to seek out no less than Bach authority and Harvard University musicologist Christoph Wollf to learn more about the master and his music, to study recordings (by Casals and other cellists) of the suites, to interview some of today’s greatest cellists about their experiences with this music, to approach the former principal cellist with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in a Montreal cafe (where the two just happened to land at the same time one day and where Siblin overheard the elderly man talking of his musical career – coincidence?  I think not) and start asking questions, to take cello lessons to try to get some kind of grasp on the demands Bach’s suites make on their performers, to immerse himself in Bach’s counterpoint by singing in the amateur chorus of a Canadian Bach festival.

Something about this music got under Siblin’s skin, and his globetrotting effort to figure it out reminds us deliciously what it’s like to long for intimacy with something whose inner workings elude us. Monteverdi’s Poppea knew all about this, as did, sadly and tragically, Puccini’s Cio-Cio San.

But there’s nothing tragic about Siblin’s story. In fact, if anything, The Cello Suites reaffirms the magic of Bach’s music. In an age in which everything seems to be accompanied by a backbeat and the oracles of doom continue to prophesy the death of classical music, Siblin reminds us why Bach’s cello suites endure: they speak not to their own times but to all time, not just to the courtly milieu in which they were composed but to all the world.

In short, Bach’s cello suites have that ineffable power to feed the spirit, even when the spirit doesn’t know it hungers.

This, my friends, is art. Siblin’s book reminds us that art lives within us.

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