The Cello Suites

Eric Siblin's cleverly dovetailed and enticingly readable investigative account of the famous rediscovery of J. S. Bach's masterful scores for solo cello, at the hands of Pablo Casals in the late nineteenth century, and their subsequent elevation to the consensual apex of musical beauty, puts paid to the quip (supposedly first made by comedian Martin Mull) that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture."  The image of misguided critical futility inherent in Mull's comparison has no place with a writer like Siblin, who can charmingly and empathetically convey the sweet sounds of a live performance through the medium of black marks on a white page—which, ironically, is exactly how Bach's music was first conceived, transcribed and precariously transmitted down the centuries. 


Consider this one description out of many:

The Promethean intro quickly takes on human dimensions, adjusting the volume from thunder to whisper, then back again.  It is a prelude of celebration and nostalgia—a sublime summing up that eventually moves higher, ever reaching, venturing so far that an additional string is required, finally achieving its summit in a frenzied dance of notes that is ultimately a journey back home.
But such lyrical interpretations of the wonder of Bach's music are not even Siblin's main thrust.  He braids his own experiences with the musical voyages of Bach and Casals into a portrait of the wild confluence of creativity, politics, ambition, and fate that mark the astonishing life of the six Cello Suites.


Siblin ingenuously recounts his personal journey from pop maven to Bach fan and amateur performer with humor and insightful self-awareness.  With an outsider's perspective, he has much to say about how classical music is torpidly presented and consequently undervalued in today's determinedly superficial cultural landscape.  In his assessment of the continuing—dare one say "eternal"?—value of Bach's Cello Suites, he recalls such philosophers as Alain de Botton and de Botton's thesis that the creations of artists of Proust's caliber—or Bach's—can anchor a meaningful life amidst twenty-first-century chaos and flux.


Siblin truly shines in his vivid historical investigations. While this book cannot be a substitute for full-scale biographies of either Bach or Casals, it does succeed in conjuring up each man and his milieu in sufficient depth and detail to convey the tremors, frustrations and joys of artistic creation, and how a work of art can forge a bridge across an ocean of time.  Bach's relatively short and understated, humble life of dedicated creativity amidst domestic mundanity is contrasted with Casal's longevity and more tempestuous span of fame and celebrity and global wandering.  But the allied spirits of each man, subsumed by the music of the demanding Cello Suites, are revealed as harmonious and cut from the same cloth.  Parallels between the tumultuous public events of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries are teased out in subtle fashion.


One would be tempted to call this book perfect, save for one flaw:  not a single mention of Bach's most eccentric son, P. D. Q.



The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo's column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.



July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

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