J. S. Bach: Suite No. 1 in G major

In 1890, a 13-year-old boy named Pau was browsing a used music store in Barcelona.  He came upon a collection of unaccompanied works for cello, written by a Baroque composer (or possibly his second wife), that had been forgotten and set aside for 150 years or so.  I like to imagine that he understood the severity of the composition the moment he laid eyes on it, like an Indiana Jones sort of moment.

That boy grew to become one of the finest cellists the world has ever seen.  And the piece found on that day was not to be recorded by the artist until 47 years later.  It has been said that Pau "Pablo" Casals would perform these suites daily so as to cleanse and purify the house, as he considered them to be holy works of art.  This contrasted with the prolific opinion of the suites by his contemporaries who regarded it as mere studies and exercises, not to be performed but to refine musicianship like a whetstone on steel.

Sr. Casals saw it differently.

Between 1936 and 1939, Casals recorded what has since become the definitive interpretation of the work and redefined the cultural value bestowed upon Bach's work.  The interesting thing is that there is no autographed manuscript of the work.  What that means is that we don't really know what Bach intended these pieces to sound like.  This may seem odd, but the style of music notation we use is not a perfect system.  It is essentially a bare-bones guideline for how a piece might sound, but depending on the detail given by the author a lot is placed upon the performer to dictate and apply rational musical ideas to the written music.

Think of it this way- what does a duck sound like?  Does it really say quack?

Quack is an oral, man-made approximation of a sound made by a duck.  Despite popular belief, most ducks cannot spell, but humans require a way to express to each other ideas and beliefs that are based on the natural realities that surround us, and to do that we have to use approximations.  This has often led to great injustice and suffering merely for the sake of misunderstanding.  I quote Douglas Adams (it's a bit long I'm afraid):
It is of course well known that careless talk costs lives, but the full scale of the problem is not always appreciated.
For instance, at the very moment that Arthur said, "I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my life-style," a freak wormhole  opened up in the fabric of the space-time continuum and carried his words far far back in time across almost infinite reaches of space to a distant Galaxy where strange and warlike beings were poised on the brink of frightful interstellar battle.
The two opposing leaders were meeting for the last time.
A dreadful silence fell across the conference table as the commander of the Vl'hurgs, resplendent in his black jeweled battle shorts, gazed levelly at the G'Gugvuntt leader squatting opposite him in a cloud of green sweet-smelling steam, and, with a million sleek and horribly beweaponed star cruisers poised to unleash electric death at his single word of command, challenged the vile creature to take back what it had said about his mother.
The creature stirred in his sickly broiling vapor, and at that very moment the words "I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my life-style" drifted across the conference table.
Unfortunately, in the Vl'hurg tongue this was the most dreadful insult imaginable, and there was nothing for it but to wage terrible war for centuries.
Eventually, of course, after their Galaxy had been decimated over a few thousand years, it was realized that the whole thing had been a ghastly mistake, and so the two opposing battle fleets settled their few remaining differences in order to launch a joint attack on our own Galaxy -- now positively identified as the source of the offending remark.
For thousands more years, the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came  cross -- which happened to be the Earth -- where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.
Those who study the complex interplay of cause and effect in the history of the Universe say that this sort of thing is going on all the time, but that we are powerless to prevent it.
"It's just life," they say.

So, music, being an approximation of sound imagined by the author, is often left in the more or less capable hands of the performer to interpret and reproduce at will.  Being that Bach left no indications for slurs or phrasing, most cellists and music people alike dismissed these suites as serious works.  Casals, however, was able to discern more and found an intricate, spell-binding beauty within.  He formed phrases and slurs over notes that had none, and found remarkably agile ways to cope with the technical challenges laid out by Bach.

It was later found that Bach's wife, Anna Magdalena, had produced a hand written copy of several of the suites that included slurs that corresponded to much of the harmonic progression and therefore supported a valid interpretation of the works.  There have been many editions set out on the works, for several instruments beyond the cello.  Being that very little literature exists for solo trombone prior to the 19th century, cello literature is often pillaged to supplement the void and the suites have become a sort of "holy grail" for trombonists.

And through it all, there is Casal's interpretation and vision of the work.  It has secured a place in the annals of musicology as a momentous and memorable exploration of something beautiful and beyond the ordinary.  Something that was nearly forgotten, before a young man salvaged it from terminal obscurity.

Sadly, the recordings of Casals are not the best quality.  Despite this, much can be learned from listening.


See you next Friday.


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The Library of Congress