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The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece

by Eric Siblin

The remarkable story of six suites composed for cello by J.S. Bach in the early 1700s, Eric Siblin’s new book is at once a study of music, a work of history, and a passionate tribute.

Siblin, the former pop music critic for the Montreal Gazette, points out that despite their baroque origin, the suites have over time been interpreted, re-interpreted, adapted, and updated by countless musicians for contemporary audiences, thus becoming some of the most recognizable, enduring, and beloved classical music pieces in history. Their composition and popularization, however, remain shrouded in mystery. As an ardent newcomer to the Cello Suites himself, eager to uncover the story behind the celebrated music, Siblin chronicles the suites’ rise to fame.

The story surrounding the Cello Suites involves uncertainties about when and how they were composed, whether they were originally intended for the cello, how much influence Bach’s second wife had on their composition, and what happened to Bach’s original manuscript.

Siblin’s curiosity and passion for his subject is evident throughout, and his method of structuring the story according to the arrangement of the music is inspired: there are six chapters representing the six suites, and each chapter contains six sub-chapters corresponding to the six movements in each suite. By devoting space in each chapter first to J.S. Bach, then to Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (whose relationship to the Cello Suites resembles Glenn Gould’s to The Goldberg Variations), and finally to his own present-day investigation into the story of the suites, Siblin effectively ties together centuries of music history.

Meticulous in his research, as evidenced by copious notes and resources collected over his travels to several European countries, Siblin makes convincing connections and offers possible answers to the questions surrounding the suites. In the process, he sheds considerable light on the lives of Bach and Casals as they negotiated the social, cultural, and political landscapes of, respectively, Germany during the reign of the Holy Roman Empire, and Europe during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.

If Siblin is correct that “Bach is what you make of him,” then The Cello Suites has made him, if possible, yet more legendary.