Subtitled, "J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece," The Cello Suites carries off well what's famously difficult to do: write 300-plus pages about music, engagingly, for an intelligent lay audience. Check it out!
Siblin wrote rock concert reviews for the Montreal Gazette and happened to catch the cellist Laurence Lesser play Bach cello suites in 2000, 250 years after Bach's death. Siblin said he was listening to someone he'd never heard of play music he "knew nothing about." But he was tremendously moved by the music, did plenty of top-notch research and wrote this, his first book. I found it a refreshing middle ground between gushing Bach-worship writing and overly musicological and technical Bach writing, of which there is no end. Siblin incorporates Bach's history, the mysteries of his archives, scattered among his surviving sons, the original manuscript of the profound six Cello Suites in Bach's hand still missing and probably lost forever due to the ink he used; there's also a parallel history of Pablo Casals, who resurrected the Suites and lived 96 years, through exile from Franco's Spain. Prior to Casals's championing the Suites, they were thought of as overly-mathematical "exercises" for the cello, which, I confess, I still find difficult to understand.
I probably heard someone playing the Prelude from the G major Suite on radio KUSC in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, and thought it transcendent. I bought the music and read the bass clef as if it was written in treble and worked out, measure by measure, the fingerings for my Stratocaster. To this day I am stunned by every single measure in all 36 sections of the six Suites: given the economy of the cello, the voice-leading, melodic invention, thematic development, range of emotional register, and sheer bravura in even the slow movements - I make hundreds of mistakes; these pieces are deceptively difficult and yet a source of never-ending joy to even attempt to play! - seems like a miracle to me. Siblin, who plays guitar, writes about learning the G major Prelude with a tone of wonderment that hits home with me, and resonates with the experiences of my fellow rock guitarists who've tried to take on Bach.
Siblin does something I never tried: he takes cello lessons! For awhile. Hat's off to him for even trying!
What a delightful book; his love for the Cello Suites is infectious and the reader will probably feel a strong need to watch some of the Suites played live on You Tube, or even go out and buy one of the very many versions. I own Yo Yo Ma's version, but have listened to many from the library, and Rostropovich really floored me, I recall. Siblin tells us that Janos Starker probably holds the record with five different recordings of the Suites. Because the source was Anna Magdalena's copy and she didn't know bowing techniques or dynamics for the cello (or an arcane five-string cello-like thing that Bach may have written the Suites for, just one of many Siblin relates), so, as Siblin writes, "The Cello Suites are a blank slate, a Rorschach test that allow cellists to put their own stamp on Bach and interpret the music as they see fit - or as they think Bach would have wanted his music played."
I felt a twinge of vindication when Siblin noted how, early in the Gigue from the 3rd Suite, there's a section that could've been written by Jimmy Page: "It is a bold, churning phrase that would not be out of place on a Gibson Les Paul wielded by, say, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Bach's audience, two centuries before the electric guitar was invented, could not have heard the notes in remotely the same way. Historical faithfulness has its limits."
In this, Siblin makes the case that those who insist Bach only be played on "period" instruments to ensure "authenticity" have their place, but their viewpoint is by no means the "one true correct one." On the contrary, Siblin seems the ecumenical Bach listener, and enjoys (or notes with amusement) versions of Bach played on xylophone, or African salsa-style Bach. He mentions Procul Harem and Walter/Wendy Carlos....and Glenn Gould, who actually liked the Swingle Sisters' early 1960s 8-voice chorus, and who had two best-sellers, singing Bach (Bach's Greatest Hits and Going Baroque), swinging the 8th notes. Siblin tells us the Swingle Singers covered some of the cello Suites, which I really must go out of my way to hear now. Glenn Gould is quoted about the Swingles, "When I first heard them I felt like lying on the floor and kicking my heels, that's how good I thought they were."
In addition to Zeppelinesque metal, Siblin hears in Bach's solo Cello Suites: jazz-funk riffs, a country fiddler in a beer hall cranking out tunes, sudden explosions of seemingly impossible polyphony on a four-stringed instrument in which chords must be arpeggiated, sections of almost Philip Glass-ian proto-minimalism, and the doleful expression of deep sorrow of death, probably of his first wife Maria Barbara. There are wonderful stretches of phenomenological-impressionistic observations about the listening of music that I found impressive in Siblin's writing, amid the discussions of Bach's lifelong quest to find a better-paying job, Casals rising to become a world leader in the peace movement in the 20th century, and the peccadilloes of backwater German royalty, among other things.
The ecumenical Siblin: "When I hear violinist Lara St. John play the solo violin works to the rhythms of the tabla, I can't help but want to hear the Cello Suites in a similar setting. 'MarimBach,' Bach To Africa, and Jacques Loussier all turn my crank a great deal."
A formal device that Siblin used I found delightful: he writes six basic chapters, one for each Suite, and divides those chapters up by starting with an epigraph of quotes about each of the formal dance-movements Bach used, for example: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuet, Gavotte, and Gigue. Examples: for the Sarabande section of Suite number four, we get a quote from James Talbot in 1690 regarding the character of a Sarabande: "Apt to move the Passions and to disturb the tranquility of the Mind." Jules Ecorcheville on a Courante: "The transformations of the courante might be compared to the frolicking of a fish who plunges, disappears, and returns again to the surface of the water." Dimitri Markevitch says of the Gigue: "Produces an almost satanic effect with its repetitions of similar motifs." (And yet I see no parental warning stickers on the CD for Matt Haimovitz's version of the six solo Cello Suites. Did the God Squad mess up?)
Going back to the Prelude of the first Suite, Siblin gives his impression of the feeling of movement at the beginning, then notes that Robert Johnson, the seminal blues guitarist, seems to share something with the beginning of this Prelude, and that Bach's broken chords could power a rock anthem, and once again he cites Led Zeppelin. I wish I could have explained to Siblin that, indeed: those first chords that Bach uses (you've all heard them: see/hear below) ARE the basis of blues and rock: they're the I-IV-V progression that forms almost all blues tunes and exerted a tremendous influence on rock and roll. Here: this progression seems to be in the musical DNA of every Western listener; we get it like mother's milk. Pause the recording after the third broken chord, then notice that you expect a return to the main chord, and indeed, Bach provides it before going off in a long strandentwining unfurling of seemingly foreordained and perpetually mobile pumping out of 16ths notes, before finally ending with an incredible build-up, climax, and gesticulated G major chord. (Bach had 20 children.)
through the G major Prelude
All in all, Siblin's book has a catchy melody and a rhythm I can dance to - like a Gigue that "ends in an atmosphere of optimism and cheerfulness," as Dimitri Markevitch said - and I give it a ten...or a 14, which is "Bach"'s value in gematria, and 14 was the number of fugues based on a single theme that Bach was writing when he died.
The Cello Suites seems an underrated book to me.