Described as “part biography, part music history, and part literary mystery,” The Cello Suites weaves together three narratives: the disappearance of Bach’s cello suites in the eighteenth century, Pablo Casals’s discovery and popularization of the music, and author Eric Siblin’s quest for the truth behind the suites today. Mr. Siblin graciously agreed to an interview, and we spent over an hour discussing his book, the music, and the beauty of the cello.
LG: I was fascinated by the Walter Joachim story. That was one of my favorite parts of the book. It was just timed so perfectly, and it seemed incredible to run into somebody with that kind of personal history. I was really curious about how that acquaintance went, how long it lasted, and what it was like to run into someone with his background.
ES: Walter seemed like the music fleshed out before my very eyes. It was wonderful to stumble upon him. When I heard about his story I was just amazed and spellbound that somebody living a few blocks from where I was living had such a profound connection to the music, and somebody who I was crossing paths with every week, but not knowing, had turned out to be such an embodiment of the music. It was just delightful to get to know him.
Unfortunately it happened late in his life. I think I met him in October and I think by Christmas he had passed away. So I didn’t get that much time to hang out with Walter, but I would regularly bump into him on the streets, the main street that he lived on, Monkland Avenue, and I would walk with him either to the cafe and have lunch with him, or escort him (because he walked with a certain amount of frailty) back to his high-rise apartment, and started to do some interviews with him as well with a tape recorder, but had only gotten up I think to 1938 or something, when he passed away. It was fairly short-lived my encounter with Walter, but it was really pivotal for the writing of the book because firstly, it just spurred me on and got me quite enthusiastic, and secondly, Walter urged me to take up the cello, so that also gave the idea of the book a shot in the arm.
LG: Yes, the timing seemed really fortuitous.
ES: Yeah, so it was wonderful timing and terrific to meet him at that stage. It was perfect to meet him period. He had a real joie de vivre, and he was a great raconteur who would regale me with stories of music history, his own life story, which was fascinating, and music gossip, cellist gossip. It was great. And he was right, by trying to pick up the cello, in a really rudimentary way, it was also gave me insight into the music and helped me, and helped the book get written, I think. I never sat down at the outset and thought, okay, what solid ground do I have to cover in order to turn this into a book? What activities can I do to make it readable? It was really an organic process that stemmed from own genuine curiosity.
I was really trying to connect-the-dots that comprised the music, and often it was by happenstance. The case with Walter, was one. There were other times. I was in Europe once doing other work and I would inevitably look around to see if there were other connections where I happened to be to the Cello Suites. Sure enough, often something would pop up.
For example, I was in Brussels a few times, and I would not otherwise think of going to Brussels to research the Cello Suites, but I was there for other work reasons and I would look around, and Brussels produced a few different scenes that made their way into the book. One, the first cellist I interviewed was living not far from Brussels in Belgium, Mischa Maisky, and I interviewed him. Then it turned out when I was researching Cello Suite No. 6 and grappling with the sort of mystery of the five-stringed instrument in Cello Suite No. 6, I learned of this fellow Dmitry Badiarov, a Russian immigrant luthier who was building violoncello piccolos, and had strong opinions about Cello Suite No. 6. In fact all the Cello Suites from his point of view were written for the violoncello piccolo. So I got to go hear him play and interview him. On another occasion I wandered into this store where I found a business card advertising a store called Prelude. Following my nose I had to go there. That was another serendipitous happening.
LG: Did you ever have imagine walking into some unusual little store and finding the actual Cello Suites?
ES: Oh, I suppose you could file that under fantasy. I’m not sure that I ever expected it to happen, but kind of operating at the fantasy level, I think when I felt it most vividly was when I was in the little shop called Prelude. I certainly didn’t set out to go to that shop with the idea of finding anything. But I had that sort of magical feeling that you’re sort of stepping into your own fantasy in a way and your own book where a 13-year-old Pablo Casals stumbles upon the Gruetzmacher edition in Barcelona in a second-hand bookshop. You know how that scene was so pivotal I think for Pablo Casals, for the history of the music, and in my case for imagining there was a story in the music. Here I was at sort of the end of my journey, kind of walking into, literally, a prelude of my own imagination. That was a really neat feeling. I can’t say that I seriously expected to personally find the manuscript. To do that, I think you would have to be rooting in castles and be very familiar with German history.
LG: And with the war, so much got damaged.
ES: Yeah. People do look for Bach compositions and things do turn up fairly regularly, but I never seriously thought that I would be the one to unearth it, beyond daydreaming. I did think that well, if somebody else found it while I was writing the book, that would have been interesting.
LG: While doing the research you said that you were often there on other trips, so was the book a sideline project you were working on while you were living your regular life and doing your regular day job?
ES: Yes, very much so. For most of the time I was a freelance magazine writer and an independent documentary film maker, during that period. It began when I was still writing for the daily newspaper The Montreal Gazette, but I quit that job while the book was being researched. I had a day job throughout the process and was writing in my spare time. [I’m glad the book took time to write] because there was such a learning curve for me that I think if someone said to me here is fifty-thousand dollars, write this book in one year, it wouldn’t have been a very good book. It certainly wouldn’t have been as developed as the book that got written, because I benefitted from having all this time. The ideas had time to marinate in my head, and I had time to just stumble upon people like Walter and accident upon business cards that advertised a shop called Prelude and make sense of what was essentially a pretty complicated story if you factor in eighteenth-century Europe and history and the slow unification of Germany, and the militarization of Prussia, and the Spanish civil war, and the life of Bach. There were a lot of dots to connect so I think it is good that I had a lot of time to do it.
LG: And Dimitry Badiarov, the fellow who believes the suites were made for a 5 stringed instrument, did he play all of them for you?
ES: No. I heard he has a recording out that just came out recently, but I haven’t heard it. No, he did not play them all. He is in Holland. He just feels that Suites 1- 5 were written for a 4-string violin piccolo, and the last suite was written for a 5 string violin piccolo. Part of his argument is that nowhere in the Anna Magdalena manuscript is there a reference to a cello. He could be right for all we know. It is one of the reasons this music works so fabulously well on so many different instruments. If you had only heard all the suites played on the lute, you would say, “Well, yes, this was a composition for the lute.” You wouldn’t even think of the cello if you didn’t know any better.
LG: I found especially interesting your description of taking cello lessons. It gave me a little boost to me in my own playing because to me so much of the time it just sounds bloody awful, and I wonder why am I doing this? But then I have moments where it sounds beautiful and I can feel it in my body, and I realize this is why I’m doing it. I was curious about your cello lessons, how much you learned, and how much you played, and why you stopped.
ES: I am a firm believer in amateurs. I think today society is kind of a almost instructing us to be spectators, not players or creators in life, and we get so taken up with the wizardry of virtuosos in all the arts that people don’t feel they can be good enough to play, or never develop the desire so I think picking up the instrument at any age, or any art form, is a terrific thing to do. I play guitar so I don’t play any other instrument, so learning the cello as you mentioned, as you alluded to, is kind of a daunting thing after a certain age.
I think the bowing in particular is a real challenge. It was kind of like a combination for me of calligraphy, golf, and archery, none of which I know how to do, and so that was tough, but my left hand was okay because I play the guitar. After getting over the trauma that there are no frets on the fingerboard, it wasn’t as bad as I might of feared. There is something really quite special about finding your way to the correct note, real or imagined, just intuiting the intonation. If you’ve never done it before and you’re used to frets, you would tend to think this is absurd, I don’t have a hope in hell of landing in the right spot, but you do, and it feels great.
Likewise, the great sort of rumbling and reverberations of this majestic instrument running through your whole body is a thing of great visceral pleasure, I think. So even though it doesn’t sound great at times, and you’re forced to play really Mickey Mouse material at the beginning, I think that the progress inevitably proceeds and it feels wonderful. That was my experience, and certainly when I got to the point where I could play some bonafide Bach ditties from this book called Bach for Cello, it’s great. However watered down and basic those pieces are you still get a sense of Bach’s music in the phrasing. The genius of Bach’s phrasing somehow comes out, and for me that was really exciting.
I didn’t stick with the instrument right to the end of the book, I think for reasons of time. I realized that I wasn’t going to learn a Cello Suite very quickly, and I at some point quite spontaneously got the idea that I could try to tackle this on guitar. I have just been a folk rock guitarist. I never played classical guitar. I took the cello notes and transposed them on the guitar. It was kind of goofy. I was playing essentially baselines on guitar, that mimicked the beginning of the first Cello Suites. And then it didn’t take very long to learn that in fact there were bonafide arrangements of the Cello Suites for guitar, so I bought some guitar tablature, which I don’t read, I don’t have facility for reading for guitar. I am used to doing what is called guitar tab, so slowly, measure by measure, in a real painstaking way, I was able to figure out the prelude of the first cello suite, so that sort of displaced the cello experience for me. Also I didn’t own a cello, I was renting a cello, and paying for lessons, and doing a lot of things in life, so that is how my cello lessons came to a close.
LG: How far did you get with them? Did you move out of first position and were you doing vibrato?
ES: No. I didn’t get beyond just those first few pieces in that book Bach for Cello. Ultimately it was a feeling that I’m a respectable guitar player, but I was really a beginner at cello, so I decided to devote what time I had in life to playing an instrument I was fairly good at, so that is what put me off. If I were ever to get a cello somehow, I would love to pick it up occasionally. I have actually dreamed about some of those Anna Magdalena notebook pieces.
I might get back to it someday in retirement. It was a case of spreading myself too thin. I don’t have that much time for music playing and I can do more with the guitar. I’m more ambitious with the guitar and I learned a few other classical pieces on the guitar. I still play popular music. It wasn’t a total irreversible conversion. After I wrote the book I found myself free to listen to all sorts of music which is what I do now, which includes Bach and the whole gamut of classical music.
Another thing I really liked about Bach was that if you try to get a sense of Bach, if you look at the people Bach was influenced by, and then Bach’s career, and his sons, and all the musicians Bach influenced, it is a pretty nifty way of getting a crash course in classical music. Also I had the career of Casals and the cello repertoire to add to that, so it was a great way of getting up to speed with something that I think intimidates people. How do I start with this colossal, sometimes intellectually intimidating, vast body of work, you know? People don’t know where to start. In my case I feel really fortunate that I had this really terrific, little spring board that I jumped on. I was just so genuinely and intrigued about the real story.
LG: The letter that Bach wrote to try and secure a position, and they are so obsequious, it grates against a modern mind. I thought it was funny too how he seemed to say, “This job doesn’t pay enough.”
ES: We have to be forgiving in someways because there are certain conventions that were de riguer, that were practiced and expected in those days. They are kind of unseemly. In fact, when you read about the life of Bach, he wasn’t some kind of wimp who was cow-towing to whatever authority happened to be around. He was kind of a rebellious type who really stood up for his own rights, particularly in the workplace, and his art.
He really knew the value of the currency that was used in those days. Some people have called him a bit of a cheapskate, but on the other hand, when you have 20 children and you’ve got a really demanding job that includes the music in a substantial city like Leipzig, and running the music of a Lutheran boarding school and churches, on top of busily cranking out what is going to be the greatest output of music for all time, you’ve got a lot on your plate and you have to check the bills and see how much money is coming in. He didn’t lead the sort of lackadaisical life of a sort of romantic and happily impoverished artist. I think that helps explain part of his genius. He wasn’t sitting around thinking what music is going to be popular or going to be considered a masterpiece. He was really busy in the here and now. He must have really been living in the moment, I think, he was so busy. It has a nice ending, his story. Even though he wasn’t considered famous in his lifetime, and he has been rendered ultra famous by posterity, a man who had his nose to the grindstone and was just doing his best on a day to day basis ended up producing this music that had such everlasting allure.