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Searching for Bach’s Cello Suites

091207cellosuites

Almost three hundred years ago, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a series of six suites for the then most humble of instruments — the cello, or its ancestor.

They were moving, mournful, joyous, rich with the sound of another age — and soon lost.

Pablo Casals found them a century ago. Cellists now know them by heart.

Pop music critic Eric Siblin knew them not at all when he was out covering Sheryl Crow, Radiohead, Hanson. Then, Bach’s cello suites hit him like a ton of bricks. Changed his life. Sent him on a quest.

This hour, On Point: Eric Siblin, and the mystery of Bach’s cello suites.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Guests:

Eric Siblin, award-winning journalist and filmaker and former pop music critic for The Montreal Gazette. He’s author of “The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece.”

Eric Edberg, professor of music at the DePauw University School of Music in Greencastle, Indiana, where he teaches cello and chamber music.

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  • sara

    My most favorite piece of music! The first time I heard it I was truly madly deeply captured. I felt like my soul had been given a ‘voice.’ The cello, and these suites in particular, speak directly to me on some deep level.

  • Todd

    Bach’s works for solo violin are equally sublime! Any insights on these, vis-a-vis his solo cello suites?

  • Bambi Sterling

    Recently, at age 54, touched by the power of the Suites, I took up the cello. I have only made it, haltingly, through the first 8 to 10 measures, but I am brought to tears each time I draw the bow across the strings, and eyes closed, pull Bach’s music from my cello.

  • Lisa

    The cello suites played as I labored and gave birth to my daughter five years ago. They felt deeply fitting at that time. I did not know they had been lost–thank you for this program!

  • Nicholas Bodley

    Why in Heaven’s name are you not broadcasting in stereo? The stereo pilot LED on my little radio has been reliable, up to now.

    When I called the admin. number and was transferred to Engineering, I reached an answering [machine].

    I reached the listener call-in number, and my question apparently reached a dead end.

    This is no way to compete with WGBH/WCRB!

  • Robert Evans

    I envy Mr Siblin’s opportunity to first experience of the equally-magnificent unaccompanied violin works.

  • Mel Hughes

    I was introduced to the Bach Cello Suites as a struggling music major back in the late 1970′s. I still reamember hearing Pablo Casals saying, “Bach is the God of music!” in his heavily accented voice. Though the guitar was my instrument rather than the cello, the cello suites have remained at the core of my music for the 30 + years since I first heard them. Even though I play parts of them transposed for guitar, I hear them on cello in my heart’s ear.

    When I first heard them, I had just re-entered college after a 5 year stint in the army. Being a music major was a tremendous contrast to being an army helicopter gunship pilot. For reasons that I still can’t fully explain, this music resonated very deeply in me. I can hear Segovia playing his transcription of Cello Suite no. 3, which though lacking the resonance of the cello, is a wonder.

  • Putney Swope

    The cello was developed in Bach’s time, not in the 16th century. I think the main instrument of choice of the period was the viola da gamba and from what I read Bach had originally thought of writing the suites for it.

    Check out Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais, both who wrote extensively for the the viola da gamba.

  • Greg Gerstner

    Has the author discovered anything new about the suites or Bach, i.e., a reason for publishing yet another book?

  • Thomas

    The suites – beautiful as they are – are not that special (if anything that Bach composed can not be special). What I mean is that a lot of his solo music has the same beauty and complexity. Think of the violin partitas, some of his vocal music.

    Also, Mozart and Beethoven were not contemporaries of Bach – even famous ones. More to the point are Telemann and Haendel, who both gained fame where Bach couldn’t.

  • CC in Jamaica Plain

    I adore the Bach Cello Suites and I cannot wait to read this book. It is going on my Christmas gift list today! I was wondering if Siblin viewed Yo Yo Ma’s production of films “Inspired by Bach”? and what he thought of the films? Also, did Siblin read Casals’ _Joys and Sorrows_? Isn’t the passage exciting, when he discovers the manuscript? I look forward to reading your book, very much. Thank-you for writing it! As you said, this music is “sublime.”
    Here is link to the Amazon page that holds the DVD _Inspired by Bach_
    http://www.amazon.com/Yo-Yo-Ma-Complete-Suites-Inspired/dp/B0009K7ESW

  • Hoshiar Abdollah

    I am very pleased to listen to this program. I never get tired listenening to these wonderful and magical work.

  • http://www.jimschley.com Jim Schley

    More than twenty years ago I had a very moving experience of visiting Casals’ home in old San Juan in Puerto Rico, where the solo suites were (and maybe still are ) played through the day. I remember hearing a story that late in his life, Casals was so arthritic he could hardly get out of bed, but he would be lifted into a chair for his breakfast then given his cello, and as he played his wracked body would be released from the wracking pain and he’d be able to move and play again. I wonder if Eric Siblin ever heard this story.

  • Sue Rabut

    It must be mentioned that Casals was an accomplished pianist as well as cellist, and “warmed up” each and every morning before practicing his cello, by playing four hours of Bach on the piano. His extensive knowledge of Bach and the construction of his contrapuntal style informed him, I’m sure, as to choosing performance practice for the cello suites. Not as much of a “mystery” as it may seem without this knowledge.
    Also, a knowledge of the evolution of the string quartet helps us to understand that the trio sonate was all that had evolved in Bach’s time, using the continuo (gamba, cello, theorbo/lute or keyboard) with two soprano/ treble instruments. It wasn’t until Haydn’s time that the cello became an intrinsic part of the “melody line” and even then, the cello parts were pretty rudimentary. Mozart begins to really give more interesting lines to the cello in his string quartets. So, it stands to reason that maybe the “public” didn’t perceive cello as a legitimate solo instrument until later on, long after Bach’s lifetime.
    It is great that a layperson is encouraging “regular” people to go out and listen to LIVE classical music. We need more of this! ( I am a professional violinist.)

  • Kevin

    Casals also composed one of my favorite pieces of all-time: a vocal piece (a capella, actually) called, “O Vos Omnes”. It’s somber, soulful and incredibly beautiful. I sang it years ago. That’s actually how I heard of him rather than Casals the cellist.

  • Tom Baehr

    My first exposure to the Suites was the 1990s recording by Rostropovich, which, despite intonation inconsistencies and sloppy editing, are the ones I judge others by. I also have Ma’s second recording and Heinrich Schiff’s. It’s surprising how many interpretations of tempo I hear.

    Siblin refers to other instruments playing the Suites. I have Edgar Meyer’s wonderful recording of three of them on double bass, David Leisner’s of the Third on guitar (transposed to A from C), and one by Peter Blanchette on arch-guitar.

    But it was that first recording of Rostropovich that inspired me to transcribe the first Bourree for the Third for bass dulcimer, and both Bourrees for tenor chromatic harmonica. They both work very well, not because of my playing, but because they’re Bach.

    Tom Baehr, Putney, Vt.

  • Louis Arnold

    The recording by John Williams of the 5th Cello Suite was on modern guitar, not Baroque lute. This is important because that piece exists in Bach’s own hand writing. The modern guitar bears very little resemblance to Baroque Lute – sonically or visually. They are both plucked instruments but that’s about it. You should have played a recording by Hopkinson Smith or any of a number of people playing that music on authentic instruments today. That would have communicated a very important sound and idea to your listeners.

  • http://wbur.org Victor Doherty

    Congratulations on your December 7th, 2009 program about Bach’s cello suites. I sincerely hope you will post, with your other material on this presentation, a discography of the different recordings played during the show. For example, the Bach orchestral item played
    (Brandenburg Concerto? Orchestral Suite?) for comparison with the solo cello approach was very striking in its own right — worth following up right away as a good means to insight about tempo and emphasis as used by Bach.

    Again, many thanks;
    Victor Doherty

  • http://www.perfectbokehphotography.com/ Paul Marotta

    Probably the most moving performances for my taste are with Pieter Wispelwey, I heard him do them at Lincoln Center one year when I worked there…just sublime…his recording is one I come back to often, almost weekly in fact.

  • lynn sotschek

    I am a young cellist in high school. I take private lessons and preform in recitals frequently. I always request to play these pieces. Playing unaccompanied Bach is very hard and challenging to play. But the music itself captivates you as you play. I sometimes find it hard to become engaged in the music I play but with these, there is no problem.

  • http://www.wholemusicexp.blogspot.com Patricia

    Thank you for this fantastic show on Bach’s Cello Suites. Your guest Eric Siblin’s story is familiar to me. I too, was a rock music journalist whose life was changed after, in my case, re-discovering classical music, starting in 1999, when someone told me about the Canadian documentary “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould” and, it was piano music that turned me onto Bach.

    After discovering various genres of music, but mainly classical, I couldn’t even listen to pop music again. I have found classical music incredibly healing and in 2007, my journey from rock to Bach led me to launch a healing music blog The Whole Music Experience.

    Again, thank you for this fabulous show. It left a huge grin on my face and I am happy knowing I’m not the only former rock journalist out there whose life was changed through hearing the works of a classial composer.

    Bach’s music by the way is incredibly healing. Even dogs are affected healed by this profound music.

  • http://www.originalpapercuts.com Leslie Miller

    When the world is too much and too chaotic and things are piling up and going wrong and the lastest news is depressing, I turn to the Bach Cello Suites, and my breathing becomes even and calm and I can move on….

    No matter which recording I play, I begin to see order and can think clearly , again.

  • http://npr Susan

    I’ve had the distinct pleasure of reading Eric Siblin’s book and I highly recommend it. Mr. Siblin has woven 3 tales around this magnificent music in a manner so captivating that I, a classical illiterate, am now officially intrigued. Not a mean feat.

    I do wonder how Bach would react to the knowledge that his Suites are performed at funerals and in television commercials.

  • http://www.coupondashboard.com/ CD

    Thank you for this fantastic show on Bach’s Cello Suites. Your guest Eric Siblin’s story is familiar to me. I too, was a rock music journalist whose life was changed after, in my case, re-discovering classical music, starting in 1999, when someone told me about the Canadian documentary “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould” and, it was piano music that turned me onto Bach.

    After discovering various genres of music, but mainly classical, I couldn’t even listen to pop music again. I have found classical music incredibly healing and in 2007, my journey from rock to Bach led me to launch a healing music blog The Whole Music Experience.

    Again, thank you for this fabulous show. It left a huge grin on my face and I am happy knowing I’m not the only former rock journalist out there whose life was changed through hearing the works of a classial composer.

    Bach’s music by the way is incredibly healing. Even dogs are affected healed by this profound music.

  • http://wkumu sue Kopp

    listened to the program with my son, A 17 YR oldc cellist who ia enjoying learning the suites, we will be eager to read the book before he heads off to study music in college….

  • Brandy H M Brooks

    Thanks for re-broadcasting this … reminded me how much I love the suites!  One of my favorite experiences of them is the video series that Yo-Yo Ma did with a variety of other artists: dance, drawing, landscape design, theater, and others; all combined with the beautiful, delightful, haunting music.

  • Balobo

    It is my understanding that Albert Schweitzer had something to do with finding Bach’ s music somewhere around 1900.

  • M_a_frye

    Best use in a film score? My favorite is the use of Suite #1 in Peter Weir’s Master and COmmander.

  • David Duncan

    I have long loved these suites. They are, like the Goldberg Variations or the Beethoven late string quartets, transporting.  You characterized them as minimalist, but what is amazing to me is all of the implied lines of music that those four strings carry.  It is like listening to an orchestra in your head!

  • Czigmund

    Bach would react positively to the news that his music was being performed ANYWHERE in 2011. It was widely considered old-fashioned and overly complicated in his day and was hardly performed at all unless he did so himself.

  • Czigmund

    The trio sonata was not all that had evolved in Bach’s time, although it may have been ancestor to the later string quartet.  A number of Bach’s works, such as the concertos, have fully written-out bass parts (as opposed to the shorthand figured bass that was often written for continuo) for the various viols that were ancestors of the cello. These parts are anything but rudeimentary. One of the joys of listening to Bach’s music is that the bass lines are fully independent lines within the several lines of the couhnterpoint, and are as inventive and joyful as the higher-pitched lines. There is no lack of interest in these parts. Also, the wonderful interplay of many stringed intruments in Bach’s 6th Brandenburg Concerto need yield no pride of place in complexity and mastery to the later string quartets of Haydn, Mozart and et al.

    • James Higdon

      I recall an interview with Jack Bruce, the legendary bass guitarist
      for Cream, where he was asked about his classical training (he 
      was a cellist), and whether or not it infused his playing. He replied
      that he had to unlearn all of it. Every bit. Then he paused,
      “… except Bach. He wrote the greatest bass lines”. Bach seems to
      treat each line as an equally valuable voice with something to say.
      So when I listen, for example, to an organ piece I find myself
      jumping from the alto to the soprano to the bass lines and back
      and forth. This is surely one of the reasons Bach’s music is so
      worthwhile, every line is spun out with emotion, power and
      intelligence.

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