by Marshall St. John

An ongoing serial story of the most influential cellist of the early 20th century.

Casals, page 17

An Excerpt from Casals, a book of photographs by Vytas Valaitis, with text selected and arranged by Theodore Strongin.

"What I think is that sensibility has been lost today, so many things have happened in the world lately. Today we see fantastic things in science, in everything, in machines that do a lot of things.

"I will say only elemental things--nothing complex--as everything ought to be, beginning with life. But you must know that the simplest things are the ones that count.

"But the world has forgotten sadly the most elemental things. What I feel very deeply is that the world has retrogressed, gone back in many ways, and especially in sensibility. I remember, for instance, the time of the Dreyfus case. It was only one man, and everyone--everyone!--at that time was interested in this case. If an injustice was committed to one man, everyone questioned it.

"Today we forget the millions of lives lost in the last wars. We rather tend to think of other things that refer to our physical needs, to our amusement. That is why I think that the world is going backwards.

"We have more and more people that think they know everything there is to be known, except Pater Noster."

Casals, page 18

To a certain extent, every human being is shaped by the historical events taking place around him. Our generation has been very much affected, for example, by the Vietnam War, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the musical influence of both the Beatles and Motown. Pablo Casals' life was caught up into the whirlwind of the Spanish Civil War, and everything Casals did and said following the rise of General Francisco Franco to power in Spain, was directed and colored by that event.

King Alfonso XIII, a personal friend of Casals, was a weak king, and found his kingdom gradually falling away from him as the people of Spain began a grassroots movement toward a republic with elected rulers. By 1931 all but four Spanish provinces had voted to make Spain a republic, and Alfonso left the country. A new government was formed then, but there were problems with failed attempts to reform education, religious affairs, banking and agriculture. The government was alternately controlled by both left and right, and by 1936 Spain was dissolving into chaos.

The Spanish Civil War began on July 17, 1936, led by General Francisco Franco, who quickly received large supplies of both materials and troops from Mussolini in Italy, and Hitler, who had come to power in 1933 in Germany. Casals quit playing his cello in Germany, as he realized what Hitler and the Nazis were doing to his Jewish friends and colleagues.

The Civil War lasted three years, and much of Spain was laid waste. H. L. Kirk, in his tremendous biography of Casals wrote: "The country was bathed in blood; it is estimated that some seventy-five thousand people were killed in other than military engagements in Republican territory in the six weeks between July 18 and September 1, 1936, and the number of murdered grew as insurgent forces moved inland..." (pages 399-400). By 1939 Franco was total dictator of a bloody totalitarian state.

Pablo Casals was devastated. He was a strong believer in peace, in freedom, and in the rights of the common man. Now it had all been trampled on, and even his beloved Catalonia was under the dictator's heel. Casals was forced to flee Spain with the other refugees, just steps ahead of Franco's army. He rented a hotel room in Prades, a small town in the French Pyrenees, just north of the Spanish/French border. There he personally helped to distribute truckloads of food and clothing to nearby refugee camps.

Casals, page 19

Casals full name was Pablo Carlos Salvador Casals y Defillo. That name is full of interesting information. One coincidence is that his name "Salvador" is also the name of a beach about four kilometers south of Vendrell, and a place of great importance in Casals' life. Casals first memory was of awakening from sleep, to the sound of the sea, and to the shifting dappled light in his room, reflected from the sea outside the guest house where he was vacationing with his family. Casals was only one year old then. The Playa San Salvador became the one spot on earth that Casals loved most, and to which he returned at least once a year for the first sixty years of his life.

It was in San Salvador as a boy that Casals learned to swim, and where he eagerly soaked up stories of pirates and buried treasure, told him by an old crippled ex-sailor who had become caretaker of a museum there. The old sailor spoke Catalan, as did Casals, and bore the same given name, Pau.

In 1908 while he was playing the viola da gamba obbligato to the Bach aria "It Is Finished," in the cathedral in Basel, Casals suddenly felt an overwhelming certainty that his father, Carlos, was dying. After the performance he canceled all his other obligations, and set off for Vendrell. When he arrived he found that his father had indeed died in Bonastre at the same time he was playing his cello in Switzerland. He was already buried in the cemetery in Vendrell at the time that Casals arrived at home.

After Pablo's father died, his mother, Dona Pilar, lived for a time in Bonastre, then in an apartment in Barcelona. But she was homesick for Puerto Rico, and nostalgic for earlier, happier years, and she asked Pablo to find a place for her, and for him, to live near the sea. Casals bought a piece of land at the farthest end of the empty beach in San Salvador (and later bought more, until he eventually owned fourteen acres there on the beach). Casal's mother began to design his home in San Salvador which would become an extremely important place in his life, and to which he would later devote much time and money.

Casals, page 20.

Rostropovich Speaks About Casals:

Just this year, 1996, EMI has released both a 2 CD audio production of Rostropovich playing the six Bach Suites, and a two cassette video edition. There is a booklet included with the 2 audio CDs that puts in print what Rostropovich speaks and demonstrates on the video. By all means, buy the video! Not only does Rostropovich give a warm, meaningful performance of the suites on his cello, but he also sits at the piano and lectures on each suite before performing it. (He speaks in Russian, and there are English subtitles.) These lectures are only on the video, not on the audio CDs. Many thanks are due to EMI for presenting cellists with this wonderful examination and performance of Bach's greatest work for the cello. Here is an excerpt from the booklet, in which Rostropovich recalls Pablo Casals.

"To my mind the greatest name in cello history is that of Pablo Casals. I had already heard his recordings in friends' homes in Moscow. Then in 1957 I was invited to attend the Casals Competition in Paris. I was to meet the great man himself beforehand, and he invited me to his hotel in Paris. I came and met this affable man, pipe in mouth, with a bald head--although now I realize that there's nothing wrong with being bald! He embraced me and said: "How can I thank you for coming? Let me play for you." He was only a couple of feet away from me--not a bit nervous about playing for me, but here he was with his bow and cello so close to me that my hands and legs started to tremble from sheer agitation because of the veneration in which I held this greatest of artists. He started to play the Allemande from the First Suite. His playing had an incredibly powerful effect on me.After each phrase Casals had paused to observe intently (from behind his glasses) Rostropovich's reaction. He would then smile at seeing the agitation in Rostropovich's face before continuing with the next phrase." It was a rhapsodic interpretation of Bach, I'd say, like a dialogue, keenly aware phrase-by- phrase of the listener's reaction. When Casals played it seemed to me impossible to interpret Bach in any other way, such was the force of his personality and his nature as an artist, his total conviction in what he was doing. Therefore no copy can be authentic. A copy cannot reflect your own feelings or your own sense of phrasing, and is like a bottle without any wine in it. Casals played a great part in my life and in my love of Bach and music in general."

The words above are from the booklet accompanying Rostropovich's recent recording of the Bach Suites, copyright by SGOL Music Limited, under exclusive license to EMI Records, Ltd. The CD's are great, but I highly recommend that all cellists purchase these wonderful video tapes, in which Rostropovich's personality is captured so well.

Casals, page 21

One of the truly great cellists of the Twentieth Century was Gregor Piatigorsky, a Russian cellist who eventually immigrated to the United States. Piatigorsky was a terrific story teller, and his autobiography, simply titled "Cellist," is filled with stories about himself, the historic times in which he lived, and his friends and acquaintances. This is a book that every cellist will want to own, or at least check out at the library. It is worth reading more than once. (It was published by Doubleday and Company, and copyrighted by Piatigorsky himself in 1965. Several of the chapters had been published earlier in The Atlantic Monthly, in 1957 and 1962).

Here is an excerpt from Piatigorsky's book, in which he writes of an encounter with Pablo Casals, that reveals Casal's prodigious memory, attention to minute detail, and human warmth:

My great wish was to hear Pablo Casals. One day my desire was
almost fulfilled and I met him. But ironically, it was I who had to
play. It was in the home of the Von Mendelssohns, a house filled
with El Grecos, Rembrandts, and Stradivarius. Francesco von
Mendelssohn, the son of the banker, who was a talented cellist,
telephoned and asked if he could call for me; they had a guest in
the house who would like to hear me play.

"Mr. Casals," I was introduced to a little bald man with a pipe. He
said that he was pleased to meet young musicians such as Serkin
and me. Rudolf Serkin, who stood stiffly next to me, seemed , like
myself, to be fighting his diffidence. Rudi had played before my
arrival, and Casals now wanted to hear us together. Beethoven's D-
Major Sonata was on the piano. "Why don't you play it?" asked
Casals. Both nervous and barely knowing each other, we gave a
poor performance that terminated somewhere in the middle.

"Bravo! Bravo! Wonderful!" Casals applauded. Francesco brought
the Schumann Cello Concerto, which Casals wanted to hear. I
never played worse. Casals asked for Bach. Exasperated, I obliged
with a performance matching the Beethoven and Schumann.

"Splendid! Magnifique!" said Casals, embracing me.

"Bewildered, I left the house. I knew how badly I had played, but
why did he, the master, have to praise and embrace me? This
apparent insincerity pained me more than anything else.

"The greater was my shame and delight when, a few years later, I
met Casals in Paris. We had dinner together and played duets for
two cellos, and I played for him until late at night. Spurred by his
great warmth, and happy, I confessed what I had thought of his
praising me in Berlin. He reacted with sudden anger. He rushed to
the cello, "Listen!" He played a phrase from the Beethoven sonata.
"Didn't you play this fingering? Ah, you did! It was novel to
was good...and here, didn't you attack that passage with up-bow,
like this? he demonstrated. He went through Schumann and Bach,
always emphasizing all he liked that I had done. "And for the rest,"
he said passionately, "leave it to the ignorant and stupid who judge
by counting only the faults. I can be grateful, and so must you be,
for even one note, one wonderful phrase." I left with the feeling of
having been with a great artist and a friend.


Pablo Casals, Lillian Littlehales, 1929, W. W. Norton & Company
History of the Violoncello, Lev Ginsburg, 1983, Paganiniana Publications
Pablo Casals, Frederic V. Grunfeld, 1982, Time-Life Records, Great Men
of Music
The Great Cellists, Margaret Campbell, 1989, Trafalgar Square Publishing

Copyright Marshall C. St. John

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