Music to the eyes

2010-08-25 00:00

THE sub-title of this eloquent and informative investigation is In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece. The book also describes what is in effect a surprising but passionate love-affair — between the author and the six cello suites of J. S. Bach.

Siblin is primarily a journalist and film-maker, and was pop music critic of the Montreal Gazette; so it was to his own amazement that he found himself totally swept away by an almost chance attendance at a performance of what must be some of Bach’s most demanding compositions (from both performer and audience perspective).

So stirred was the author by what he heard that he set out to write this substantial and thoroughly researched book, divided into six suites, each prefaced with a photocopy of the first page of the relevant suite from the earliest available manuscript (probably penned by Bach’s second wife).

The book not only deals with the music itself, but it also follows the elusive history of the manuscripts, delves deeply into Bach’s life as a person and as a composer (and performer), and (another major strand in the book) examines in equal depth the life and career­ of Pablo Casals, the Spanish (Catalonian) cellist who, more than anyone else, brought the suites to the music public’s attention and who set a standard of performance that serious­ cellists ever since have had constantly in mind.

Along the way, Siblin gives the reader a detailed and highly interesting picture of life in Bach’s Germany of the 18th century, a long and loving look at the special qualities of the cello­, an illuminating glance at several instruments other than the cello, a portrait of the general musical milieu in western Europe in the 18th century, and (via the Casals sections of the book) a grim picture of the Spanish Civil War which so affected Casals and his family.

The book is brimming with fascinating information — personal, musical, social and historical — about Bach (and his wives and children, some as musically re- markable­ as himself), about Casals, and to some extent about the author himself. It is written with fervour, some humour, pleasing fluency, and is 300 pages of inspiring, moving and engrossing reading.

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