The Cello Suites: In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin

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The Cello Suites: In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin

Category: Entertainment
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An account by a former rock journalist of his discovery of Bach's music for the cello.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: January 2011
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099546788

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At the end of the 20th century Eric Siblin was a rock and pop critic for the 'Montreal Gazette'. This, he says, was, a job which filled his head with vast amounts of music, much of which I didn't want to be there. Aware that there were vast horizons crying out to be explored, he went out one night to hear a recital from the Boston cellist Lawrence Lesser, featuring the solo cello suites of Bach. The contrast between hearing one solitary performer playing a simple wooden cello for an audience a fraction of the size could have hardly been more different to the stadium style gigs he had been covering regularly until then. About three years earlier, he had reviewed a show by U2, noting that for the 52,000 fans who attended and wanted to see more than four Lilliputian musicians making huge noises...technology blew everything out of proportion. The inevitable hate mail soon rolled in.

What emanated from Lesser's playing to an audience a fraction of the size, he noted, was music more earthy and ecstatic than anything I'd ever heard. Any reservations he had had about the stuffiness of classical music were largely dispelled, as he became obsessed and immersed himself in historical research on the music, the composer, and those associated with the suites in some way. He even takes up the instrument himself after being encouraged to do so in a meeting with Walter Joachim, an 80-year-old player from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, admitting that he would never be any good, but it would give him more insight.

The book comprises 36 short chapters, reflecting the six dance movements of Bach's Suites. Each literary suite, as he terms it, contains three chapters about Bach, two about Pablo Casals, the Spanish performer who did much to popularise them in the early 20th century after discovering them in a small music shop in Barcelona in 1890 as a boy of thirteen, and one about Siblin and his constant voyage of discovery about himself.

On the subject of the composer, he concedes that little is known for certain about the life of Bach himself, beyond odd details (admittedly disputed) about him waking over a hundred miles at the age of 14 to secure himself a music scholarship, and grumbling about a life of vexation, envy and persecution, marrying twice and fathering twenty children. Only two authentic paintings of him exist. Even more tantalisingly, he tells us that Bach died without ensuring the survival of the Cello Suites' original manuscript. The originals, in a manner of speaking, are lost, although it does not stop generations of musicologists from tying to find them. Will people still be performing Bono's songs in three centuries' time, Siblin wonders, and will scholars be combing through dusty old shoeboxes in the hope of finding further work by U2? More likely dusty old (if not irredeemably corrupted) hard drives, I'd have thought...

Too often he is inclined to be rather earnest on his subject, though there are occasional touches of humour, not least when he quotes the iconoclastic George Bernard Shaw's distaste for the violoncello; ordinarily I had as soon hear a bee buzzing in a stone jug. Moreover, his knowledge of rock music enables him to offer some interesting comparisons between the then and the now, even suggesting that there were parallels between some of Bach's phrases and Led Zeppelin riffs. (Admittedly, guitarist Jimmy Page has been known to be quite eclectic in borrowing from others who came before him). Far from being over-reverential about classical music and concert convention, he suggests that those who stage them will have to get with the program of the 21st century if younger fans are going to appreciate Bach as well as Bono, Beck and Bjork on their digital playlists. He also suggests that Bach was an unfashionable composer who was reluctant to modernise music, and thus set the tone for what he regards as today's more hidebound classical music lovers – on the face of it, a rather odd argument.

The book combines passion, personal opinion, thorough research and scholarship in equal measure. I feel however that it is really a book for the specialist rather than the general reader. Classical musicians will find it interesting, if arguably a little opinionated at times, but to get the best out of it, it needs to be approached with some knowledge beforehand.

Our thanks to Vintage for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this, for another famous composer of the era, may we also recommend Handel: The Man and His Music by Jonathan Keates.

Buy The Cello Suites: In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Cello Suites: In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Cello Suites: In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Cello Suites: In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin at Amazon.com.


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