Culture & Conversation

Of Geniuses, Prodigies, and Beautiful Music

In this remarkably entertaining read, Eric Siblin, a Montreal journalist and filmmaker, tells the story of Bach’s Cello Suites. Long considered to be technical exercises of little importance, the musical genius’s eighteenth-century creation had new life breathed into them when the young Catalan cellist, Pablo Casals, found them in a second-hand shop, hundreds of years after their composition.

It’s fascinating to read a historical rendering of events that feels so fresh and contemporary. Siblin interweaves Bach’s life as an underappreciated composer in eighteenth-century Germany with that of Pablo Casals, the cello prodigy whose music helped him publicize his opposition to the Franco regime in Spain and its allies. Not only that, the author’s own quest, his desire to understand Bach, to understand the six Cello Suites, marks an interesting personal involvement in a journalistic search for information concerning the pieces.

To really understand the impact of those Suites, to know what it means to be a Bach fan, Eric Siblin tried his hand at the violoncello, the instrument the Suites are considered to have been written for. While he could not master the cello, or even the singing of lyrics during a Bach festival, his personal involvement adds a third, personal dimension to this already moving, entertaining, and surprising tale about a genius’s work that took too long to get noticed.

Siblin says there is little information concerning Bach’s life. There are some hard facts, some rare letters, and much speculation. But the book doesn’t concentrate on speculation. Instead it is rich in detail about the context of Bach and Casals’ lives, giving us what personal and professional details are known about them (we know a lot more about Casals), and in technical yet understandable information about music. It is interesting to note that Bach, today considered a musical genius credited for creating some of the most beautiful music available to human ears, was both career-driven and underappreciated in his time, forcing him to travel from castle to castle seeking patrons of wealth and influence who would appreciate his bold, medieval style.

Although Bach’s life was interesting, Pablo Casals’ path is completely fascinating. A man of principle, he took many risks in his opposition to the Franco and Nazi Regimes. Some chapters in the book, including three Nazis’ visit to Casals, or the many ups, downs, and comebacks of the “geriatric superstar,” are as entertaining and gripping as any work of fiction you can come across. Throughout his long life, Casals played Bach with a pure intensity that has impressed people all over the world, and his talent has not only allowed the great Cello Suites to be rediscovered and popularized, but has also drawn international media attention to the problems faced by his homeland.

Eric Siblin’s The Cello Suites is a magnificent book. It’ll make you want to listen to the Cello Suites over and over again, all the while knowing more about the mysterious composer and the fervent musician who, at different times, in different conditions, breathed life into the same music.

The Cello Suites has been nominated for the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s McAuslan First Book Prize and its Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-fiction, and the Governor General’s Award for Non-fiction. The winners will be announced on November 17. It has also been nominated for the Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize, the winner of which will be announced on November 24.

Joseph Elfassi is a freelance writer, photographer, and filmmaker. For more information, go to

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