Review: “The Cello Suites” by Eric Siblin

The short version:

If you have even a passing interest in music, history, or good writing you should read this book.

The long version:

Some of the most recognizable music in the world comes from Johann Sebastian Bach. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in our culture who couldn’t identify a few bars of his music, even if either the name of the piece or the composer escaped them for a moment. But it wasn’t always so. At one time the name Bach excited no comment among anybody, and if they did recognize a composer by the name of Bach they would probably have thought of Johann Christian or Carl Philipp Emanuel rather than their father Johann Sebastian. But in the century after his death the arts went through something called the “Bach Revival” and gradually the work of this master composer came to be recognized as the product of a true genius.

This book by Eric Siblin is a unique piece of narrative history. Admittedly a newcomer to the world of classical music, he carefully weaves together the life of Johann Sebastian Bach, the life of one of the world’s foremost virtuosos, and his own journey to discover the heart of the music.

The music in question is of course the Cello Suites, and like the rest of Bach’s work they were once forced to survive the centuries only by luck and hiding under some dust. It took an aspiring Catalan cellist by the name of Pablo Casals to find the real magic in what used to be thought of as mere exercises for a background orchestra instrument. Siblin digs deep to uncover the history behind the Suites, from the mystery of their composition and the triumph of their rediscovery. We still don’t know just when or why they were written, or even if they were written for the cello itself, but after reading this book you’ll know just about as much as anyone else does. And you’ll have a great deal of pleasure in learning it too.

Part of what makes the book such a good read is its structure. There are six Suites and six sections; each section’s chapters are titled with the different movements (Prelude, Allemande, etc.). And within this framework, Siblin alternates between his three storylines, always beginning with Bach, continuing with Casals, and ending with himself. Ensuring the reader never gets too tired of hearing about one thing too long, it’s a masterful juggling act. And given that the author is himself not all that knowledgeable of music theory or classical music (though his background is as a pop music critic in Montreal) it means that technical terms are always explained and never turn the text into a scholarly tome.

Classical music is something I’ve been interested in for awhile now, but I sometimes have trouble understanding it. I’m not inclined to sitting still listening to “absolute music” (that is, music written purely for instruments and without words). When I turn it on it’s more as background than anything else. Still it’s been something I’ve built up a collection of, with albums of works by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven–including the Cello Suites themselves. But after reading this book, I think I’ve come to a new appreciation of the subtleties of music, and the ways in which a composer is expressing himself when he writes notes instead of words. It’s made me want to be more musical and to explore the storytelling possibilities of an instrument rather than a pen. Maybe that’s the highest praise a book like this could hope for.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to learn the cello…

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