Books

How Bach transformed a one-time pop music critic

Michael Merschel
The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

Eric Siblin was a pop music fan, a journalist who had once covered the likes of Radiohead, Morcheeba and Massive Attack. But he was searching for something more.

On a lark during a visit to Toronto, he found himself at a recital of some of J.S. Bach's cello suites. On that day in 2000, everything changed.

"It was like being hit by musical lightning," he says by phone from his home in Montreal. "I was really struck by the intensity and beauty of this music, which was so different from anything I had heard before."

Electrified by what he heard, captivated by the sight of the lone cellist working his art onstage and intrigued by what the program notes told him of the score's history, as he left the concert hall Siblin had already resolved to write his first book.

Almost a decade later, "The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece" was released to widespread acclaim.

It was named one of the best books of 2010 by The Economist and has been published in nine languages in a dozen countries. Recently it was released in paperback (Grove Press, $15.95).

As the subtitle suggests, "The Cello Suites" is a book of multiple tales. It's partly the life of J.S. Bach, or a summary of what biographers have pieced together through the centuries. Siblin notes in the book, "Aside from Shakespeare, there is probably no other towering figure in modern art about whom we know so little."

It's partly the tale of the suites themselves, compositions that are as beloved as any in classical music but whose beginnings are shrouded in multiple mysteries: When exactly were they composed? What instrument or instruments were they composed for? Were they even performed in Bach's lifetime?

"I found myself really intrigued that Bach would write such colossal music for no obvious reason," Siblin says. "So far as we know, there was no commission that he received. It was such a radical thing to write music for solo cello that no major composer would do it again for 200 years."

Much of it is the story of the brilliant and charismatic cellist Pablo Casals, whose life, as Siblin says, was "wonderfully dramatic and long and full of passion and poetry." It was Casals who stumbled across the sheet music for the suites in 1890 and, over the course of his life, elevated them from obscurity to what Siblin calls "the Mount Everest of the cello repertoire."

Finally, it is the story of the author's search for the "heart and soul" of Bach's music. He attempts to learn the cello and joins a Bach choir, efforts that he acknowledges are hardly great art but still offer revelations. His admitted ignorance gives the book great accessibility. Readers won't need a musical dictionary at hand, but most will be regularly reaching for their iPod or CD player.

"The book represents an outgrowth of my genuine curiosity to find out what makes this music tick," he says. "This book is the book I would have wanted to read right after I first heard the music and was so smitten with it."

His conversion experience perhaps made him a musical evangelist.

"I think this was one of the agendas I had for the book — to turn people on to classical music the way I was." He might have begun studying only the cello suites, he says, "but once I passed through this portal, there was this entirely new planet that was classical music that I found myself exploring with great gusto."

That's not to say he abandoned everything from his old life.

"There are times in your life when J.S. Bach is not going to accomplish what James Brown is going to do for you. And there are times when the Godfather of Soul is Bach, and not James Brown."


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