In search of Pablo Casals
~~ For me the existence of Pablo Casals is a source of joy. He is one of those artists who come to the rescue of humanity's honour ~~ Thomas Mann
Commequiers is one of those villages that you only seem to find in France. It is in the Vendée region in the west of the country, a short distance from the Atlantic coast. Despite being close to the fashionable resort of Les Sables d'Olonne this is rural France that time seems to have passed by. The timeless houses huddle around a small square in the centre of Commequiers. There is a bar and boulangerie, and on one side of the square is L'eglise Saint-Pierre with its wonderful new reinterpretation of an organ of the classic French school seen to the left of my header photo.
The Vendéee, with its history of political and religous activism, is a long way from Spain. But we made the journey there in search of a musician famous for expressing his beliefs through activism. Pablo Casals was born in El Vendrell in Catalonia, Spain in 1876. After studying in Paris he taught in Barcelona, and while there formed a long-lasting association with the monks of the nearby Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat. Music has been central to the life of the monastery since the fourteenth century when the monks recorded pilgrim's songs in the Llibre Vermell, a revelatory recording of which recently featured on these pages. It was the fruits of the association between the young Casals and the monks of Santa Maria that had drawn us to Commequiers.
The highlights of Casals public career as a cellist, which lasted from 1891 to 1946, included playing Richard Strauss' Don Quixote with the composer conducting, and performing chamber music in a trio with Alfred Cortot and Jacques Thibaud. Casals was a passionate opponent of Franco's regime in Spain, and shortly after the Second World War he withdrew from public performances on the cello in countries that recognised the fascist dictatorship. Fortunately Casals left an important recorded legacy, particularly the Bach Cello Suites which he recorded for HMV between 1936 and 1939, and these have been lovingly transcribed by Ward Marston on an excellent Naxos Historical 2CD set which should be in every record collection. These document a master musician working in a style that has now become deeply unfashionable. This is passionate Bach, many would call it romantic Bach. Vibrato is, today, also a victim of fashion. But Casals' rich, sonorous, but not omnipresent vibrato is something beautiful to behold. He wore his heart on his sleeve and once said "the art of interpretation is not to play what is written".
Casals has never been short of detractors. His outlook on life, as well as his playing style, swum against the tide. He was a believer who said "I see divine origin everywhere: in music, the sea, a flower, a leaf, an act of kindness. In all those things I see the presence of what people call God ... The sounds created by a Bach or Mozart are a miracle that nobody can explain without thinking of something infinitely good - something divine." When asked for his opinion of rock and roll he described it as "Poison put to sound - a brutalization of both life and art". Arnold Schoenberg's transcription of a harpsichord concerto by the 18th-century Austrian composer Georg Matthias Monn known as the Schoenberg/Monn Concerto was dedicated to Casals. But he never performed it as he felt out of sympathy with its style.
His sometimes reactionary views left Casals an easy target, and after watching a television programme programme about him, Stravinsky remarked: "That was an interesting programme. In one scene the cellist and a sort of Hungarian composer, Zoltán Kodály, are seen together with their great-granddaughters, at least that's what one supposes until one learns tat they are their wives. And what were the two racy octogenarians talking about? Well, they were saying that the trouble with me is that I must always be doing the latest thing. But who are they to talk, when they have been doing the same old thing for at least eighty years! Señor Casals also offered us an interesting insight into his philosophy - for example playing Bach in the style of Brahms."
There is some truth in this typically waspish Stravinsky anecdote. But was the Russian composer also a little jealous of the cellist's amorous liaisons, which included a relationship with a young pupil in Catholic Spain in the early 1900s when such things were shocking? Was Stravinsky unaware that Casals was responsible single-handedly for the rehabilitation of the Bach Cello Suites as repertory pieces after he discovered a score in a bookshop in Barcelona in 1889? Did he know that the Catalan was the first cellist to perform the Suites as complete works rather than individual movements?
The case for Casals' defence is strong and his credo as a musician is difficult to fault - "Music must serve a purpose; it must be a part of something larger than itself, a part of humanity; and that, indeed, is at the core of my argument with music today - its lack of humanity. A musician is also a man, and more important than his music is his attitude towards life. Nor can the two be separated." But we must be careful of deifying Casals. Like all great artists he was flawed and was sometimes guilty of failing to practise what he preached. He was vocal in his condemnation of Spanish royalists but built himself a palace fit for a king at San Salvador in Spain; a palace which, ironically, he did not see for the last thirty-four years of his life due to his self-imposed exile.
Casals left Spain and chose exile because of his commitment to human rights. But he was judged as lacking in this very area by another great humanitarian, Yehudi Menuhin, who tells this story: "Casals respected Furtwängler not only as a man of integrity but as a fine musician. So I asked Casals if he would like to record Brahms' Double Concerto with Furtwängler as conductor. "Yes, certainly," he said, but the correspondence dragged on for two or three years. Whenever I tried to finalize a date, there was always an obstacle. Finally I received a letter which, with disarming frankness, betrayed the limits of his indepence: "You will recall that I told you nothing would give me more pleasure than to record with Furtwängler. I still feel he is a man of integrity. However, I am seen by my colleagues as a symbol of anti-Fascism, and I would let them down if I played under Furtwängler. They wouldn't understand." In other words, he was prepared to let me know that he didn't have the courage of his convictions; so so long as those convictions were approved by his admirers, they were strong convictions indeed, but in other circumstances not strong enough to withstand guilt by association with a man wrongfully accused. It was an honest letter and a disappointing one".
After the defeat of the Republic in 1939 Casals left Spain. He settled first in France, and then in 1957, at the age of 80 settled in Puerto Rico after marrying his young second wife, who came from that country. Human rights remained a preoccupation and Casals held many views that were at variance with his conservative image. He was an early opponent of nuclear weapons and in 1958 issued a joint appeal with Albert Schweitzer to the American and Russian governments to ban nuclear tests, and he also expressed concerns about America's involvement in Vietnam. But Casals' refusal from 1946 to play in countries that recognised Franco's regime left him as a minister without a musical portfolio. He had composed an oratorio titled El Pessebre (The Manger) while living in Prades, France during the Second World War and in 1962 he embarked on a personal peace crusade conducting the oratorio around the world as his embargo on performance in countries recognising Franco's Spain applied only to the cello.
In some ways Casals' later years were a sad story that had many parallels with those of his detractor Stravinsky. The highlights were the remarkable festivals he established in Prades and Puerto Rico. But there were performances of El Pessebre in obscure towns with third-rate forces, as this story from Albert E. Kahn's portrait of Casals explains: 'In later years his wife Marta used to carry an oxygen mask with her in case of emergencies. Casals never used the oxygen himself at concerts, although it was required more than once to revive old ladies overcome with emotion. However, at one performance of his oratorio El Pessebre in Central America, the orchestra was mediocre and the chorus - mostly local singers - was willing but dreadful. Alexander Schneider had done his best in rehearsal, and at the concert Casals, then nearly nine-two conducted demonically to try and create an illusion of splendour from chaos. As the 'performance' proceeded, Marta Casals noticed with horror that her husband's face was growing redder and redder - not through fatigue, as she thought, but fury. Quickly Marta shoved the astonished Schneider on stage to conduct the rest of the performance. Dragging her husband off, she clamped the oxygen mask over his face while Casals slumped back in his chair, groaning repeatedly every time he heard a wrong note.
So far this path has visited Casals' cello playing and his oratorio El Pessebre. But we travelled to France in search of a little-know aspect of Casals, his sacred music. This was dedicated to the monks of Santa Maria de Montserrat who published it and performed his Masses and Rosary as part of the liturgy in their Abbey church. As part of an imaginative concert in Commequiers the Ensemble Vocal de la Cathédrale de Nantes directed by Louis-Marie Burgevin were giving rare performances of two of Casals sacred works. (The full programme of the concert can be found here.) Moreover, as if Casals was having the last laugh over Stravinsky from the great cello section in the sky, the programme also contained Zoltán Kodály's fine Stabat Mater. The two compositions by Casals were his Tota Pulchra and Salve Montserratina. Stravinsky they certainly are not. But these are beautifully crafted works that are none the worse for dwelling more in the past than the future, and the moving Salve Montserratina was quite deservedly given again as an encore at the end of the French ensemble's concert. These are scores well worth searching out by choirs looking for something different but accessible to add to their programmes. If the fine, but conservative in style, choral music of Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre can be so fashionable today why can't the choral music of Pablo Casals at least be heard?
Sadly you will have to take my word about the relative merit of Casals' music. With the exception of a few mixed choral programmes it is very poorly represented on the CD. The Escolania choir from Santa Maria de Monteserrat made a recording in 1987 (see sleeve below) which was also issued by Koch. But this appears to have been a victim of Koch's acquisition by Universal Music two years ago and has disappeared from the catalogue. His oratorio El Pessebre has faired little better, with a recording on the Naive label by Catalan forces under Lawrence Foster only lasting a few years before being deleted. Pablo Casals' sacred choral music is most definitely worth searching out; but, like us, you may have to travel to France to hear it.
Primary sources included:
- Joys and Sorrows, reflections by Pablo Casals edited by Alert E. Khan (Macdonld ISBN 356030482) - out of print but well worth buying at very low price from specialists. Not an autobiography, but, as the title suggests, a collection of relections which can sometimes be self-serving. Very good photos by Khan (see note below) which are the source, with full acknowledgement of the portraits in this article.
- Song of the Birds, sayings, stories and impressions of Pablo Casals edited by Julian Lloyd Webber (Robson ISBN 086051305 out of print) - an engaging little book which is essential to any music lovers' library. But, alas, the individual sources of the quotationss are not identified.
- The programme for the Commequiers concert and the Escolania recording quite rightly list the composer as 'Pau Casals'. He preferred the Catalan 'Pau' to the Spanish 'Pablo', but his attempts to be known as Pau were frustrated by his agents who insisted that he was known worldwide as Pablo. In this article I have followed common usage.
- Full biography of Casals here.
- Read more about Marta Casals Istomin and Sarolta Kodály Péczely here.
- Albert E. Kahn, the American editor of Casals' book of reflections noted above, is a very interesting character in his own right. He was a Communist and political activist who was blacklisted by mainstream publishers for his outspoken views on the Cold War. His best-selling of books included Sabotage! The Secret War Against America (1942), and he also wrote a 'fairy tale' for adults titled Smetana and the Beetles. Read more here.
- Two paths converge in Prades in the French foothills of the Pyrenees. Casals settled there in exile at the end of the Spanish Civil War and established his famous Bach Festival there after the Second World War. The great Catholic monk, mystic and humanitarian Thomas Merton, who shared many of Casals' preoccupations with human rights, was born in Prades in 1915.
Photos of Pablo Casals by Albert E. Kahn. Header photo taken by me during a rehearsal of Casals' Salve Montserratina sung by l'Ensemble Vocal de la Cathédral de Nantes in l'Eglise Saint Saint-Pierre, Commequiers, France is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2008. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk