In my project, I consider the cellist Pablo Casals, one of the greatest performers of his time, a transitional figure from what Haynes calls the romantic style, between the rhetoric style of playing and the modern style of today ((Haynes, B. (2007). The end of early music: a period performer’s history of music for the 21st century. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 32)). He is still today well known for his expressive performances and intense musical interpretations, and maybe best remembered for his recordings of the Bach suites.

When I was about 15, my grandfather gave me a big box of CD’s of a cellist named Pablo Casals. I was so happy because then I could listen to his version of the music I was working on at the moment, the Schumann cello concerto ((Schumann, R. (1952). Cello concerto in Aminor. On Pablo casals. The original Jacket Collection. Sony music)). But listening to it, I was so surprised because I had heard that this was such a great musician, yet he was adding glissandos, and it felt almost like he was playing out of tune? And I could hear him moaning on the recording. Still it was beautiful. Talking to musicians around me, I soon understood that he was considered old-fashioned. And not to mention how romantically he would play the Bach solo suites. I listen to it now, and I realize it is still touching me as it did nearly 30 years ago, a combination of timing, articulation and a maintaining of the tensions of the lines makes it so beautiful despite what we can say of the ideal of the performance practice of the 1950s. «There are a thousand things that are not marked. Don’t give notes, give the meaning of the notes», says Pablo Casals ((Blum, D. (1977). Casals and the art of interpretation. London: Heinemann, p. 49)). His sound is never uniform or boring, the expression is evident in every tone, and following the music feels like listening to him talking the music through. In interviews, Casals is quoted as referring to “the old natural laws of music”, which he saw as essential for all meaningful interpretation ((ibid, p.xx)).

Blum presents Pablo Casals principles (my listing):

  • Casal’s first principle, ch’i-yün, has been described as “breath-resonance life-motion”. A feeling of “flow” or “pneuma”. Presence in the musical moment, and as C.P.E. Bach writes: “play from the soul” ((Bach, C. P. E., & Mitchell, W. J. (1949). Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments: Eulenburg.))
  • His second principle is to find the design of the music, and follow the phrases and lines in the melody.
  • The third principle is about the importance of diction and articulation for instrumentalists.
  • The fourth principle regards perceiving time relationships and the art of timing.

I see his musical principles pointing back to performance practices grounded in the Western European rhetorical baroque and classical art music tradition. Shaping the music as speech, with flexible timing, sensitivity and very clear phrases. Casals says: ”The art of interpretation is not to play what is written” ((Blum, D. (1977). Casals and the art of interpretation. London: Heinemann, p. 69)). In his Masterclasses, he asks his students to “speak the music” and he talks about letting the intensity of expression evolve organically with the melodic curve. He plays and sings more than he talks, showing musically what he means, shaping the music as “speech”, and he talks about letting the intensity of expression evolve organically with the melodic curve ((Hammid, A. (director)(1961). Master Class series Casals – 2 Bach suites 1 and 3 [DVD], The Library of Master Performers: Shar Products company)).

Blum nominates as one of the most important principles for Casals, the Asian “first principle”, to have Chi, the experience of art has an immediate effect on the listener’s mind and body. Throughout my reflections, I occasionally return to his thoughts.

Further reading…