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Pablo Casals Biography: The Legacy of a Master Cellist

Pablo Casals Biography: The Legacy of a Master Cellist

Pablo Casals

By Erica Garcia

Pablos Casals, Catalan birth name Pau Casals i Defilló, was born on December 29th 1876 in Tarragona, Spain. His father was a native of Spain and the organist in a local parish. Casals grew up in a musical household. By age four, he could play the violin, piano, and flute. Casals did not begin his cello studies until he was 11 years old.

Rediscovery: Bach’s Cello Suites

In 1890, Pablo Casals came across a tattered copy of the Bach Cello Suites in a second-hand music store in Barcelona. He would not perform these works in public until 1901. During this 11-year period, it is believed that Casals practiced the suites daily. Before Casals, the Bach Cello Suites faded into obscurity, nearly lost to time. While Casals was studying these works, he had no reference to cite. These suites were not commonly played, and there were little to no phrase markings. Pablo Casals had to discover the music within these suites, and, unbeknownst to him at the time, create a model for all future cellists to follow. Pablo Casals is noted to be the first acclaimed cellist to record these suites, which he did in London's Abbey Road Studios. He took three years, from 1936-1939, to record all 6 suites. 

Today, the Bach Cello Suites are considered to be golden standards within a professional cellist's repertoire. YoYo Ma released his third recording of the Bach Suites in 2019. These recordings have distinct variations within them, which highlights the different approaches that can be taken within Bach’s work.

Casals' Unique Approach to Bach

While Casals may have established the six Bach Suites as standards for modern day cellists, certain aspects of his approach may not have been considered standard. Harpsichordist Wanda Landowska famously said ‘You play Bach your way, I’ll play him his way,’ after a conversation she had with Pablo Casals. This quip was lighthearted, after a discussion in Landowska’s apartment in 1941, of how trills should be realized in Baroque works. In 1967, when asked if this conversation truly occurred, Pablo Casals broke out in a bright smile and shook with vigorous laughter at the 26 year old conversation. 

Promoting Peace in a Time of Turmoil

In addition to rediscovering the Bach Suites, Casal’s legacy was filled with the message of peace. In addition to living through both World Wars, He also lived through the Spanish Civil War that lasted from 1936-1939.  An estimated 400,000-450,000 people died during this three-year war, and it has been referred to as a dress rehearsal for World War II. From 1936-1975 Spain existed under the dictator Francisco Franco. In 1939, Casals fled Spain, and vowed to not return until democracy was restored. Casals passed away in 1973, two years prior to the end of the Francoist State. True to his word, Casals never returned to Spain during his lifetime.

From 1939-1956, Casals lived in the town of Prades, located in the south of France. During this time, he did not perform publicly. He bore witness to hundreds of thousands of refugees who were fleeing Spain during this time. In 1946, he announced his retirement from public performance, as a worldwide protest against the Fascist regime in Spain. In 1950, he returned to conducting and recording, but sparingly held live performances. One notable exception is when he played for President John F. Kennedy on November 13th, 1961 in the East Room of the White House. In 1956, he moved to Puerto Rico, where he would live until his death in 1973. During his time in Puerto Rico, he established the Pau Casals Music Festival, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra in 1958, and the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico in 1959.

Until his death, Pablo Casals continued to speak of peace, and against the Fascist regime of Spain. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 (the ceremony was presided over by Lyndon B. Johnson on December 6th, 1963). On October 24th 1971, he conducted one of his final compositions “Hymn of the United Nations” in a special concert at the United Nations. On that day, he was also awarded the U.N. Peace Medal. 

Pablos Casals passed away on October 22nd 1973, at 96 years old. He suffered a heart attack three weeks prior. In 1789, his remains were moved to be laid to rest in his hometown, El Vendrell, Tarragona. By this time, democracy was restored in Spain. In 1989, Pablo Casals, was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Pablos Casals left a colossal legacy for those to follow. He is remembered today not just for being a remarkable cellist and musician, but also a remarkable man who aided others and believed in peace.

Listen to the master cellist perform Bach’s Bouree I & II in C Major from Suite 3. 

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