Pablo Casals

1876 1973

Pablo Casals

Composer • Cello


The Catalan cellist and composer Pablo Casals was one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. He is known not only as the premier virtuoso of his generation, but also as a deeply political and spiritual man, and an activist for the oppressed all over the world.

Casals was born in the Catalan region of Spain, giving him an instant identity which would remain powerful throughout his life. His father, the organist and choirmaster at the local church, was the first to expose him to music, and his progress was rapid. By the time Casals was nine years old he had studied piano, violin and organ, sung in the local church choir and begun composing. However, he didn’t have any interaction with the cello until he was eleven years old, when he saw it performed at a recital. Inspired, the young Casals managed to convince his mother to let him study music, and he enrolled in the Municipal School of Music in Barcelona, where he studied with José García.

From that point, Casals’ musical skills developed at a prodigious pace. On matters of technique in particular, Casals frequently was at odds with his teachers, instead forging his own way through innovative bowings and fingerings. In this way he managed to develop an innovative approach that was far ahead of the other cellists of his time in terms of sound, intonation and facility. It didn’t take long for his fame to spread. Upon seeing Casals play, the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz was effusive with his praise, and recommended him to play for the court of Queen Regent Maria Cristine. The Queen Regent was impressed with his talent and was able to secure scholarship money for Casals to further his education in Madrid and later, Brussels. Meanwhile, he began playing in Orchestras throughout France and Spain, and gave his concert debut in Paris in the year 1899.

Of the three self-described pillars on which Casals built his life: God, appreciation of nature and the music ofJohann Sebastian Bach, it was the latter which would elevate him to the status of one of the most influential performers of his generation. Bach’s music was still very much in vogue at the time, as it has always been, but mostly the focus was on his cantatas and works for organ. His solo music for strings, notably the Cellos Suites and the Violin Partitas and Sonatas, where seen as dry and impassionate exercises, not something worthy of being played by serious musicians. Famously, Casals meticulously studied the works for the ten years before even performing them in public, and afterwards continued to play at least one Suite a day for his whole life.

Although innovative, Casals interpretations of Bach have raised criticism for their historical inaccuracy. Casals, a romantic at heart, approached the music with a level of expressiveness and passion which, in the words of one critic for theAtlantic “vividly projects the image of a powerful Romantic sensibility engaged in an unceasing, heroic struggle with itself and with the universe.” However, this was largely before the research from the 1940s and later which advocated a refined and light approach more characteristic of the Baroque era. Regardless of these discrepancies in taste, Casals’ recordings of the Suites show a deeply personal style, and hold a special place in history.

Casals is one of very few musicians who was able to use his international standing to successfully advocate progressive political views. Throughout his career he refused to play in countries he viewed as oppressive towards their people, for example the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution, and Germany and Italy during World War II. However, his sensibilities were most personally offended by the rise of the fascist Francisco Franco in Spain. Following his takeover in 1939, Casals vowed never to play in Spain while Franco ruled there. Finally in 1946 when it became clear that Franco would remain in power, Casals declared he would never perform again, taking a powerful stand against authoritarianism through a musical vow of silence.

Encouraged by friends and admirers, Casals did finally begin playing the cello again in 1950, just in time to perform for the Bach bicentenary celebrations. At the end of this concert, Casals performed the traditional Catalan song “Song of the Birds” as both a sign of nationalistic pride and solidary with the oppressed in Catalonia and throughout all of Spain under Franco’s dictatorship. He would continue the practice of ending all of his future performances with this song, a symbolic act of musical protest.

No longer welcome in Spain, Casals move to Puerto Rico in 1956 where he became a major force in the artistic revival on the album. He is the founder of a symphony orchestra and a music school there, in addition to the famous Casals Festival. After leaving Europe, Casals again made a vow, this time never to play in a country that had formally recognized the Franco regime. He broke this only once, by accepting an invitation in 1961 to play at the White House for John F. Kennedy, a man Casals considered as a great personal inspiration.

Many of Casals compositions went unpublished and unheard during his lifetime, with the notable exceptions beingEl pessebre (1943-1960) and his famous Hymn to the United Nations(1971), the debut performance of which he conducted before the United Nations General Assembly at the age of 95. Like his playing, his compositions are simple and traditional, with a reverence for the great composers of the past. In composing, as in every facet of his life, Casals was in constant search for beauty, and in his words “music is an affirmation of the beauty man is capable of producing.”

Images courtesy of public domain