Casals, Bach, and the art of arranging the Cello Suites for solo guitar

Steven HancoffThu 25th June 2015

Steven Hancoff introduces a brand new ebook and recording

When I was first smitten with the desire to transcribe and record Bach's Solo Cello Suites, my idea was to transform each of the 36 movements – six pieces of music in each of six suites – into music for the guitar. 

The central issue of transcription is this: the cello is a one-note-at-a-time instrument – you can't play separate, concurrent melody lines and you can't play chords. That is, a cello soloist can play melody but not harmony. A guitar, on the other hand, is idiomatically suited, or even designed, for the musician to harmonize the music. 

Early on, it dawned on me that familiarizing myself with the life of this man might deepen my understanding of who he was, and that understanding would serve me to better organize the music. This man, 'the miracle of Bach,' as Pablo Casals once put it, led a life of unfathomable creativity and giftedness on the one hand and neglect and immense tragedy on the other.

He was orphaned at nine. He was widowed at the height of professional and familial contentedness. He fathered 20 children, and buried 11 of them. Yet, there is absolutely no hint of any sense of existential victimization or resentment about the most intimate and primal circumstances of his life: the deaths of the people closest to him.

In fact, a person cannot find anything in Bach's music except an abundance of majesty, poignancy, grace, regality, tenderness, a mighty intelligence, all cloaked in transcendent beauty, exquisite musical craftsmanship, and the highest degree of virtuosity. Seeking to fathom just how Johann Sebastian Bach did what he did in the circumstances in which he did it impelled me to deepen my relationship with this music, and even with an emotional/mental image of the man himself.

It seems inevitable that we idealize the greatest among us. It is difficult for us to grasp that this was a flesh-and-blood human being who faced the challenges of life that we all do - marriage, bosses, rent to pay, bills to meet, children to raise… I thought that if I could present visually what I was describing with words – portraits of the men and women about whom I was writing, of the towns and villages whose streets they walked, of the antique musical instruments they played, documents in Bach's own hand… these might put some flesh on the bones of the story. So, as I came upon more and more historical art and documents pertaining to his life and times, I began to insert them into my text. That process flowered. Now, there are hundreds upon hundreds of historical pictures and documents that illustrate this remarkable story, and we now have here the largest collection of Bachiana that has ever been compiled and made available in one place. (Visit the 'Bach, Casals & The Six Suites for Cello Solo' page at iTunes for more information about the ebook and recordings).

Added to all this is the indispensable role of Pablo Casals in rescuing the Cello Suites from oblivion. In short, on the very day that Casals’ father bought the 13-year-old child his first cello, Casals came upon the dusty Grützmacher manuscript in a second-hand bookstore near the Barcelona docks. Casals later wrote that he practiced them daily for 12 years before summoning the courage to present one in public. So, for about 200 years they lay dormant, and by sheer dumb luck, or for the more metaphysically inclined, by some other hidden force, it turned out to be Pablo Casals of all people who found them, and brought them to light.

To me, this is far and away the most serendipitous saga in the history of the arts, or even of western culture itself. 

Steven Hancoff

Steven Hancoff's 'Bach, Casals & The Six Suites for Cello Solo' ebook is available exclusively on iBooks. The audio-only recordings of the Six Suites arranged for solo guitar are available from iTunes.

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