“For the past eighty years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house.”
So says Pablo Casals the great Catalan cellist in Albert E. Kahn’s book Joys and Sorrows (Macdonald, 1970)
A book which it is quite hard to get hold of and for which I waited a long time. My copy when it finally arrived smelt – indeed still smells – of damp, of the oldest Church or the highest shelf in the world’s oldest bookshop. It was sent to me by @worldofbooks.com who said:
“We noticed this book isn’t in perfect condition, but since we didn’t have another copy to replace it with we thought we’d send it to you anyway. We hope that you can overlook its imperfection and still appreciate the joy between its pages.”
They spoke wiser than they knew because this is one of the most joyful biographies I’ve ever read. Although the term biography is not strictly accurate. As Kahn says – the book is actually a structured and unified account of Casals recollection delivered over a series of live interviews but with the questions removed. Nor is it yet an autobiography but a hybrid between the two.
Casals lived much of his life on the Mediterranean coast of Catalonia near the town of Vendrell where he was born – this apart from time spent living in exile as a result of the Spanish Civil War.
His mother had been born in Mayagues, Puerto Rico of a distinguished Catalan family. When she met Casals father – a poor man who was the church organist and a piano teacher, she accepted a considerable reduction in living standards. Casals first musical appointment came at the age of 5, when he sang second soprano in the church choir. He followed up with a solo violin performance in Vendrell aged 8.
“Music was inside me and all about me; it was the air I breathed from the time I could walk.”
Just being able to walk wasn’t enough for a boy who longed to play the organ like his father. His feet had to touch the pedals! The child waited impatiently for that day to arrive which it did around age 9. Before long he was standing in for his father, playing the organ for Church services. At age 11 he heard his first cello and that was it! He was 14 when he gave his first official solo cello concert in Barcelona. Musical training in Barcelona was followed by Madrid, Paris and thence the great concert halls of Europe and collaborations with the world’s other great musicians beckoned. Fritz Kreisler, Harold Bauer “In Moscow I frequently played under the direction of Rachmaninoff.”
The great humanity of this artist shines through every word. Torn all his life between republicanism and his personal love and friendship for Queen Maria Cristina and other members of the Royal Family, Casals comes across as someone of great moral strength and principle. But still up for a laugh. When the book opens, he has received an invitation from a group of musicians in the Caucasus Mountains in the (then) Soviet Union to conduct an orchestra – a somewhat unusual orchestra. All the players are over 100 years old! The writer indicates that Pablo Casals will be the first musician of his age to receive the distinction of conducting this orchestra ‘but we feel that despite your youthfulness , an exception should be made.’ At the time of receiving this letter Casals was aged 93.
There is no-one he didn’t know or had not played for – from Queen Victoria to Roosevelt (Theodore) from Kennedy to European Royalty. But as successful as his musical career became, Casals could not separate himself from the suffering he saw around him. He was shocked and depressed by the Dreyfus affair, by growing world conflicts and the oppressions and cruelties he constantly witnessed. A devotee of Catalan language and culture and a lifelong proponent of democracy, the misery and destruction of two world wars followed by the desecration of his own beloved homeland in the Spanish Civil War nearly destroyed him, perhaps never more than when Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported Franco against the democratic and legally elected Spanish Republic. Outspoken in the cause of freedom, democracy and human dignity, Casals believed that had the Western democracies come to the aid of the Spanish Republic, the second world war might have been averted. Although he acknowledges that it is not possible to rewrite history, nevertheless Spain, he says, was the last chance to stop Hitler.
Friends told him that he took things to heart too much, that as an artist he should concentrate on his music. He replied:
“Does being an artist exempt one from his obligations as a man? If anything, the artist has a particular responsibility, because he has been granted special sensitivities and perceptions, and because his voice may be heard when other voices are not.”
Forced to flee Franco’s dictatorship into a thirty year long exile, despite the vicissitudes of two world wars – despite knowing exile, poverty and privation in exile, Casals survived and continued performing into the 1960’s. In 1963, on giving a concert at the UN for (then) Secretary General U Thant, Casals commented on a collection of national flags in the Secretary General’s office.
“What a wonderful thing! I told U Thant To have before you every day this symbol of the time when the nations of the world will stand side by side, free and equal and at peace! A few days after my return to Puerto Rico, a package arrived at my house. It contained the flags of the United Nations. That good and dedicated man had sent them to me as a gift. Today they hang on the wall of the living room of my home in Santurce …”