In his birthday month, we remember the iconic Pau Casals (29 December 1876 – 22 October 1973).
When did you first encounter the works of the great Casals? I was nine years old when my parents gave me a 3-LP boxed set of his recordings. This was my introduction to both Casals and the Bach Suites.
With a musical career spanning nine decades, Casals was one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century. Most of us know him as Pablo Casals, but
“His first name was Pau, the Catalan form of Paul; but professionally he generally used the Castillian form, Pablo, outside of Catalonia.” Virtuoso by Harvey Sachs, p. 130.
Whether you first encountered him as Pau or Pablo Casals, here are seven ways his legacy lives on today.
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1. Casals Modernized Cello Technique
From his first cello lessons, Casals objected to the technique he was taught. He said:
“We were taught to play with a stiff arm and obliged to keep a book under the armpit!” – Casals, Conversations with Casals by J. Ma. Corredor, p.25.
He experimented on his own to find greater ease in using his bow arm and also revised conventional fingering of the time, reworking the technical approach to both the right and left hand. Of fingering at the time, he recalled that:
“the hand in those days was cramped and cellists had to move it constantly up and down in fingering. I tried opening up the hand, enlarging and extending its reach, and I found I could play four notes without moving it, whereas players up until then had been able to play only three.” – Casals, Joys and Sorrows, Pablo Casals as told to Albert E. Kahn, p. 41.
Through his innovations, Casals revolutionized cello playing and brought cello technique into the modern era, much as Romberg had done before him. But in the end, one should not be aware of the technique that is used to create the music. As Casals put it:
“The purpose of technique is to transmit the inner meaning, the message of the music. The most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all.”- Casals, as quoted in The Great Cellists by Margaret Campbell, p. 83-4.
2. Casals Introduced the Bach Suites – and the Unaccompanied Cello
At age 13, Casals discovered a copy of the Bach Suites in an old music shop in Barcelona. He said,
“I looked at them with wonder: Six Suites for Violoncello Solo. What magic and mystery, I thought, were hidden in those words? I had never heard of the existence of the suites; nobody – not even my teachers – had ever mentioned them to me.” – Casals, Joys and Sorrows, p. 46.
He did not perform them in public until he was 25 years old. Casals told Kahn,
“They became my most cherished music. I studied and worked at them every day for the next twelve years. Yes, twelve years would elapse and I would be twenty-five before I had the courage to play one of the suites in public at a concert.” – Casals, Joys and Sorrows, p. 47.
Casals brought a fresh approach to the Bach Suites, viewing them as works to perform rather than as studies. He explained that previously cellists had:
“considered [them] academic works, mechanical, without warmth.” – Casals, Joys and Sorrows, p. 47.
He would play a suite in its entirety at concerts, rather than just a single movement as others had done before him.
Performing the suites had another effect on the way people perceived the role of the cello.
At the time, audiences and critics were not used to hearing an unaccompanied cello on the concert stage. In 1909, a critic in Hamburg wrote the following review of a performance by Casals, expressing his surprise:
“After having performed the Schumann Concerto, Pablo Casals played something very surprising. Imagine a cello being played alone, without accompaniment, in the huge Laishalle! That seemed curious at first, but while listening to him play the Suite in C major of J. S. Bach, one was very quickly captivated.” – quoted in Cello Story by Dimitry Markevitch, p. 51.
Violinists soon followed his lead and began to perform the Bach partitas and sonatas for unaccompanied violin in their entirety as well.
Casals not only added the unaccompanied suites to the cellist’s concert repertoire – and influenced violinists to follow suit, but he also established the unaccompanied cello as an instrument suitable for performances in large concert halls.
3. Casals Touched the Lives of Others
One of the most important ways that Casals continues to influence cellists and cello-playing today is through the legacy of his teaching (private lessons, masterclasses, and festivals) throughout his long career. In tracing family trees of teachers, many cellists will find connections to Casals – as will musicians who play other instruments.
Early in his career, at the age of 21, Casals took over cello teaching from his old cello teacher at the Municipal School of Music in Barcelona.
Later, when he lived in Paris, he helped found the École Normale de Musique de Paris, where he gave lessons and masterclasses.
He also taught many private lessons. After he moved to Prades and retired from giving public concerts, Casals taught many cellists who made the pilgrimage there to study with him.
Some had brief consultations, but others studied with him for a long time. Here is a list of just a few of the cellists who worked with him:
- Christopher Bunting
- Gaspar Cassadó
- Maurice Eisenberg
- Emanuel Feuermann
- Amaryllis Fleming
- Madeline Foley
- Pierre Fournier
- Raya Garbousova
- Maurice Gendron
- Bernard Greenhouse
- Mstislav Rostropovich
- Guilhermina Suggia
- Paul Tortelier
He also gave masterclasses around the world, including those at Marlboro, Gstaad, Zermatt, Tuscany, and Berkeley. Below is a short clip from one of his 1960 masterclasses at U.C. Berkeley.
Casals viewed conducting as teaching as can be seen in the 1967 video below about his work at Marlboro, where in addition to teaching cello and chamber music masterclasses, he conducted the orchestra.
When Casals stopped going out into the world, the musical world came to him. He started a music festival in Prades in 1950, the Festival de Prades, which continues today as the Pablo Casals Festival.
In 1956 Casals established another festival, this one in San Juan, Puerto Rico, called the Casals Festival. Here is a video from 31 May 1970: Casals conducts the first movement of Beethoven’s Triple concerto with soloists Isaac Stern, Leonard Rose, and Eugene Istomin, and the Casals Festival Orchestra.
4. Casals Composed, Arranged, and Transcribed Beautiful Music
In addition to his activities as a cellist, conductor, and teacher, Casals composed music from 1892 to 1972.
Although we are unaware of a comprehensive catalog of his works, his biographer H.L. Kirk has provided a list at the end of his Pablo Casals: A Biography (1974).
Kirk worked with Casals’ widow, Marta Casals Istomin, to prepare a catalog that appears in Appendix One of his biography. Also, Marta Casals Istomin has edited two volumes of cello works. We’ve compiled the two to create the following list of cello works.
- 1892, Barcelona – Concerto for cello and piano
- 1893, Barcelona? – Pastoral for cello and piano.* Below is a recording by cellist Lluís Claret and pianist Gerard Pastor.
- 1896, Barcelona – Reverie for cello and piano.* Below is a recording by cellist Adolfo Odnoposoff and pianist Berta Huberman.
- 1897, Barcelona – Romanza for cello and piano.* Below is a recording by cellist Peter Schmidt and pianist Katia Michel.
- 1897, Barcelona – Full d’Album for cello and piano.* Below is a recording by cellist Mariona Camats and pianist Yoko Suzuki.
- 1927 (dedicated to the London Cello Club) – Sardana for cello orchestra. Below is a 1993 recording of the piece by 40 cellists from London orchestras.
- 1935, San Salvador – Poème for cello and piano.** Below is a recording by cellist Mariona Camats and pianist Yoko Suzuki.
Cello Arrangements and Transcriptions
Casals created many adaptations and transcriptions for the cello. Unfortunately, this list is incomplete, but here are a few, also from Kirk’s list.
- El Cant Dels Ocells – a Catalan folk song, transcribed in several versions. The ones for cello are:
- cello and piano.** Below is a recording of Casals playing this with his wife, Marta.
- solo cello with string orchestra accompaniment. Below is a recording of Casals performing this with the Prades Festival Orchestra in 1954.
- solo cello with cello orchestra accompaniment
- Apré un Rêve (Songs, Op. 7) by Fauré – for cello and piano. Below is a 1926 recording of Casals performing this with pianist Nikolai Mednikoff.
- Andaluza by Enrique Granados – for cello and piano. Below is a 1928 recording of Casals performing this transcription with pianist Nikolai Mednikoff.
5. Casals Wanted Classical Music for All – Not Just the Elite
In the 1920s, Casals founded and partially funded an orchestra, the Orquestra Pau Casals, to enable himself to do more conducting and to enhance the musical life in Catalonia. In connection with the orchestra, he fulfilled another dream – that of bringing music to the working people, not just the rich.
He founded the Workingmen’s Concert Association (Associació Obrera de Concerts) in Barcelona. Beginning in May 1926, anyone whose income was below 500 pesetas a month, could pay a nominal fee to become a member, and Casals’ orchestra performed six concerts per year for the society.
At a concert in the autumn of 1928, Casals remembered:
“More than two thousand workers crowded into the concert hall. When I looked at those rows of simply dressed men and women waiting for the concert to start, I felt an indescribable elation.” – Casals, quoted in Virtuoso, p. 136.
At the end of that performance, the audience gave the orchestra a roaring standing ovation Casals said:
“Then they started chanting my name. Those shouts of the working people of Barcelona, I think, meant more to me than any applause I had ever received.” – Casals, quoted in Virtuoso, p. 136.
6. Casals Inspires Us at Any Age
Like athletes, there comes a point in life when some musicians start to feel “too old” for certain kinds of playing or musical activities. Amateurs often worry they are too old to start learning to play an instrument. For these folks – and for everyone – Casals is an inspiration in anti-ageism.
Casals’ musical career spanned over ninety years, having performed professionally as a choirboy from the age of five, and having played his last performance at age 96. Music made him feel young. In June 1973, four months before he died, he said:
“I am perhaps the oldest musician in the world. I am an old man, but in many ways I am a very young man. And this is what I want you to be! Young, young all your life . . .” – Casals, quoted in Song of the Birds by Julian Lloyd Webber, p. 110.
Musicians and non-musicians alike can find inspiration in the words of Casals and through the example of his nine-decade career. At 96, he explained:
“Age is relative. If we continue to work and absorb the beauties of the world around us we shall soon realize that an increasing number of years do not have to mean we are growing old. Now that I am in my nineties I feel some things more intensely than when I was a young man – and I find life more and more fascinating every day.” – Casals, quoted in Song of the Birds, p. 113.
7. He Fought for Peace through Music
Although Casals was devoted to music (he started his days by playing Bach on the piano, and practiced his cello daily throughout his long career), he was always aware of the world around him, fighting for peace through his music.
Like many musicians and music lovers, Casals used his music to help himself through the darkest days. He said:
“Throughout the atrocious years of the First World War . . . it was thanks to music that I was able to preserve my mental health in the midst of the world’s insanity. For me, music continued to be an affirmation of the beauty capable of being created by man; the same man who was now perpetrating so many crimes and unleashing so much suffering.” – Casals, quoted in Song of the Birds, p. 66-7.
Casals did not use music only for his own good. He spoke out against fascism so vehemently that one of Franco’s generals threatened to cut off his arms at the elbows if he were ever captured.
When he escaped from Franco’s invading forces to Prades, Casals worked to help Spanish refugees fleeing the fascist forces. He comforted his fellow countrymen through his music and raised money to help refugees by playing concerts.
Later, Casals refused to perform in countries that recognized or supported Franco.
The Cold War was a call to action for Casals. The threat of nuclear war inspired him to again fight for peace using his music. This time, instead of boycotting countries,
“I embarked on a peace crusade . . . with the only weapon I have at my command – my music. I had written an oratorio based on the Nativity called El Pessebre (The Manger) and I began taking this oratorio to the capitals of many lands.” – Casals, quoted in Song of the Birds, p. 66.
Casals greatly admired President John F. Kennedy. Even though Casals refused to play for government functions in countries that supported Franco’s fascist regime, he broke this personal commandment to perform for President Kennedy and his guests at the White House on 13 November 1961.
Although he did not live to present it, Kennedy intended to award Casals the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Lyndon Baines Johnson awarded Casals the medal on 6 December 1963.
In recognition of his work for peace, on 24 October 1971, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, U Thant, awarded Casals the U.N. Peace Medal.
Casals is an inspiration to us all to turn to music to help us through hard times and use it to make the world a better place.
What is your connection with Casals? How has his life and work affected you? Please let us know in the comments.