Trinity College 7th Grade Exam Syllabus : Bach’s Prelude (1st Cello Suite)

Recently I was watching one of those quiz programs on tv and the question was asked “what does Pablo Casals, Yo Yo Ma and Andrew Lloyd Webber have in common”?

Weirdly I knew the answer, but none of the contestants did…

Andrew Lloyd Webber being the composer of all those smash hit musicals like Phantom Of The Opera, Cats & Jesus Christ Superstar and I happened to hear an interview with him on the radio so I knew he played the Cello.

Yo Yo Ma, of course, is one of the Cello’s superstars today and because I’d read Eric Siblin’s excellent book “The Cello Suites” I knew that Pablo Casals was the original Cello virtuoso.

So the answer = they all played the Cello!

Yo Yo Ma

“The Cello Suites” written by Eric Siblin is a triple biography and a really unique story.

Siblin is a Canadian journalist who after attending a concert where he heard three of Bach’s Cello Suites decided that he wanted to learn the Cello so he could play Bach’s Cello Suites.

When I say it’s a triple biography… it’s firstly the story of Eric Siblin’s progress learning the Suites and the story behind them.

So it’s also a narrative on the 6 Suites themselves, Bach and his Cello Suites are the 2nd biography.

Siblin presents us with as much information as we have at hand today about why and who Bach wrote them for. Even when he wrote them…is not sure.

Nonetheless we have them and that’s gold!

Before I read Siblin’s book I didn’t know much about Pablo Casals, but after reading it I felt that I knew him and his story is the 3rd biography in the book.

It’s a great story too!

Bach’s Cello Suite & the Young Pablo Casals

Pablo Casals father was a church organist and piano teacher who taught the young Pablo at an early age and very soon he was playing the piano and violin.

At the age of 12 he saw the Cello for the first time and his obsession and life’s mission became mastering the Cello.

Later in a bookshop in Barcelona the young Pablo and his father found a 2nd hand copy of Bach’s Cello Suites.

Casals talked later about how he hugged the book all the way home.

He worked on them diligently until he could play them with authority.

He would recount how he played them at home for over 10 years before he played them in public but when he did present them to the world he became a sensation and a Stella career followed concertising and recording with some of the biggest stars of the day.

He was best known for his performances of Bach’s Cello Suites until all this was interrupted by “The Spanish Civil War”.

The war, Casals, along with with everybody in Spain.

Casals became a refugee, he recounted how in walking to France to escape the war he would sleep on the beaches and described the fear and desperation that he and the other refugees experienced.

Pablo Casals

After the war Casals became a passionate advocate and campaigner for refugees around the world and he received several awards for his humanitarian activism.

Casals had a long and illustrious career having played for Royalty, Presidents, and heads of state.

In 1893 he played for the Spanish Queen and a few years later he played for Queen Victoria in England.

In 1904 he was invited to play for President Teddy Roosevelt and 50 years later he played for President Kennedy.
The Spanish Civil War is so complex it’s hard to say who was right or wrong, good or bad.

The Republicans were backed by Stalin and the Loyalist were backed by Hitler so it’s often seen as a war between right and left.

Those terms came from France where the King ruled over a society so different to our own that we wouldn’t understand its comings and goings.

That society was divided into 3 classes or as the French called them “Estates”.

Those that fight, those that pray and those that work.

The Three Estates Of Pre-Revolutionary France

The 1st Estate, those that fight, were the protectors of the society so as such they were given privileges – they became the Aristocrats and Nobles.

The 2nd Estate, those that pray, or the clergy usually were the only ones who could read and write so if you had a legal matter your local Priest would be your legal representative.

If you were sick the monks and nuns could consult the writings of Galen or Hippocrates and give you the best medical care available at the time.

We can deduce that the church performed the role of what we call today the professions but on top of that it was where the poor could go if they were in need.

The Three Estates of Pre-Revolutionary France

So the church was the centre for charity and when there was no such thing as government welfare it’s obvious just how important the church was to a community.

Hence the church was also in a position of privilege.

The 3rd Estate, those that work would grow and provide your food, build your houses and make your clothes but because they didn’t the political leverage of the other two estates they were not able to command the same sort of benefits or concessions.

At Court the 1st and 2nd Estates sat on the King’s right.

If you think about it, if things are going well for you, how much change would you want?

You’d want to keep things the same or conserve things, you’d be conservative.

The 3rd Estate, those that work sat on the King’s left.

Now if we consider that, if things aren’t going your way how much change would you want?

You’d want change, you’d want progress so you’d be “progressive”.

So right wing is conservative and left wing is progressive.

I find it interesting to find out which Spanish supported which side in the war.

The great Spanish guitarist “Segovia” favoured Franco and the Loyalists while Pablo Casals supported the Republicans.

After reading Eric Siblin’s book I can’t help but think of Casals when I play anything from Bach’s Cello Suites.

Here in this clip I’m playing the Prelude from the 1st Cello Suite.

It’s a 7th grade exam piece with Trinity College London one of the most popular pieces for guitar and cello.

Eric Siblin wrote on the very first page of his book about this Prelude:

“The first measures unfold with the storytelling power of a master improviser. A journey has begun, but it’s as if composition is taking place on the spot. The deep toned strings take us back to the 1700’s. The sound world is happy. The Jauntiness youthful. Discovery is in the air”.

Eric Siblin
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