In protest of dictatorships throughout the world, including the totalitarian Francisco Franco regime in Spain, cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973) refused in 1946 to ever perform on stage again. He eventually returned to playing for audiences but would not perform in countries that supported the Franco government.
From the age of ten, Pablo Casals began each day with a walk, taking inspiration from nature. These outings were always followed by playing two Johann Sebastian Bach preludes and fugues on the piano when he returned home. It was, Casals expressed in Joys and Sorrows: Reflections by Pablo Casals as Told to Albert E. Kahn, "a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with an awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being." A deeply reflective man, Casals imbued his life with his own spiritual triumvirate: the wonder of nature, the music of Bach, and God. This in turn informed his art. Technically masterful, revolutionary even, his cello playing was elevated by his belief, as he defined it for Kahn, that "music [was] an affirmation of the beauty man was capable of producing."
Casals always felt it his obligation to share with others this access to beauty that transcended languages and borders. When political and egotistical pursuits caused conflicts between his fellow men, however, Casals fought for peace by silencing that beauty. At the height of his artistic prowess he remained in exile, his cello quiet. Nobel Prizewinning writer Thomas Mann, quoted by Bernard Taper in Cellist in Exile: A Portrait of Pablo Casals, believed Casals's art was "allied to a rigid refusal to compromise with wrong, with anything that is morally squalid or offensive to justice."
Casals was born on December 29, 1876, in the seaside town of Vendrell, located in the Catalonian region of Spain. As a child he was surrounded by music. According to H. L. Kirk, author of Pablo Casals: A Biography, "The atmosphere of music cradled Casals's earliest fantasies; much later he spoke of being bathed in it all the time." Casals's father, the local church organist and choirmaster, would play the piano while the infant Casals, barely old enough to walk, would rest his head against the instrument and sing along to the music he felt. By the age of four, Casals was playing the piano. The following year he joined the church choir. A year later he was composing songs with his father, and by the age of nine he had learned how to play the violin and organ.
When he was 11, Casals decided to study the cello after having seen the instrument in a chamber music recital. Though his father wanted him to apprentice to a carpenter, his mother insisted he follow his inclination toward music, enrolling him in the Municipal School of Music in Barcelona, Spain. The young Casals disagreed with the technical constraints advocated by his instructors, preferring to bow and finger the cello in his own manner. His progress was extraordinary, however, and soon Casals's revolutionary techniques had exposed "a range of phrasing, intonation, and expressiveness that had not previously been thought possible, and [made] the cello an instrument of high purpose," Taper noted in Cellist in Exile.
Among those impressed by the ability of the young virtuoso was the Spanish composer and pianist Isaac Albéniz. Upon hearing Casals play in a cafe trio, Albéniz gave him a letter of introduction to Count Guillermo de Morphy, secretary to the Queen Regent of Spain, Maria Cristine. In 1894 Casals traveled to Madrid and gave informal concerts for the queen and her court. Over the next few years, his reputation spread as he played with various orchestras in Paris and Madrid. With his formal debut as a concert soloist in Paris in 1899—where he appeared with the prestigious orchestra of French conductor Charles Lamoureux—Casals's career was assured.
What audiences heard in Casals's playing was a suffused reverence for everything around him. "I have the idea of God constantly," he declared in McCall's. "I find Him in music. What is that world, what is music but God?" Those feelings were heightened for Casals in nature and in the music of Bach, as he indicated when he continued, explaining his morning ritual: "I go immediately to the sea, and everywhere I see God, in the smallest and largest things. I see Him in colors and designs and forms…. [And] I see God in Bach. Every morning of my life I see nature first, then I see Bach."
Casals's devotion to the music of Bach was no more fully realized than in the Six Suites for solo cello. Sometime in 1890 while browsing through a Barcelona bookstore with his father, Casals found a volume of the suites. The discovery was enlightening. Previously the suites were considered merely musical exercises, but, even at that young age, Casals saw in them something deeper, richer. "How could anyone think of them as being cold, when a whole radiance of space and poetry pours forth from them," he marveled in Joys and Sorrows. "They are the very essence of Bach, and Bach is the very essence of music." Casals studied and practiced the suites every day for a dozen years before he exposed them to the public, and he continued to play at least one suite every day for the rest of his life.
His performance of the suites both shocked and astounded listeners. During the nineteenth-century revival of Bach's music, only the cantatas and the religious works were played in public. It was believed that the solo music for strings had no warmth, no artistic value. With these "exercises," however, "Casals displayed the [German] master as a fully human creator whose art had poetry and passion, accessible to all people," author Kirk stated in Pablo Casals: A Biography. "[Bach], who knows everything and feels everything, cannot write one note, however unimportant it may appear, which is anything but transcendent," Casals stressed to José Maria Corredor in Conversations with Casals. "He has reached the heart of every noble thought, and he has done it in the most perfect way."
Casals's interpretation of the suites, his true testament, came into disfavor after the 1940s when a more historically correct reading of lightness and spontaneity was advanced, in marked contrast to his dramatic renderings. "Almost every movement of the suites, in Casals's hands," William H. Youngren maintained in the Atlantic, "vividly projects the image of a powerful Romantic sensibility engaged in an unceasing, heroic struggle with itself and with the universe." However, in a Strad review of a recent remastering of Casals's performances for compact disc, Tully Potter justified his passionate, ennobling vision: "He builds up great waves of sound and tension, achieving an enormous physical and emotional release towards the end of each one—a Romantic approach, perhaps, but valid here because the player's heart, soul, and sinew are so completely behind every note…. [It is] a spiritual exaltation rare in any performance and still more so on record."
As he approached Bach and music, so did Casals approach life and other people. "The pursuit of music and the love for my neighbors have been inseparable with me, and if the first has brought me the purest and most exalted joys, the second has brought me peace of mind, even in the saddest moments," Casals affirmed to Conversations With Casals's author Corredor. "I am everyday more convinced that the mainspring of any human enterprise must be moral strength and generosity." In 1891, while still in school, Casals came to understand the suffering and inequality of man as he walked among the poor on the streets of Barcelona. He vowed to use his gift from God—his music—for the welfare of his fellow people.
Throughout his career, Casals championed the oppressed and neglected by writing letters and organizing concerts. He refused to perform in countries practicing political tyranny and repression: the Soviet Union in 1917, Germany in 1933, and Italy in 1935. In 1920, for the benefit of the Catalonian people, Casals organized and led the Orquesta Pau Casals, using the Catalonian version of his name. He supported the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and when Nationalist General Francisco Franco rose to power in 1939, Casals announced he would never return to Spain while Franco was in power. He settled in Prades, France, giving sporadic concerts until 1946 when he renounced the stage altogether. In order to take a stand against dictatorships, Casals vowed never to perform again. As author Kirk put it in Pablo Casals: A Biography, "His withdrawal into silence was the strongest action he felt he could make."
However, in 1950, urged on by friends, Casals resumed conducting and playing, taking part in the Prades Festival organized to celebrate the bicentennial of Bach's death. Though he picked up his cello again, he did not forget his cause—at the end of the festival and every concert he gave after that, Casals played his arrangement of the Catalonian folk ballad "Song of the Birds" as a protest to the continued oppression he saw in Spain.
Casals never returned to Spain. In 1956 he settled in Puerto Rico, his mother's homeland, where he inaugurated the world-famous Casals Festival that spurred artistic and cultural activities on the island, including the founding of a symphony orchestra and a conservatory of music. During the rest of his life, Casals balanced his stand on the issues with his creative impulses. In 1958 he joined his friend, Nobel Prize-winning French philosopher and musicologist Albert Schweitzer, in calling for peace and nuclear disarmament. Casals also spoke and played before the United Nations General Assembly. He appeared before the General Assembly again in 1971, at the age of 95, when he conducted the first performance of his "Hymn of the United Nations."
Though Casals had resumed performing, he refused to play in any country that officially recognized the totalitarian Franco government—as did the United States. Until he died in 1973, Casals did not waver from this position, but for one important exception—in 1961 he performed at the White House at the request of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, a man Casals greatly admired. In Cellist in Exile, Taper quoted Kennedy's introduction of Casals on that day, "The work of all artists—musicians, painters, designers, and architects— stands as a symbol of human freedom, and no one has enriched that freedom more signally than Pablo Casals."
Throughout his life, Casals exalted in the divine presence he found in music and in nature. He also sought to inspire and promote harmony among people, both with his cello and his silence. At his funeral, a recording of "The Song of the Birds" was played. "At that moment," Kirk recounted in Pablo Casals: A Biography. "the noble voice of Pablo Casals's cello commanded pause in the ceremony of the day, a last salutation, eloquent, profound, overwhelming."
Further Reading on Pablo Casals
Blum, David, Casals and the Art of Interpretation, Holmes &Meier, 1977.
Casals, Pablo, Song of the Birds: Sayings, Stories, and Impressions of Pablo Casals, Robsons Books, 1985.
Casals, Pablo, and Albert E. Kahn, Joys and Sorrows: Reflections by Pablo Casals as Told to Albert E. Kahn, Simon & Schuster, 1970.
Corredor, José Maria, Conversations With Casals, Hutchinson, 1956.
Kirk, H. L., Pablo Casals: A Biography, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1974.
Littlehales, Lillian, Pablo Casals, Greenwood, 1970.
Quintana, Arturo O., Pablo Casals in Puerto Rico, Gordon Press, 1979.
Taper, Bernard, Cellist in Exile: A Portrait of Pablo Casals, McGraw-Hill, 1962.
American Record Guide, July/August 1991; November/December 1991; January/February 1992; March/April 1992.
Américas, July/August 1985.
Atlantic, November 1981.
McCall's, May 1966.
Musical America, July 1991.
New Yorker, April 19, 1969.
Strad, February 1989; September 1990.