Saturday, June 30, 2012

Pau Casals: the Musician and the Man

“Music, this wonderful universal language, should be a source of communication between all people.” Pau Casals.

There are a lot of important Catalan people who have become famous all over the world, and today I'd like to tell you about one of them: Pau Casals, the cello player, conductor and composer who lived between 1876 and 1973, pictured here with pianist, composer and friend Enric Granados (in the back).

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to visit his summer house in San Salvador, Tarragona (Spain). It is owned by the Pau Casals Trust, which he himself and his wife Marta Montañez created in 1972.

If you are ever around Tarragona, go and pay it a visit. The permanent exhibition shows the first string musical instrument that Pau Casals ever had: a carved pumpkin with a string tied to it that his father helped him build. You can see along some black and white family pictures.

Watching different audiovisual shows, you learn that it was Pau Casals's Puerto Rican mother who insisted on his pursuing a career as a musician.

He soon took up the cello and impressed teachers and fellow musicians by introducing changes in the way it was played, and started a successful international career. 

Here he is in 1954 playing Bach's Suite nr. 1 for Cello in Sant Miquel de Cuxà. It is part of a French documentary and they speak French for the first minute. I have chosen this video because you can see Casals arriving in the village...

His quality as a musician made him famous and he used that fame to unceasingly campaign for peace. And this is also what made him special.
For example, he chose not to play in Russia again in October 1917, after the Russian revolution, because human rights were not guaranteed. In 1933, he also declined Wilhelm Furtwängler's  invitation to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. He was then the most important German conductor at the time and one of the few to remain in Germany during the Nazi period. Casals later stated his decision not to play again in Germany "for as long as its musical life is not free".
In January 1939, after the occupation of Barcelona by General Franco's troops, Pau Casals went into exile. After a short stay in Paris at the home of Maurice Eisenberg, Casals moved to the Catalan town of Prades (southern France) and took up residence in a room of the Grand Hotel.

From there he began his campaign of aid for the Spanish refugees, together with his friend, the poet Joan Alavedra (father of Macià Alavedra, important Catalan politician in Jordi Pujol's governments). As part of it, in March, he gave a benefit concert for the Spanish refugee children at the Royal Albert Hall, with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Back to Casals's summer house in San Salvador, two mementos particularly impressed me:

* the booklets of the Workers' Concerts Association set up by Casals in 1926 to help the working class learn music and play a role in Catalonia's cultural life, and

* a photograph of himself playing the cello at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, on behalf of the Children's Aid Society, in October 1938, before he went into exile in January 1939, in what would be his last concert in Spain for almost 60 years.

I haven't been able to find online the photo I saw, but I have found this one featuring him also in Liceu, maybe in that very concert, on a blog about Josep Maria Alomà, related to anarchism and culture.

To read more about Pau Casals's rich life here is a more detailed biography

Here you can listen to Kirby Shaw's jazz arrangement of El Cant dels Ocells (Song of Birds) by Catalan choir Cor Vivaldi (together with other Catalan songs).

And here you can listen to his oratorio El Pesebre (The Manger)
I hope you enjoyed this post. If you are a cellist yourself, you'll probably like The Internet Cello Society 

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