Pablo Casals

I took a class in grad school called “Music and the Emotions,” where we debated any number of bizarre topics (like, does music evoke emotions – as most people generally believe – or does music evoke the form of emotions; that is, does a sad song make you feel really sad, or does it simply make you feel the form of sadness?). During one session, I forget why, we listened to various recordings of one of Bach’s cello suites – Mischa Maisky’s, Rostropovitch’s, Yo Yo Ma’s, and Casals’s. It’s always hard to evaluate versions of something when you know one version well. And I, like I think most Bach lovers, know Casals’s version best. (In fact, the cello suites weren’t well known in the early 20th century. A thirteen year-old Pablo – actually Pau – found a version of them in a sheet music store, bought them, and studied them for thirty or so years before making the recording that brought them to the attention of a wide public.) Nonetheless, I argued vehemently that Casals was hands-down the best. I couldn’t – and still can’t – believe that some class members argued for the version of Yo Yo Ma. Now, he’s a very fine player, and the suites will knock you out regardless of what competent player plays them; but the difference between Yo Yo Ma playing Bach and Casals playing Bach is kind of like the difference between Blind Willie Johnson playing the blues and Eric Clapton playing the blues. I argued – and still argue – that Casals is the best, because his versions really are deeper. I got the distinct sense that some of those who were defending the others were doing so because they wanted to have a distinct, cool position. I got that sense because I’ve felt and acted that way myself. I remember at about the same time in my life someone’s asking me my favorite Miles Davis album and I went out of my way to avoid saying Kind of Blue, even though I really think that is his best. The lesson: Just because something is thought to be the best is not in itself a sufficient reason for thinking it isn’t the best.

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3 Responses to Pablo Casals

  1. Uncle Newtie says:

    The Clapton analogy is cuttingly apt.

    You also introduced me to Starker, whom I had the pleasure of seeing lead a masterclass at Oberlin. My favorite counsel: “good tone is good conscience.” Perhaps the most efficient yet fundamental advice one could give in a mere five words.

  2. Check out this good conscience:

  3. Uncle Newtie says:

    Starker’s demeanor seems to be private in an intimate yet restrained way; Gould private in a unselfconsciously ecstatic way; Ma public in a shamelessly directive way (orchestrating your emotive response so you smugly know how you ought to be feeling at every moment). Ma = middlebrow Muzak.

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