The Cello Suites: In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece

About 15 years ago, I made a serendipitous discovery in an Oxford bookshop. At the back, in an old cardboard box, was a pile of bargain CDs - and among them, a recording of Bach's cello suites by Paul Tortelier for 50p. I don't know why I bought the disc, but I went straight home and played it. I recall how the very first bars almost made me stop breathing: how was a single instrument making so many things happen at once? The music was everywhere - conjuring glistening melodies, piquant, twisting harmonies, asking for technical prowess, muscle and, at the same time, supreme tenderness. It was intensely logical and introspective, but had a spirit of impish playfulness. This music seemed, almost, to be laughing at its player. Go on, it said, try and do all this with just a hollow wooden box, a bow and a few gut strings.

Eric Siblin, a former rock-music critic of the Montreal Gazette, had his own revelatory moment with the cello suites in 2000 at a Toronto concert marking the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. "I was in the audience,'' he writes, " . . . to hear a cellist I'd never heard of play music I knew nothing about. I had no reason to be there aside from a concert listing in a local newspaper, idle curiosity and the fact that I was staying at a nearby hotel.''

And so begins Siblin's lively account of his love affair with this music. It takes him to international musicology conferences and hushed private viewings of Bach portraits. He even learns to play the cello to try to commune more closely with the suites and their composer. And he goes on a quest to find the holy grail for all Bach lovers - the original manuscript, the notes in the master's own hand.

The suites were most likely written some time around 1720, while Bach was court composer in Köthen in Germany, but no one has ever found an original version of them. All we have is the edition the young Pablo Casals discovered in a music shop in Barcelona in 1890, a copy written by Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena.

It is the story of Casals - the firebrand virtuoso who brought the cello suites to international attention after centuries of obscurity - that forms the final strand of this book. Casals was a prodigiously talented cellist, a fierce Catalan leftist who was threatened by the Franco regime with having his arms amputated if he set foot on Spanish soil again. His heady mix of musicianship, political awareness and violent independence makes this the most fertile terrain of the book. It is cultural-political history of the most compelling kind.

Despite this, Siblin's architecture is problematic. He labels each chapter after a movement from the suites, creating an odyssey that links the life and times of Casals and Bach with his own journey of discovery. It's a nice idea, all this interweaving, but it doesn't entirely come off. Interpolating stories and centuries, trying to mirror the "counterpoint" of the music, requires writing of elegance, subtlety and imagination, and Siblin's conceit at times creaks at the seams. It's the kind of storytelling that is very much in vogue, seemingly disparate themes coming together in a single dramatic denouement. We don't get that here. The author admits, slightly limply, that he never found the original manuscript. More disappointingly, and significantly, he makes a typical mistake. By trying to find some kind of "truth" in the Bach paintings, books and arcana he surrounds himself with, he succeeds only in getting further away from the music.

What he does give us is a compelling portrait of a passionate, prickly Bach, a man who once had a swordfight with a bassoonist in the street after calling him a nanny goat "breaking wind after eating a green onion". This is not the stern, bewigged Lutheran of the famed Bach portrait, the archetypal grumpy Teuton. Rather, it brings to life a man who fathered 20 children, drank and smoked too much, was addicted to coffee and revelled in the sensuousness of life. In Siblin's world, Bach and Casals have real, beating hearts; these are not the fusty dead practitioners of a desiccated art form.

Siblin's enthusiasm for his subject is boundless and, as a newbie in a foreign land, he brings an unstuffy freshness to the often staid world of classical music writing. Whether or not his book adds to our pleasure and understanding of this elusive music, I am not sure. Certainly it doesn't move you, or make you think in the way that listening to one of the great recordings by Casals, Tortelier or Rostropovich can. What The Cello Suites does wonderfully, however, is celebrate the good fortune of discovering great works of art. Too often, we forge our sense of our cultural selves - the films, books and fine art we like - when we are very young and hardly deviate from our first loves. This book reminds us of the joy of exploration, of finding glorious things in the least likely places.

Suzy Klein is a presenter on BBC Radio 3.

The Cello Suites: In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece
Eric Siblin
Harvill Secker, 336pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN