Paul Cooke remembers a Spanish cellist and musical guru

My father was a keen photographer, and our family used to enjoy slide nights where we would relive earlier times. Years later, he scanned a selection of these slides and put them on a disc for me. Mostly they were of the family, either at home or on holidays. But there was one which was a real anomaly: a photograph of Pablo Casals, not taken in the flesh but during a television program. What was that doing among the family snaps?

Pablo Casals was born in the north-eastern Spanish region of Catalonia in December 1876. He was taught music by his father, becoming accomplished on piano, organ and violin, before discovering the cello and attending the Barcelona Municipal Music School and conservatories in Madrid and Brussels. He made his debut performance in Barcelona in February 1891; equally crucial for his career, he had come across the scores of Bach’s six unaccompanied cello suites and set about studying them and working on them. While they were not unknown, no previous cellist had regarded them as anything more than exercises; Casals, however, began playing them in public, often programming one of them alongside a concerto, and wrote of them: “They had been considered academic works, mechanical, without warmth. How could anyone think of them as being cold, when a whole radiance of space and poetry pours forth from them!”

His international career began with performances of Lalo’s Cello concerto in Paris and London in 1899, before touring the United States in 1901. In 1905 he formed a trio with violinist JacquesThibaud and pianist Alfred Cortot, who performed together for three decades, until Casals’ busy schedule made it impossible. They made six recordings in the late 1920s, the first of which was Schubert’s Trio in B flat: it has been suggested that, playing ‘with all their finesse, effervescence and warmth’, no recording career had ever got off to a better start. Former SSO concertmaster Donald Hazelwood heard this recording on the radio a couple of decades later and commented on the ‘exquisite playing on the part of all three’. Casals also performed in trios with Jelly d’Aranyi and the Australian Frederick Septimus Kelly, and with Fritz Kreisler and Ignaz Paderewski. He founded and conducted the Orquestra Pau Casals, which notably performed Beethoven’s Symphony no 9 in Barcelona in 1931 to mark the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic.

The republic was not to last, with civil war instigated by rebel forces under Francisco Franco, ensuing in 1936. Casals went into exile in Prades in southern France. He gave many concerts in France during World War II to assist the Red Cross and fellow exiles, but chose not to perform in any country that continued to recognise Franco’s regime. He was persuaded by Alexander Schneider, who had visited Prades to work with Casals on Bach’s music for unaccompanied violin, to organise a festival of eminent musicians to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the death of Bach. The first festival took place in June 1950 and brought about a new lease of life for Casals as conductor, chamber musician, teacher, and musical guru.

And here is the reason for the Casals photo among the family snaps… My uncle, Nelson Cooke, resigned from his position with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1949 to advance his musical training at London’s Royal College of Music with Ivor James, who in turn suggested he seek out Casals. So it was that Nelson spent much of 1951 and 1952 in Prades. He found that Casals was a very strict teacher: it was ‘hard work and no fun. Studying with the world’s best was serious business indeed’ but was nevertheless ‘an experience never to forget’ – and he was invited back in 1953, to perform in the festival orchestra.

Inspired by his mentor, Nelson went on to have a rewarding career as performer and teacher in England, the United States and Australia. Casals himself didn’t rest on his laurels. He moved to Puerto Rico, his mother’s homeland, in 1956, founding a festival there; played at the United Nations in New York in 1958, for President Kennedy at the White House in 1961, and conducted some of his own compositions, including the oratorio Il pessebre (The manger). He died 50 years ago, on 22 October 1973.

The heart of a melody: remembering Pablo Casals will be broadcast as a Sunday Special at 3:00pm on Sunday 22 October.