In his debut, a Canadian journalist traces the history of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six cello suites from their composition to their rediscovery almost 200 years later.
Siblin, the former pop-music critic at the Montreal Gazette, travels around the world following the suites through the lives of Bach and Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, whose performances of the suites launched them to their current fame. The author does a thorough job with the biography of Casals, whose life was nothing short of epic, and provides a capable travelogue of his journeys through Europe. However, when it comes to Bach and any sort of nuanced discussion of the suites themselves, Siblin falls short, failing to offer the slightest analysis or interpretation of the music. Even though the six chapters are entitled “Suite 1” through “Suite 6” and subdivided by movement (prelude, allemande, courante, etc.), these titles have little bearing on the actual text. This inability, or unwillingness, to address the music also affects the portion of the narrative devoted to Bach. While the facts about his personal life are quite intriguing and often very funny—he once got into a fist-fight for insulting a bassoonist—no true understanding of Bach’s life can be reached without an earnest engagement with his compositions, which Siblin mostly avoids, aside from a few mentions of polyphony and counterpoint. In later sections, the narrative turns to the author’s personal treasure hunt for manuscripts of the suites, which have yet to be found. It’s an interesting final twist on Siblin’s fixation, but readers may find it difficult to share his excitement, since the author neglects to examine what would be written on those sacred pages.
Emotionally sincere but lacking insight into the music or its composer.