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Casals: ‘I am a simple man’


I just came across this lovely BBC documentary about Casals. I could do without seeing the researcher, Robert Baldock, playing Bach and making coffee, but there is some lovely film of Casals teaching and playing, and walking around the square in Prades, his adopted home town and where he set up his festival. There are also charming interviews with some of the legends of another era, whom one rarely sees speak, such as Zara Nelsova, Alexander Schneider (‘I was a cook – I only played the violin on the side’) and Mieczyslaw Horszowski. Yehudi Menuhin and Bernard Greenhouse also offer their insights into Casals.

Casals talks about his philosophy: ‘I am a simple man. I don’t like complications. The same in music. I like what is natural, to read what the music demands and I try to do my best. The same in life. For me, this is civilisation.’

Menuhin has some interesting insight into the origins of this philosophy (which might sound a little patronising these days): ‘There was within him the wisdom, wiliness, secrecy and the conviction of the rural folk. He came from that stock, from a very small village, and that strength of mind, that sense of purpose, of knowing what he came for, that sense of continuity of obligation to the land, to the work, to the harvest, to the planting. The basics of his life were organic, they were solidly organic. He never lost that contact. He built on that with the security of a man who knows his purpose.’

Menuhin remembers what it was like to perform with him: ‘Playing with Casals was an extraordinary musical experience. He always reminded me of a jeweller: meticulous and precise and looking for the tiniest elements. That is the way musical interpretation is built up. You have to envision the grand, the complete, the global, to see the great lines, the whole structure, but then when you’re putting it together you have to be aware of the smallest details.’

Greenhouse remembers a metaphor Casals used in a masterclass on the Beethoven C major Cello Sonata: ‘There’s a beautiful phrase and I couldn’t do exactly what he wanted. Finally he said, “In the fall the leaves fall off the trees but they don’t fall straight down, they fall with a gentle caressing motion to the ground. Now you must make your phrase sound like that.” It immediately opened up a picture of how he wanted that phrase to sound.’

For all the simplicity and humility, different contributors make the point that Casals knew exactly his importance in the world – there was no false modesty or humility, and this extended to his fees – he charged much more than comparable stars of the age.

But when you hear him play the Schubert First Piano Trio slow movement theme, or when you see the footage of him aged 95 at the United Nations in New York passionately advocating peace in front of a rapt audience and then playing his Song of the Birds, it’s hard to begrudge him anything. Anyway, if you have an hour spare, watch and enjoy:

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