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Pablo Casals (1877-1973)

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Pablo Casals came from a small village in a remote part of Spain to become one of the world's greatest cellists.

He started playing the cello when he was 11 years old after he saw a cello played by a group of travelling musicians. He had never heard a cello before then, although he could already play the piano and violin.

Here is the toy cello that Pablo Casals' father made for him before he had a proper cello. It was made from a gourd (a sort of vegetable)!

When Casals was 17, the composer Isaac Albéniz heard him playing in a café and gave him a letter of introduction to the Queen Regent, María Cristina, in Madrid. Casals was asked to play at the palace. Casals also played for Queen Victoria in England and for President Roosevelt and President Kennedy at the White House in America.

This is a picture of Casals playing
at the White House for
President Kennedy

One day Casals discovered Bach's Cello Suites in a second-hand shop. The pages were old and crumpled but he knew at once how important they were. He hurried home, clutching them as if they were the crown jewels. Casals practised them every day for twelve years before he played them in public. He was the first person to play all the Cello Suites together. Before Casals played them, they were thought of just as practice exercises.

In 1936 General Franco tried to seize control of Spain. There was a civil war (a civil war is when people from the same country fight each other) and General Franco and his followers won. He became a dictator. He banned all political parties except his own. People were not able to be free. Franco ruled Spain until he died in 1975.

Casals loved Spain and he believed in democracy. (A democracy is the opposite of a dictatorship. In a democracy, everyone can vote and choose who rules the country.) When General Franco took power, Casals left Spain and said he would not return until it was a democracy again. Although he missed his country, he never went back to Spain because he died two years before General Franco's dictatorship ended.

Before Casals, the cello was mainly used to accompany other instruments. Sometimes children learning the cello were made to hold a book under their bowing arms so that they didn't move their arms too much and so that the tone they produced stayed always the same! Can you imagine your teacher telling you to play 'always the same'? Casals started to experiment with using his bow very differently. Sometimes he used only part of his bow rather than the whole bow and he tried to make different tones with his bow. He also used his fingers percussively (like percussion), instead of always moving smoothly.

You can follow this link to watch Casals playing Bach's Cello Suite, no.1.

Here Casals plays the Catalan folksong The Song of the Birds