Among the many holidays and special dates crowding the calendar in December, one is of particular interest to music lovers: International Cello Day.
Why December 29? It’s the birthday of celebrated cellist Pau Casals.
Pau (or Pablo as he’s sometimes known) Casals was a towering figure in the world of classical music, and he helped to raise the profile of the cello as a solo instrument around the world.
Casals was born in Vendrell, Spain on December 29, 1876. After early training as a child in the piano as well as the cello, and in composition, he made his orchestral debut in Barcelona at the age of 15 in 1891.
Even as a student in Madrid, and later in Brussels, he began to turn heads with his innovations to traditional techniques. Among other things, he used a freer bowing technique, with a nimble left hand that made his virtuoso performances look easy. Above all, he was known for the lovely singing tone of his playing.
He became a sought after soloist in his early 20s in Paris, and toured the world from about 1899 until 1917. Because of the outbreak of WWI, he moved his home base to New York in 1914. In 1919, after the war ended, he was instrumental in founding the École Normale de Musique in Paris.
Along the way, he was also establishing himself as a conductor. Casals established and conducted his own Orquestra Pau Casals in Barcelona from 1919 until 1936. He went on to become a regular conductor at many international music festivals, including the Prada Festival and Marlboro Festival. Among his notable compositions is El Pessebre, an oratorio that Casals conducted around the globe. He wrote other vocal music, along with chamber and large-scale orchestral compositions.
As a foe of the Fascist forces in Spain, Casals left the country in 1936 and settled just across the border in Catalan France until WWII was over. He made his opposition to Franco’s Fascist government well known. In 1957, he moved to Puerto Rico, where he continued to advocate for peace. He died there on October 22, 1973 at the age of 96.
Pau Casals performs Bach’s G-Major Cello Solo at Abbaye Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, a Catholic monastery south of Prades in Catalan France in August 1954 at the age of 77.
Stringed instruments first appear in Europe during the 1500s, with the earliest depictions of the violin family found in a painting dated to 1530.
Along with the rest of the string family as we know them today, the modern cello’s roots are to be found in the mid-1600s, when Italian luthiers first discovered how to combine wire with animal gut to create smaller instruments with better sound, particularly in the bass range.
The cello was created by Bolognese instrument makers as a solo instrument in the latter half of the 1600s. It was already on its way to its current popularity by 1700, and became a favourite instrument of many Baroque composers.
Since the Baroque period, the cello’s body has changed slightly with available technology, as well as the demands of music through the eras. To play higher notes, it neck has gotten longer. In addition, the modern cello sports updated string and bow designs, and a metal endpin.
Long live the cello.
Canadian cellist Bryan Cheng performs at the 75e Concours de Genève semifinals in 2021 (he eventually took second prize).
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