Pablo Casals was a musical genius who is regarded as one of the greatest cellists and composers of the twentieth century. He was born in the Catalan region of Spain in 1876, and his first encounter with the instrument that would make him famous was an auspicious accident. When he was eleven, he attended a performance given by a group of traveling musicians where he heard the sound of the cello for the first time. His father built an instrument for him and enrolled him at the Municipal School of Music in Barcelona where his progress was nothing short of prodigious.
Early in his career Casals’ expressive style caught the attention of Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz. After hearing Casals play, Albéniz provided him with a letter of introduction to the private secretary of Maria Cristina, the Queen Regent in Madrid. As a result of Albéniz’ important contacts, Casals performed on several occasions at the palace and received a stipend to study composition. In 1899 after performing with many orchestras in Madrid, he made his successful debut as a solo cellist in Paris.
In childhood Casals developed the habit of walking each morning, and after being inspired by the natural beauty around him, he returned home and played two of Bach’s pieces on the piano. Throughout his brilliant career, Casals was captivated by Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions. Around 1890 Casals and his father found a rare volume of Bach’s “Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello” in a Barcelona bookstore. He studied and practiced them diligently for twelve years before performing them publically. He called the Bach Cello Suites “the great revelation” of his life saying, “I see God in Bach. Every morning of my life, first nature, and then Bach. I treat music as something divine.” Casals recorded the “Six Suites” in the 1930s, and power of his performance remains unrivaled after almost eighty years.
Pablo Casals was more than a breathtaking performer; he was also a social activist and ardent supporter of democracy. After the Spanish Civil War when the totalitarian regime of Francisco Franco came to power, Casals vowed never to return to his homeland until the republic was restored, and he stopped performing in protest. In 1950 Casals resumed his career in France at the Prades Festival, which was organized to commemorate the bicentennial of J.S. Bach’s death.
In addition to performing and conducting, Casals was an accomplished composer. His most notable compositions include “La sardana,” written for an ensemble of cellos, “El pessebre” (The Manger) an oratorio, and the “Himno a las Naciones Unidas” (Hymn of the United Nations). On October 24, 1971, two months before his 95th birthday, he conducted its first performance in a special concert at the United Nations.
Pablo Casals did not live to see the liberation of his beloved Spain from Franco. He died in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico on October 22, 1973 at the age of 96.