Harvill Secker, £14.99 (319pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Cello Suites, By Eric Siblin

Eric Siblin is in many ways just the kind of listener whom musicians love to find in their audiences: an open-minded voyager who's trying something new. JS Bach's cello music entered his life "by chance" shortly after he had ended a stint as pop music critic for the Montreal Gazette, "a job that had filled my head with vast amounts of music, much of which I didn't want to be there".

Despite his reservations about "the shroud of stuffiness" which surrounds classical concerts, he ventured out one night to hear Lawrence Lesser play Bach's solo cello suites. This was the very opposite of the electronic roar which had alienated him at a U2 gig. Instead, he heard the solitary, uncompromising voice of old Bach emanating from a simple wooden cello. To his own surprise, he was mesmerised. "What was coming out of those sound holes was music more earthy and ecstatic than anything I'd ever heard."

It was love at first sight, and he set off to bond with Bach's cello suites in any way he could, from historical research to taking up the cello himself. He was intrigued to hear that Bach's manuscripts are lost. Tantalisingly, Siblin holds out the prospect that he might track them down, but this sub-plot fizzles out without dénouement. The "search for a baroque masterpiece" of the sub-title is really more about his exploration of why he felt so powerfully drawn to these self-contained 18th-century masterpieces.

He discovered that they were largely neglected until, in 1890, the teenage Pablo Casals discovered an edition in a backstreet Barcelona music shop. Casals had the imagination and skill to realise the music's greatness, but he hesitated for 12 years before performing it in public. Today's cellists still treat the Bach Suites as a pinnacle of their art. Recording all six when he was 63, Rostropovich remarked that he couldn't forgive himself for daring to record one 40 years earlier. With its extraordinarily vivid sense of "speaking" the music, Casals's 1940s recording remains the benchmark for many, and in honour of this achievement Siblin weaves Casals's life into the book in counterpoint to Bach's. What makes this music so fascinating? The excerpts in the book show that many of the movements consist largely of recurring patterns. Yet within these slowly shifting patterns are contours subtly delineated and interior drama patiently revealed. There are no tempo or expression marks, thus forcing players to engage minutely with the material. Each cellist views Bach through a particular lens: the "historically accurate" approach; the soulful Romantic; the tossing-of-curly-locks egotistical; the "Johann Sebastian meets Jimi Hendrix" approach. Bach's inscrutable notes invite discovery and yet resist permanent solution.

Siblin casts his book in 36 short chapters to reflect the six dance movements of the six Suites. There are three protagonists: each literary "suite" contains three little chapters about Bach, two about Casals and one about the author, a format which feels a little contrived. Casals gradually emerges as having gripped Siblin's imagination more than "old periwig" Bach did. This is understandable because, as he points out, we know very little juicy detail about Bach's personal life.

Siblin sympathetically fills in all the blanks he can. But sometimes he seems to suspect Bach of being the kind of unfashionable person whose reluctance to "modernise" set the tone for today's classical music lovers. Siblin isn't complimentary about them, calling them elderly, stuffy and formal. He values the music, but can't see the point of listening in silence, even though without silence this kind of music would be inaudible.

"Classical concert setups are going to have to get with the program of the 21st century... if younger music fans are ever going to shuffle Bach alongside Bono, Beck and Björk on their digital playlists," he warns. The irony is that had old Bach "got with the program" back in the 18th century and abandoned his intricate, gravely beautiful counterpoint for the lighter, cheerier style that his sons favoured, his music wouldn't have had the depth or integrity that captivated Siblin two and a half centuries later.

Susan Tomes's new book, 'Out of Silence: a pianist's yearbook', is published by Boydell Press in March

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent