The Heart of Every Noble Thought

Pablo Casals 1876-1973

My opinion of Pablo Casals? I have no opinion, only profound respect and joyful admiration for a man whose art, for all its impetuousness, is allied to a rigid refusal to compromise with wrong, with anything that is morally squalid or offensive to justice. --Thomas Mann

WHEN PABLO CASALS began his public career in 1889, the romantic age was still unfolding. Brahms had only recently finished his fourth and final symphony, and people heatedly debated the merits of Brahms versus Wagner. Music, at the time, was still a remarkably elite art, and though giant city orchestras existed in many places, the greatest instrumental performers still had to win royal support. These musicians had no role in the problems of the world and many writers--the aesthetes--had begun their own retreat into the purely aesthetic sentiments they thought they saw in music. A cartoon of the period showed Tennyson reading his poems to an audience consisting solely of an enraptured Queen Victoria sitting at the opposite end of a long palace drawing room. The world of the artist was closed off from the offenses of the world outside.

Casals, as a young and admired cellist, inhabited this special world, and there was little in his behavior to suggest that he would later take exception to it, dramatically ceasing public performance to work in a camp for refugees from dictatorship. Casals talked back to some of his royal patrons, complaining of the flattery and hypocrisy at the court, but the Spanish royalty must have thought his comments harmless, for they continued their support. He was even invited to play for Victoria, whom he later remembered for the "white veil she wore on her head and the Hindu servant who placed a footstool at her feet."

Obsessed already with what he saw as a wretched, horrifying and unjust world, Casals grew terribly pessimistic after violent events in Barcelona on May 1, 1890; he became obsessed with suicide. But, for the next half century, he placed this view of the world in the back of his mind in order to concentrate on the more perfect worlds of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. During this period he revolutionized cello technique. He discovered the magnificence of the six long-neglected Bach suites for unaccompanied cello and brought this music before the public. He became the foremost cellist in the world.

He was an isolated artist and yet a humane one. For while he did nothing which could directly solve the problems which distressed him, he was an artistic inspiration. Bach's music, Casals said, "reached the heart of every noble thought," and he brought this nobility before more and more people.

FRANCO SEIZED Barcelona in 1939, and Casals's artistic neutrality ceased. He moved to Prades, in France near the border of Spain, where he helped organize and raise funds for the support of Catalan refugees. His refusal to play concerts in the fascist countries does not seem like a particularly bold or unusual move today, but Casals was one of only a few non-Jewish artists who took such a step. As the war drew to a close, he went on tour again, playing the cello and conducting. This tour came to an abrupt end. Casals had assumed that the allied governments would topple Franco. With the war over, and his hopes crushed, he said he would not play in any country which recognized Franco's regime.

But he then made a further statement--tragic, noble, but naively futile. He would not, he said, play any more concerts anywhere in the world until Spain was again free. Casals had no weapons with which to fight Franco. He was not of a political temperament and could think of no other action to take. His was an act of conscience which could find no effective way to express itself.

And so, in his last years, the great cellist was not an active conductor of the great orchestras, as he might have been. He taught, he directed and performed in the Festival Casals held near his home, he made occasional appearances elsewhere--and even these activities came only after Albert Schweitzer had convinced him that he should not merely protest fascism, but should create even while maintaining his protest.

Casals's political protest was a minor gesture when compared to the achievements of his art, but it shows something of the soul which inspired his public performance. While he was in occupied France his courageous acts saved some lives, and his refusal to play even caused the Nazi leadership some mild consternation. His boycott of Spain brought little frustration to Franco. But his passions were so strong that he simply could not play when confronted with innocent blood spilled, with the cries of his subjugated countrymen.

"The question," he said, "is whether art is to be a pastime, a toy for men to play with, or if it should have a deep and human meaning." The protests he made were a part of his art. The romantic, intensely feeling performances, which can still be heard on his records, were not just remnants of the over-expressive interpretations favored in the late 19th century, as some critics have said. Rather, those feelings which caused him to stop playing and to protest against fascism, through whatever form he could find, were so present throughout his life that they animated every note he played and made his music express the kind of peace he wished for the world.