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Pau Casals:Music for the Peace

March 5, 2014

“Music, this marvellous universal language, would have to be a source of communication between all people”

” My contribution to peace may be small, but at least I will have given all I can to an ideal I hold sacred”

Pau Casals

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 Pau Casals was internationally recognized as one of the best performers and orchestra conductors of his times, and one of the greatest cellists of all time.

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Casals’ significance transcended his musicianship, phenomenal though it was. In the words of Thomas Mann’s eloquent tribute, his “proud, utterly incorruptible integrity … purifies and elevates our conception of the artist” and was “the symbol of the indissoluble union of art and morality.” Yehudi Menuhin agreed: his “simplicity, grandeur and integrity restore our faith in human nature.”

Casals’ art is intimately bound to his life; it’s pointless to consider one without the other. His outlook was moulded in his native Catalonia, an intensely verdant mountainous pocket of the Pyrenees with a history of democracy and fierce independence from neighbouring Spain, to which its language and culture were often subjugated.

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Born in El Vendrell on 29 December 1876, he showed a great sensitivity for music from childhood. His father, was a parish organist and choirmaster, taught Pau his first notions of music, which Casals would go on to extend through studies in Barcelona and Madrid.

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The man who would become the world’s greatest cellist never heard one until age 11. By then he was an accomplished singer, pianist, violinist and (once his feet could reach the pedals) organist. Three years earlier, when he had been enthralled by a street performer on a makeshift upright bass consisting of a bent broom handle with a single string, his father made him a crude replica from a gourd. (As a reminder of his humble origins, Casals kept it displayed in his home all his life). When Casals finally heard a cello in a trio visiting his remote Catalan village, its sound stirred him as human and profound.

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Casals landed his first professional job at the Café Tost in Barcelona. Soon he began to devote one night each week to classical music, to which he was becoming increasingly attracted. Among patrons drawn to this curiosity was Isaac Albeniz, one of Spain’s most famous composers and pianists. Swept away by Casals’ talent, he brought the boy to Madrid and arranged royal patronage, who provided an education, support and exposure to other arts.

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At the age of twenty-three, he started out on his professional career and performed in the world’s most famous concert halls. In 1899, Casals played at The Crystal Palace in London, and later for Queen Victoria at Osborne House, her summer residence. On November 12, and December 17, 1899, he appeared as a soloist at Lamoureux Concerts in Paris, to great public and critical acclaim. He toured Spain and the Netherlands with the pianist Harold Bauer in 1900–1901; in 1901–1902 he made his first tour of the United States; and in 1903 toured South America.

On January 15, 1904, Casals was invited to play at the White House for President Theodore Roosevelt. On March 9, of that year he made his debut at Carnegie Hall in New York, playing Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote under the baton of the composer.

Back in Paris, Casals organized a trio with the pianist Alfred Cortot and the violinist Jacques Thibaud; they played concerts and made recordings until 1937. Casals also became interested in conducting, and in 1919 he organized, in Barcelona, the Pau Casals Orchestra and led its first concert on October 13, 1920. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the Orquesta Pau Casals ceased its activities.

Casals was an ardent supporter of the Spanish Republican government, and after its defeat vowed not to return to Spain until democracy was restored. Casals performed at the Gran Teatre del Liceu on October 19, 1938, his last performance in Catalonia before his exile.

He settled in the French Catalan village of Prada de Conflent, near the Spanish Catalan border; between 1939 and 1942 he made sporadic appearances as a cellist in the unoccupied zone of southern France and in Switzerland. So fierce was his opposition to the dictatorial regime of Francisco Franco in Spain that he refused to appear in countries that recognized the authoritarian Spanish government.

He made a notable exception when he took part in a concert of chamber music in the White House on November 13, 1961, at the invitation of President John F. Kennedy, whom he admired. On December 6, 1963, Casals was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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As a performer, he made innovative changes in the way of playing the cello, introducing new technical and expressive possibilities. As a conductor too, he sought depth of expression – the musical essence which he achieved with the cello. Pau Casals was also a teacher and a composer, writing works such as the oratorio “El Pessebre” (The Manger), which became a veritable hymn to peace.

The outcome of the Spanish Civil War obliged him to go into exile, settling first in Prades (France) and later in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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In addition to his extraordinary career as a musician, Pau Casals was always a staunch defender of peace and freedom. His numerous benefit concerts, his commitment to humanitarian actions and his various speeches at the United Nations characterized him clearly as a man of peace.

 

UNITED NATIONS SPEECH – 1971

During all his life, Pau Casals was fighting constantly for peace, justice and freedom. In recognition of this, in 1971 the Secretary-General of the United Nations, U-Thant, awarded Pau Casals the U.N. Peace Medal. The speech that Pau Casals gave to express his gratitude for this distinction, and afterwards his performance of “El cant dels ocells” (The Song of the Birds), form one of the most impressive testimonies to his human dimension.

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WORDS OF PAU CASALS AT THE UNITED NATIONS – 24 OCTOBER 1971

“This is the greatest honour of my life. Peace has always been my greatest concern. I learnt to love it when I was but a child. When I was a boy, my mother , an exceptional, marvellous woman , would talk to me about peace, because at that time there were also many wars. What is more, I am Catalan. Catalonia had the first democratic parliament, well before England did. And the first United Nations were in my country. At that time – the Eleventh Century – there was a meeting in Toluges – now France – to talk about peace, because in that epoch Catalans were already against, AGAINST war. That is why the United Nations, which works solely towards the peace ideal, is in my heart, because anything to do with peace goes straight to my heart.I have not played the cello in public for many years, but I feel that the time has come to play again. I am going to play a melody from Catalan folklore: El cant dels ocells – The Song of the Birds. Birds sing when they are in the sky, they sing: “Peace, Peace, Peace”, and it is a melody that Bach, Beethoven and all the greats would have admired and loved. What is more, it is born in the soul of my people, Catalonia.

Casals was also a composer. Perhaps his most effective work is La Sardana, for an ensemble of cellos, which he composed in 1926. His oratorio El Pessebre was performed for the first time in Acapulco, Mexico, on December 17, 1960.

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He also presented it to the United Nations during their anniversary in 1963. One of his last compositions was the “Hymn of the United Nations”. He conducted its first performance in a special concert at the United Nations on October 24, 1971.

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Pau Casals died in 1973 at the age of ninety-six in San Juan, Puerto Rico.. He did not live to see the end of the Franco dictatorial regime, but he was posthumously honoured by the Spanish government which in 1976 issued a commemorative postage stamp depicting Casals, in honour of the centenary of his birth. In 1979 His remains now rest in the cemetery of his hometown, El Vendrell, Catalonia.

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