‘It’s Beautiful, Isn’t It? Welllllllll. Beautiful Is Good’

So this guy Alexander Chen, who lives in Brooklyn (naturally) created this pretty cool thing, a visualization of the prelude from Bach’s first cello suite:

Baroque.me: J.S. Bach – Cello Suite No. 1 – Prelude from Alexander Chen on Vimeo.

Chen (who you may remember from a musical visualization of the New York subway system that made all New Yorkers wistfully wish the actual experience of riding the subway was even one-millionth as cool) writes of this project: “It came from a simple idea: what if all the notes were drawn as strings? Instead of a stream of classical notation on a page, this interactive project highlights the music’s underlying structure and subtle shifts.”

It’s a friendly, low-key companion, Chen’s Baroque.me project, a lot like the cello suites themselves. If you tab away from it in your Web browser, it makes a resigned little sound and stops playing, logically so, since it wants you to watch it at work. If you wander away and your computer goes into snooze mode, when you de-snooze it, the visualization will welcome you back with one quick plucked string. It’s also apt to just sound off now and then, randomly, as you do other things – write a blog post, take out the trash, nap on the couch – a reminder that it’s there, just hanging out.

Chen links in the description of his project to a video of Pablo Casals performing the prelude. This makes me happy.

My dad’s CD collection includes not one but two Casals performances of these suites – not different versions, but the exact same performance. While no doubt there are plenty of times when dad just forgot what he already owned and bought the same thing again, in this instance, I can totally understand having an exact copy just in case. Just in case you have the sudden urge to cozy up to a little Casals cello, and find you’ve misplaced copy number one. Just in case you want to play one in the front of your house, and the other in the back. Just in case your daughter absconds with one of your copies.

Also in dad’s collection is a version of the suites by Mstislav Rostropovich. Perhaps I am not giving his interpretation a fair shake, but after listening to Casals, I don’t want to. I felt less guilty about this after reading Rostropovich’s own somewhat apologetic comments in the liner notes. “Now I must pluck up courage and record all the Bach suites,” he says, before going on to describe how he felt on hearing Casals play one of these pieces:

“It was a rhapsodic interpretation of Bach, I’d say, like a dialogue, keenly aware phrase-by-phrase of the listener’s reaction. When Casals played it seemed impossible to interpret Bach in any other way, such was the force of his personality and his nature as an artist, his total conviction in what he was doing.”

Such force of personality, I would say, that even after it’s been distilled into a little metal disc and is coming out of a little black mesh box, you still can feel it.

Casals singlehandedly – by most accounts, including his own – brought these pieces into the public eye. He stumbled across them in a bookstore when he was 13, and says (in liner notes) of the encounter: “I did not even know of their existence, and no-one had ever mentioned them to me. It was the great revelation of my life.” He practiced them every day for 12 years, “and I was nearly 25 before I had the courage to play one of them in public. Before I did, no violinist or cellist had ever played a Suite in its entirety.”

The recording I’m listening to, made in 1936 and 1939, is on Norman Lebrecht’s list, published in his book “The Life and Death of Classical Music,” of 100 milestones of the recorded century.  Writes LeBrecht: “This is as much a testament as performance, a blueprint for the cello future.”

Just watch this video of Casals teaching. You’ll see. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Wellllll.”

One thought on “‘It’s Beautiful, Isn’t It? Welllllllll. Beautiful Is Good’