for Orchestra of Cellos (1927)
Pablo Casals (1876-1973)
The Catalan cellist Pablo Casals was recognised as one of the greatest ever exponents of his instrument as well as a noted conductor and teacher. His international recital and concert tours before and after the First World War, and his formidable artistry, did much to broaden appreciation of the cello and its repertoire around the world. His subsequent opposition to the Franco regime in Spain impelled him, however, into a self-imposed partial exile from public performance over a considerable period, and in 1956 he settled in Puerto Rico, where he lived to the age of 97.
The Sardana is the national dance of Catalonia - a circle dance for men and women holding hands. Despite the intricacy of its steps, almost all Catalonians participate, whether in urban or rural settings. Casals, born near Barcelona, was understandably fond of it and the eight-part of Sardana he composed in 1927 for orchestra of massed cellos has all the dynamism and pent-up energy of this dance, for all that its scoring has little in common with the cobla bands which normally provide the music.
Casals does indeed bridge the gap to some extent during the course of the work, calling on one occasion for some of the cellists to imitate the nasal, warbling sound of the "Grallas Tcine" - an instrument of the Cobla, derived (as is the oboe) from the medieval "shawm". Other members of the cello orchestra are required to perform a "Drum Imitation" by combining strong accents with tremolos on the lower strings, and still others mimic "Devil Drums" by playing rhythmic, crushed chords, also in the bass register. A "Plainchant", played unexpressively - without vibrato - adds to the texture and for a moment, in a passage reminiscent of the music of Charles Ives or Percy Grainger, we also hear a "Processional March" underneath the melody, but in a key quite unrelated to it!
Most of this exuberant piece, however, is direct and straightforward in its content, with an earthy, rustic character. It requires considerable virtuosity of its executants as it builds to a resounding C major conclusion.
(c) Edward Johnson