Pablo Casals

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Music as a Mission

Pablo Casals in His Own Words

(A review of the autobiographical memoir Joys and Sorrows:Reflections by Pablo Casals)

Brooks Popwell

A Musician's Potential

History, in some ways, is an index of realized potential. Throughout the centuries, the Hitlers and the Neros, the Washingtons and the Chamberlains all demonstrate the dynamic power of a single human life to bring joy or pain to millions in his lifetime and beyond. The life of Pablo Casals gives modern musicians a glimpse of one man’s choice to give joy. Confronting a modern world too often plagued by apathy, the portrait of Pablo Casals in Joys and Sorrows asserts the potential power of the musician in society.

Casals' Fundamentals

The biography’s great strength arises from the complete picture which it paints of the famed soloist by using his own words. When one views Casals’ life in a panorama, he finds that the cellist’s successes sprang from solid character—a character fundamentally rooted in strong standards. For instance, as a man who didn’t care much for money, Casals once discovered that his most trusted agent had been stealing from his concert income. Instead of insisting on remuneration, he personally confronted the man on moral grounds and, contrary to his usually docile nature, shoved him through a set of hotel doors to encourage future honesty (Casals 108)! Casals displayed no less adimant integrity in his musical endeavors. Shortly before one performance of the Dvořák cello concerto, Casals announced he would not perform; he was convinced that the conductor, who (as Casals had just discovered) despised the work, would not do the piece justice (136). As a truly sensitive man, Pablo also managed to see potential within everyone. He immediately sensed the talents of lesser-known composers such as Moór (137) and Garreta (161) and pulled his good friend Ysaÿe, the violin virtuoso whom he had rightly hailed as an innovator (127), out of a discouraged retirement to successfully perform a violin concerto (164).

A Passionate Life

Alongside his deeply-rooted principles, Casals fostered strong passions. Music, of course, consumed him; at his first performance in Vienna, he was so intimidated by playing at the home of his musical heroes that he dropped his bow—proceeding, afterwards, to give one of his best performances (125). The Grove Dictionary notes his commitment to seeking “tirelessly for the truth and beauty in music he felt to be an artist’s responsibility,” a dedication that drove him to write a mass, a string quartet, and a symphonic poem before he had even finished formal schooling (Anderson 225). According to his own words, Casals also posessed a love for nature, from mountains to tennis (Casals 173), and had a lifelong affection for animals (176, 211).

Felt Around the World

The strength and vitality of his life enabled Casals to have a great impact on others. He began or shaped many musical organizations, such as the Workingmen’s Concert Association, which later grew to “tens of thousands of participants” (168); the Musicians’ Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, with members such as Einstein and Zimbalist (224); and the Bach Festival in Prades (261). In his eighties, he took an oratorio he had composed during wartime in France, El Pessebre or The Manger (242), and went on a one-man peace crusade around the world (286). Casals also did all he could to employ music in furthering governmental reform, stating that “the only weapons [he] ever had…[were his] cello…and conductor’s baton” (224). He followed the Spanish Civil War’s progression actively (228), aided concentration camp refugees (223), and continued humanitarian efforts even after being exiled for sympathy with the free world (251). Both the United Nations’ General Assembly (284) and the ceremony of the formation of the Catalan government (251) became concert venues for this remarkable musical statesman.

An Example for Today

After surveying Casals’ colossal achievements, one cannot help considering a more complete view of the purpose of music. Today, popular music is distorted by some as a mere consumer commodity, a niche that enables recording artists to become millionaires, sometimes overnight. Similarly, classical music institutions such as American orchestras struggling to avoid bankrupcy sometimes lose motivation to make a connection with mainstream society. No matter what changes in society as a whole have produced these less-than-ideal attitudes toward music, the fault lies ultimately with today’s musicians. Whether pursuing lucrative contracts or ivory towers, they have often reduced music to a commodity or a god for which to live.


Casals knew music better, using his art as a tool in self-giving service to humanity. Surprisingly, his testament reveals that he didn’t consider himself primarily a cellist. He even admits he feels awkward and limited by the instrument (81). His true role was communicator; music itself—not cello—was his medium, and peace and love were the values he endeavored to promote. Perhaps, then, it is not so surprising that those who reject the altruism he lived for have hijacked music for their own materialistic or scholastic purposes.

Remarkably, Casals, who was born in a time without musical “idols,” always knew the power a musician could wield for good. He considered his responsibility to be that of any other human being: to go beyond simply working in his particular field and to help his fellow man. “We teach [children] that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them…You must work…to make this world worthy of its children” (295).


Casals, Pablo. Joys and Sorrows: Reflections by Pablo Casals. Ed. Abert E. Kahn. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.

Anderson, Robert. “Pablo Casals.” New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Ed. Stanely Sadie. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. 225-226.