“The existence of Pablo Casals is a source of great joy. He is one of those artists who comes to the rescue of humanity’s honor.”
“Intonation is a question of conscience.”
PABLO CASALS WAS born thirteen years before the invention of the automobile and died four years after spacecraft first took men to the moon. At twenty-two, he performed selections from Fauré and Saint-Saëns for Queen Victoria, and at eighty-five he performed pieces by Mendelssohn and Schumann for John F. Kennedy. His ninety-seven years spanned one of the bloodiest eras in human history, and for virtually all his life he remained dedicated to the freedom of artistic expression and the impassioned pursuit of justice and peace.
Casals was a man of extraordinary sensitivity and supreme conviction, a physically unassuming man who utterly captivated people with his presence. He was deeply patriotic and loved his Spanish homeland of Catalunya more than he cared for perhaps anything else, but he also believed that love of country also often tragically blinds people to the true humanity of us all. Throughout his long life, Casals employed music as a means of urging people everywhere to work toward the highest ideals of humanity, and for fully thirteen years following the end of World War II — during a time in which he remained one of the world’s most renowned virtuosos — he refused to perform publicly, believing his stark and stubborn silence could speak more eloquently in opposition to war and injustice than could his sonorous and always moving music. His life was deeply emblematic of the joys and sorrows of the twentieth century, and his enduring dedication to peace and justice make him a vital and compelling figure for us to remember once more as a new century see wars and brutal violence swelling ever more menacingly around the world.
CASALS HAD BECOME a world-renowned cellist by the time he returned to his native Catalunya in 1919, determined to slow the pace of his travels, to make a stable home once more, and to pursue the “playing” of the instrument that intrigued him most — the orchestra. But although the city of Barcelona had a wonderful musical tradition, its two orchestras were at best mediocre at the moment; neither had a regular concert schedule, neither rehearsed frequently, and neither was interested in Casals’s offer of help.
Despite huge hurdles, more than a little ridicule, and at great cost, Casals patiently created his own orchestra during the ensuing years, the Orquestra Pau Casals, one comprised, he made certain, of musicians who possessed his own passion, indefatigable energy, and the belief that virtually nothing vitally important was impossible to achieve. By the mid 1920s, Casals’s orchestra — with him serving as both director and principal conductor — had achieved great renown throughout Europe and, in addition to the demands of the orchestra’s regular season, tours, and recording schedule, Casals personally had initiated a series of Sunday morning concerts in which the orchestra, often joined by soloists of international repute, performed free of charge for low-income workers and their families.
In February 1931, Casals’s Barcelona orchestra celebrated the formation of the Spanish Republic with a concert that drew 20,000 Barcelonans to hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and its concluding hymn of brotherhood, the Ode to Joy. Already a deeply political man, one convinced that democracy and freedom could prevail in Spain and throughout the world, Casals believed the creation of the Republic represented the best hope for true progress in Spain, despite the often-bitter struggles for power of dozens of political parties, labor unions, and associations of anarchists.
For five years, the Republic was both fragile and terribly fractious, and, as it happened, Casals and his orchestra were preparing for another performance of Beethoven’s Ninth — this one part of the Barcelona Olympiad that Spaniards were staging in opposition to Hitler’s Olympic games in Berlin — when, on July 18, 1936, their rehearsal was interrupted by a messenger who brought Casals an urgent note from the Catalan minister of culture, informing him that the Republic was under attack.
A military insurrection led by General Francisco Franco had spread from Spanish Morocco onto the Spanish mainland, and rebel military officers in collusion with Franco were expected to begin an armed revolt in Barcelona at any moment, the minister of culture’s note explained. It urged the musicians to flee for their safety at once, but at Casals suggestion, the assembled musicians completed their rehearsal of the symphony’s final movement and performed the Ode to Joy as both a prayer for peace throughout Spain and as a symbol of the certainty that — although some time likely would pass — one day they would be reunited.
More than 75,000 civilians were murdered throughout Catalunya and the rest of Spain in only the first month of a war that endured for three full years, a war in which the fabric of the nation was torn to shreds, and during which the insurgent generals led by Francisco Franco succeeded in taking control of most of the nation’s land-mass, but only with the help of tanks, munitions, and the air forces of fascist Germany and Italy. In April 1937, Hitler’s Luftwaffe experimented for the first time with the brutal new form of air-warfare it called blitzkrieg, destroying the Basque town of Gernika and killing thousands of innocent townspeople in three hours of unrelenting bombing. Cities throughout Spain — Barcelona among them — were massively damaged by air strikes, and the death toll rose to half a million citizens and soldiers. Casals’s life was constantly threatened, and he repeatedly was targeted for assassination by both pro-fascist insurgents on the political right and rabid anarchists and communists on the left.
Nonetheless, Casals refused to go into hiding or to be silent in opposition to the mortal blow the Germans, Italians, and insurgents were attempting to deal to the Republic. At the end of the radio broadcast of a Barcelona concert in the summer of 1938, Casals pleaded first in English, then in French to the people of Europe’s two strongest democracies, as well as the United States: “Do not commit the crime of letting the Spanish Republic be murdered. If you allow Hitler to win in Spain, you will be the next victims of his madness. The war will spread to all Europe, to the whole world! Come to the aid of our people!” But the cellist and conductor’s prophetic plea went unheeded, of course. Barcelona fell to the fascists in January 1939, and the dream of Spanish democracy ended soon thereafter. As Franco’s tanks rolled into the outskirts of the city, University of Barcelona administrators rushed to bestow an honorary doctorate on much-beloved Pablo Casals — by now as important in his role as a moral leader of his nation as he was as a musician — as their final act before dismantling the university and fleeing for their lives.
CASALS WAS ONE of hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who made their way by train, automobile, and on foot to the French border, which they hoped to cross in search of asylum. The French government at first refused them, then relented only after the victorious Franco had dismissed out of hand the notion of creating a neutral zone for refugees on the Spanish side of the border. Casals traveled first to Paris, where he presumed he would slowly reestablish himself as both a performer and conductor — although it seemed clearer than ever to him that France also would soon would feel the weight of Nazi oppression. But in Paris, he fell into a deep and paralyzing despair: he had spent the fortune he had amassed as a performer on his orchestra and in aid the Republican government; he had exhausted himself in his long and diligent efforts to see both thrive; for three years he had lived in hiding as a hunted man, moving constantly from one friend’s house to another, and now his beloved homeland, much of it demolished by war, was in the grasp of a madman. Casals told friends he hoped he could succeed in willing his own death.
At last, those friends persuaded him to leave Paris and travel to Prades, a town at the foot of the Pyrenees in the Catalan-speaking region of far-southern France. Living in a small hotel, Casals began to regain his energy, but his recovery was fueled in largest part by his shocking discovery of the conditions in which his countrymen were forced to live in dozens of concentration camps that lined the Spanish border. In its attempts to appease the Nazis, the French government of Edouard Daladier treated the Spanish refugees as hated communists to which it would never give aid, and Casals was appalled by what he observed at the camps. “The scenes I witnessed might have been from Dante’s Inferno,” he wrote. “Tens of thousands of men and women and children were herded together like animals, penned in by barbed wire, housed — if one can call it that — in tents and crumbling shacks. There were no sanitation facilities or provisions for medical care. There was little water and barely enough food to keep the inmates from starvation. Though it was winter, they had been provided with no shelter whatsoever — many had burrowed holes in the wet sand to protect themselves from the pelting rains and bitter winds. Scores had perished from exposure, hunger, and disease.”
Immediately, Casals initiated a massive relief effort, one spurred by the letters he wrote day and night to individuals, foundations, and news organizations around the world describing the plight of the Spanish Republicans and pleading for funds and supplies to assist them. Although he suffered from terrible headaches and recurring vertigo, Casals made constant trips to the camps himself, ferrying supplies, serving food, and offering what encouragement he could. But soon, living conditions for Casals himself and for the townspeople of Prades became almost as difficult as they were for the inmates of the camps.
Hitler had invaded Poland in September 1939, and by the following summer virtually all of mainland Europe, including France, had fallen to the Nazis. As a known and renowned anti-fascist, Casals was placed under close surveillance at the Prades house he and his friend Joan Alavedra, a Catalan poet, and Avavedra’s family shared. Together, they survived on turnips, dried beans, and wild greens, and Casals, in his mid-sixties now, became so weak and slowed by rheumatism that his lifelong habit of playing a Bach suite on his cello at dawn each day became all but impossible, and friends in England and the United States urged Casals to seek safety and medical attention in their countries.
In turn, German army officers regularly pressed Casals to travel to the German fatherland — the birthplace of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, they reminded him — where, he was assured, he would live in luxury as an honored artist and friend of the Third Reich. But Casals declined repeatedly to move either east or west. He continued to write daily in support of the Spanish refugees, and — at a time when he was physically weakest and the war effort against the Nazis seemed to have terribly stalled — he nonetheless found the will to compose El Pessebre, “The Manger,” an oratorio that set to music Alavedra’s long poem about the nativity of Jesus. “If the suffering of man was part of that tale,” he wrote, “it also spoke of a time when man’s long ordeal would be ended and happiness would be his at last.”
On the day in September 1944 when the Nazis who now occupied Prades plotted to arrest Casals and “teach him a lesson,” he was saved, as he had been repeatedly during the past decade, by the implorations of someone who knew and loved his playing — this time a young German who convinced his superiors that Casals’s renown was so great worldwide that his death never would be forgiven. Eight months later, Casals’s own ordeal and that of all of Europe seemed to come to an end with the Nazi surrender.
Although he remained very weak, his rheumatism abated as his diet improved in the months after the end of the war in Europe, and slowly he was able to begin playing the cello again. In June 1945, Casals traveled to London to perform with an orchestra for the first time since 1939. The Albert Hall was packed for Casals’s single appearance with the London Philharmonic, and outside a crowd estimated at 50,000 people chanted “Viva Casals” as he left the building, his international stature undiminished during the years of the war. At a BBC studio following the concert, he recorded a message in Catalan, greeting his countrymen and assuring them that following the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, soon the valiant Allied forces would enter Spain to rid Europe of its final fascist dictator.
But the Allies, who had had all they wanted of war, soon expressed no interest in ensuring that last defeat, and by the fall of 1945, Casals’s great happiness and his hope for Spain and all the world had terribly paled. Atomic bombs had, in a flash, annihilated hundreds of thousands of citizens in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and neither France, Britain, nor the United States was moving toward mobilizing troops for an invasion of Spain. Casals returned to Britain to plead with government officials for help in the liberation of Spain, but was met with disinterest and condescension. The situation in Spain was complex, he was informed, and while, yes, there were bad things about the Franco regime, there were good things as well. Surely over time diplomatic pressure would persuade Franco to loosen his iron grip, Casals was told to his outrage and bitter sense of abandonment.
“Was it conceivable, I asked myself, that the Spanish people — the very people who had first taken up arms against fascism — were doomed to continue living under fascist rule? And the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had believed an Allied victory would mean the return of democracy to Spain — including those who had fought alongside the Allies — were they to be condemned to permanent exile?”
The answers to his questions were yes, it became shockingly clear. And the musician who always had found ways to express through performing his hope for humankind, and whose letters, speeches, and volunteer efforts had literally saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives, now struggled to imagine what he might do to persuade the western democracies not to forget Spain as a new and democratic era in Europe began to unfold. In his deep depression and sense of defeat, Casals declined to accept honorary degrees offered him both by Oxford and Cambridge universities, and in the moments before he began to perform at a November 1945 solo concert in Liverpool, Casals announced that the evening’s concert would be his final performance in Britain or anywhere else in the world until democracy was restored in Spain and the country’s refugees were free to return to their homes. Already exiled from Spain for seven years, Casals now also vowed to exile himself from the sublime pleasure he always had taken in performance. “But how else could I act,” he repeatedly asked as friends and colleagues implored the seventy-year old musician to reconsider his solitary act of protest. “One has to live with himself.”
FOR FULLY THIRTEEN years, Casals did not appear on any stage, either as a cellist or conductor. For thirteen years — a time during which Franco’s Spain was admitted to the United Nations and the United States offered the dictator massive foreign aid in return for the establishment of air bases on Spanish soil — Casals did not make any recordings. He remained in Prades, heartsick and stubbornly certain that his simple act of protest and conscience mattered more than income or acclaim. When his close friend Albert Schweitzer attempted to persuade him to begin performing again, Schweitzer argued that surely “it is better to create than to protest.”
“Why not do both?” Casals replied. “Why not create and protest both?”
In the summer of 1958 Casals joined Schweitzer in a written appeal to the U.S. and Soviet governments to end the arms race and ban future nuclear testing. And, at last, Casals surrendered to his friend’s implorations, agreeing to perform at the United Nations in a concert for peace that would be broadcast to seventy-four nations around the world. Casals, now 82, performed Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in D Major inside the General Assembly Hall at the U.N.’s headquarters in New York. The program then continued from Paris, where violinists Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh and sitar player Ravi Shankar performed. The concert concluded with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande’s performance in Geneva of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. As Casals listened — rather miraculously, it seemed to him — to the Geneva performance from New York City, he marveled that such technological miracles were possible in the modern world. He could not help but wonder whether human ethics and aspirations had kept pace with those advances, and he wondered, too, whether he ever again would step onto a podium in Barcelona to conduct Beethoven’s ode to freedom and to joy.
Pablo Casals died prior to his 97th birthday at his home in Puerto Rico in 1973. General Francisco Franco died in 1975, and his successor, King Juan Carlos, immediately, remarkably, and without violence democratized Spain. In November 1979, Casals’s wife Marta, whom he had married in 1957, returned his remains to Spain where there were interred in the cemetery of the village of Vendrell, south of Barcelona, where he was born. Among the thousands of messages from around the world that Senyora Casals received in honor of the reburial was this one from fellow cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who had fled the Soviet Union four years before:
“This is one of the most stirring moments of my life, when the body of the greatest artist of the twentieth century finally finds peace in the land which he so loved and which brought him so much suffering during his lifetime. . . . This humane and symbolic act is especially close to my heart as I perhaps better than others know well what it means to be deprived of one’s country.”
Forty years after he had fled for his life from Catalunya and Spain, the extraordinary artist who was born Pau Casals i Defilló had come home, his country freed from fascist rule at last.
Russell Martin is a filmmaker, novelist, screenwriter, and nonfiction author, and the principal of Say Yes Quickly Productions.
Copyright © 2020 Russell Martin. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this essay may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the author.