Pablo Casals was a Spanish cellist, pianist, composer, conductor, and humanitarian. As a solo cellist he was known for his beautiful tone and intellectual strength, and he introduced Bach's cello suites into the baroque repertoire. His compositions were instrumental works and simple, devotional choral pieces. He went into voluntary exile from Fascist Spain and refused to perform in Hitler's Germany.
Pablo Carlos Salvador Casals y Defillo (he also used the Catalan form of his name, Pau Casals) was born in the Catalan town of Vendrell, near Barcelona, in 1876. His father was the church organist, and gave Casals his first music lessons. By age four Casals was playing piano, violin and flute; at five he was singing in the church choir and composing. He enjoyed the violin, but was stung when the other boys called him blind because of his habit of closing his eyes and tilting his head to the side when playing, so he gave up the instrument. However, when a group of musicians visited his town, one had a home-made "cello" made of a broom handle, a gourd, and gut strings. Casals liked it, and asked his father to make him one, which he did, and Casals apparently treasured this toy cello his whole life.
In 1887 he heard a concert by Spanish cellist Jose Garcia of the Municipal School in Barcelona; he was fascinated with the instrument, telling his father that was what he wanted to play. His encouraging father bought him one and started teaching the boy to play. In 1888 his mother took him to Barcelona and enrolled him in the Municipal School, where he studied with Garcia for three years as well as with other professors at the school, and was a prize student. During this time he also performed in cafes in the evenings with fellow musicians, performing waltzes and other light entertaining pieces, but he instituted the practice of having one classical evening a week, and quickly gained a reputation for these performances. Around this time he first discovered the Bach unaccompanied cello suites; the beautiful music consumed him, though he did not perform them publicly for decades.
Casals had his own ideas about how the cello should be played, even at this young age. He rebelled against the stiff technique imposed by tradition and advocated free and natural arm movement when playing. His innovations changed cello playing styles, as can be seen in the emotive swaying movements of modern greats like Jacqueline du Pré and Yo-Yo Ma.
Having learned all he could from Garcia, Casals set off for Madrid, where he solicited the patronage of Count Morphy, private secretary to King Alfonso XII. Casals and the Count became friends; the Count taught Casals about art, philosophy and mathematics, while the young man studied counterpoint with Tomas Breton and chamber music with violinist Jesus de Monasterio, Director of the Madrid Conservatory. After two years he received a sponsorship from the Queen of Spain to attend the Brussels Conservatory of Music, but the story goes that he was mocked and insulted during his first class there, and though the professor who had humiliated him realized his mistake on hearing Casals play, the young man stubbornly refused to forgive, and went on to Paris. He lived with his mother and an infant sibling in great poverty, working as a vaudeville musician, then when he became ill, returned once again to Barcelona. Luckily for him, Garcia, his old teacher, was retiring, and Casals took his position.
He stayed in Barcelona three years, and taught at the conservatory of the Lycee, became first cellist of the Barcelona Opera Orchestra, and continued to study composition. He performed for Queen Christina, who was so impressed that she gave him a sapphire from the bracelet she was wearing; he later had it mounted in his bow. He also performed for the King and Queen of Portugal in Lisbon. Finally, in 1899, he returned to Paris, where he so impressed conductor Charles Lamoureux that he was invited to join the man's orchestra, launching him on a touring career that would make him famous. He was also developing politically; finding the writings of Karl Marx revelatory, he became a socialist and was determined to take a personal stand against oppression.
In 1901 Casals went on his first American tour with vocalist Emma Nevada; the tour was cut short when he injured his hand hiking, but luckily he recovered. In 1904 he returned to the United States again, performing for Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. On his return to Europe he formed a world famous trio with pianist Alfred Cortot and violinist Jacques Thibaud; some of the music they recorded, though of poor quality due to the techniques of the day, is considered to be seminal in spite of its scratchiness.
In 1906 or 1914 (sources disagree) Casals married American soprano Susan Metcalfe, and he accompanied her on piano during many concerts; they separated in 1928. In the 1920s Casals put together his own orchestra, the Orquestra Pablo Casals, which he conducted; they became one of the better orchestras in Europe, but Casals was apparently more delighted to see working class people at his concerts than he was to see the elite.
The Spanish Civil War, launched by Francisco Franco in 1936, had by its end in 1939 devastated Spain, and Casals along with it. A peace and freedom loving man, Casals went into voluntary exile in France in 1939. In 1950 he inaugurated an annual music festival in Prades, France, commemorating Bach. He was married a second time, but I'm sorry to say I don't know to whom. In 1956, Casals moved to Puerto Rico, where he met and married his third wife, his student Martita Montañes, in 1957; in the same year, he started the annual Casals Festival. He performed at the United Nations in 1958 and the White House again - this time for John F. Kennedy - in 1961. Casals died in Puerto Rico in 1973; there is a museum for him there. He was awarded a United Nations Peace Prize in 1971, when he 1971 conducted his "Hymn to the United Nations" at the U.N. headquarters in New York. He was posthumously awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.
His reminiscences are contained in Conversations with Casals, recorded in 1955 and an autobiography, Joys and Sorrows , was published in 1970. "Song of the Birds" is a video portrait of the great artist, and there are several textual biographies. My information came from the incomplete, but lovingly detailed, personal and professional biography of Casals at