A Cellist in Exile

By Pérez, Pedro Reina | ReVista (Cambridge), Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

A Cellist in Exile


Pérez, Pedro Reina, ReVista (Cambridge)


WHEN PABLO CASALS FIRST SET FOOT IN PUERTO Rico in 1955-his mother's native land- his life took a dramatic turn. At 79 years of age, any other musician of his artistic stature would have quietly retired, but he did quite the opposite. Not that the previous decades of his life had been peaceful or easy. In exile in France since 1939 and pained to see his native Catalonia torn to pieces by the Spanish Civil War, he watched as Europe was reduced to rubble by Nazi ambition, spreading destruction and tragedy. San Juan offered the possibility of a new beginning, focused on performing and conducting, surrounded by family and friends. But his decision to settle in this unincorporated territory of the United States was also controversial, for he had vowed never to play in a country that offered support to the Spanish dictatorship led by Francisco Franco.

Casals had been an ardent supporter of the Second Spanish Republic at a time of intense political conflict, and had fled Barcelona to avoid execution by the Nationalist Army. He settled in Prades, a small French town only one hour away from the Spanish border and suspended his professional career until 1950. It was then that he received an invitation sent by Jaime Benítez, Chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico, to join the academic community in San Juan. It afforded him the opportunity to get acquainted with members of his mother's family he had never met, while participating in new developments on the island's cultural scene led by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín. Yet accepting the invitation also implied a change in his long-held stance against totalitarianism, and would invite government scrutiny.

Born in the small Spanish town El Vendrell on December 29, 1876, he learned to play the cello and the violin at an early age. He focused on the cello and developed a unique playing technique that was eventually named in his honor. He began his professional career in Paris in 1899 and quickly became famous for his talent and charisma. Returning to his native Barcelona in 1919, he founded a new professional orchestra at the Palau de la Musica Catalana, named the Orquesta Pau Casals. The Spanish Civil War and World War II interrupted his highly successful career as a musician and director.

Upon his arrival in San Juan, Casals received a hero's welcome as he descended from the ship into a multitude that awaited him. An entire week of activities honoring his visit was planned. Thanks to his mother's heritage, he was treated as a native son. Governor Muñoz Marín invited to him head a new musical festival bearing his name, beginning in 1957. Casals' presence stimulated the establishment of a symphony orchestra (1958) and a conservatory (1959), and gave much needed gravitas to the governor's efforts to develop new cultural endeavors reflecting the island's aspirations. The economy was moving away from agriculture into manufacturing and new factories were opening everyday. Cultural sophistication would mean that not only banks were flourishing in the island but sensibilities and tastes as well. At least that was how Abe Fortas, the renowned Washington D.C. lawyer who was the governor's adviser, saw it. His advice was to turn Casals into a symbol of all the good that was happening in the cultural scene. And he was right: Casals was the perfect symbol for this-and he enjoyed being close to family and friends. When asked about Puerto Rico's subordination to the United States and his rejection of countries that supported Franco, he drew a comparison between his native Catalonia and Spain. For him Puerto Rico was not the United States, just as being a Catalan was not the same as being Spanish. A different language and culture were the fundamental elements.

In time Fortas became Casals' American mentor and confidant, even when he was appointed justice of the Supreme Court-and Casals' prominence only grew.

When he decided to play at the United Nations headquarters in 1958-his first international appearance after his vow of artistic silence in 1945 to protest tolerance by the Allies of Spain's dictatorial regime- Casals became the focus of an intense international crusade that led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize that same year. …

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