• The Cello in Art (4) – Augustus John

It was inevitable that Augustus John’s sumptuous portrait (1920-23) of the Portuguese cellist Guilhermina Suggia would crop up early on in this thread.  It’s become iconic for several reasons: THAT dress (apparently, his third colour choice), which reminds me of the voluminous red gown that Jacqueline du Pré wore on the one occasion that I saw her play (Haydn’s Concerto in C – one of the few pieces that Suggia also recorded – at London’s Royal Festival Hall); THAT profile, facing away from the cello (the very opposite of pretty much every photograph of du Pré); and THAT posture.

Suggia (1885-1950) was one of the first internationally known female cellists.  It was only at the end of the nineteenth century, when the endpin (‘spike’ to you and me) gained popularity, that women began to take up the cello seriously.  Up until then, it had not been thought seemly for a women to grasp the cello between her knees and lean low to play it.  The spike changed all that: the posture could be more upright and – this I didn’t know – enabled a woman to play the cello placed elsewhere than between her legs.  Some played it side-saddle and some with the right leg bent low behind the instrument.  An outdoor photograph of the slightly younger English cellist Beatrice Harrison (1892-1965) – yes, she of the BBC nightingale broadcasts and recordings – shows her in this latter position, with spike in place.  It looks uncomfortable, restrictive and not a little ungainly.  I wonder what Scottie was thinking … keeping out of range if his mistress decided to go wanton on the A string?

Suggia, on the other hand, had no qualms about posing in this highly expressive manner, even at a time (1920s) when female cellists were still a rarity and most professional orchestras were male-only domains.  After being associated with Pablo Casals as his student and then partner for several years, she moved to England in 1914, quickly becoming known as ‘La Suggia’.  Country Life (26 November 1927) published for its society readership a breathless, equine and barely veiled eroticised account of her presence and playing style which is worth bearing in mind when thinking of some more recent cellists:

It was a delight to see her, before each bout, sit up alert, balance and adjust her bow as a fencer balances his foil, then settle herself with huge tortoise between her knees, like jockey sitting down to the ride: erect at first and watchful, till gradually, caught by the stream she created, she swung with it, gently, sleepily, languidly, until the mood shifted, the stream grew a torrent and the group rocked and swayed almost to wreckage.  Or again, she would be sitting forward, taking her mount by the head, curbing it, fretting it, with imperious staccato movements, mastering it completely, then letting it free to caracol easily, or once more break into full course, gathering itself in, extending itself, in a wild gallop.  She was creating sound till you could see it: the music seemed to flow like running water, up her arms, over her neck; one felt that seated behind her one could see it coursing down her shoulders and her spine, with the whirls and eddies of a mountain river.

Only the face remained apart: in it was something different: the face with its closed eyes belonged to us who were played upon rather than to who played: it was the artist in the artist’s other role, her own audience, listening to herself, experiencing first and more than all other the emotion which her art evoked.  That rapt and passive countenance, that swift ordered disciplined activity of every fibre of her body, disciplined till all was instinctive as the motions of a flying bird showed once and for all her double nature, speaker and listener at once, actor and spectator, which must be the artist’s.*

* I’m grateful to Anita Mercier’s fascinating and revealing article on Suggia for the excerpt from Country Life; see <http://www.cello.org/Newsletter/Articles/suggia.htm>.  Mercier has also written a full-length study, Guilhermina Suggia: Cellist (Ashgate, 2008).

Suggia had a strong personality, and Augustus John captured a snapshot of the passion and imperiousness of her character.  The audio link to Bruch’s Kol Nidrei (below) is to one of the few recordings she left to posterity.  It was recorded in the same year as the Country Life review, so makes for an interesting counterbalance to its linguistic extremities and to the fiery temperament implied by John’s portrait.  I think it is stunningly beautiful, measured, direct and, yes, expressive but in a restrained way that befits Bruch’s music.

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