A Conversation with Guitarist Steven Hancoff, Author of ‘Bach, Casals and the Six Suites for ’Cello’
Please welcome my special guest, renowned international guitarist Steven Hancoff.
Hancoff began playing guitar when he was 13 years old. Within a year he was performing in coffeehouses around Baltimore and Washington, D.C. For the next 15 years, he toured the world—about 50 countries—as an official Artistic Ambassador representing the United States.
His recordings include Steel String Guitar, New Orleans Guitar Solos, Duke Ellington for Solo Guitar, andThe Single Petal of A Rose. He is also the author of Acoustic Masters: Duke Ellington for Fingerstyle Guitarand New Orleans Jazz for Fingerstyle Guitar. Hancoff also has a Master’s in clinical social work, and is a psychotherapist, a Rolfer, and a practitioner of Tai Chi.
He’s here today to talk about his latest work, Bach, Casals and the Six Suites for Cello Solo, an ambitious multimedia biography of Bach consisting of an ebook in four volumes with an accompanying 3-CD set. Connect with Hancoff via Facebook or Twitter @StevenHancoff.
You can also visit him at his website and listen to samples of his six Suites here.
Congratulations on the release of your biography about Johann Sebastian Bach: Bach, Casals and the Six Suites for Cello Solo. It’s quite an achievement. Can you tell us what compelled you to put it together?
I cannot tell you what compelled me to do this. It more or less feels like it is my destiny to have done this. I know that cello is a one-note-at-a time instrument, while guitar is idiomatically suited to play harmonies, bass lines and chords. So, the creative juice is in harmonizing the Cello Suites while still playing all of Bach’s notes, and staying true to the profundity of his musical and emotional intent.
In order to fulfill this intention, I started to read about the man, then think about it, how did he come to compose this music at this time in his life. I kept on reading, and thinking about it, and writing, and talking to people… and eventually this i-Book project got born.
How does the phrase “from tragedy to transcendence” describe Bach’s work?
His was a life filled with tragedy – eight of the people closest to him, including siblings, parents and children died. A dreary professional life working for drunkard dukes and disapproving, heavy-handed ecclesiastical authorities did not give way to contentment until he was 32 years old when Bach, with his beloved wife Maria Barbara and their four surviving children, took up a position composing secular music for a talented and grateful Prince Leopold in the backwater village of Cöthen.
But then, after 13 years of blissful married life, misfortune overtook him. In the year 1720, upon his return to Cöthen from a journey, a vacation, with Leopold to the spa at Carlsbad, he found Maria Barbara dead and buried, although he had left her hale and hearty on his departure. The news that she had been ill and died reached him only when he entered his own house. Imagine…
Now he is 35 years old, and he had not yet composed any of the great masterpieces for which he is known. It is now that he proceeds to compose the first of his immortal scores – the Violin Sonatas and Partitas and these miraculous Cello Solos.
So, the question for me became what was the process by which he avoided being crushed under the weight of his agony and grief, and instead transformed himself into the great genius of Western music. The man on whose shoulders literally rest the development and articulation of Western harmony.
My answer is given in the four volumes – His message is one of pure positivity: one’s life is a precious gift which a person has no hand at all in creating. That is what “gift” means, after all. It is the mission, or the responsibility of each human being to give back, with interest, as it were, to whatever force it is that gave you life. That means that if you are a human being, and you therefore have the gift of life and of self-consciousness and ego identity, then it is your glorious responsibility to deepen that gift, to leave the world a better place than when you entered it by means of developing the gifts you embody.
Bach, whose obvious gift was an immense musicality, deepened his identity by giving to humanity heavenly music that was more and more profound. What he did not do was to give in to the temptation to resentfulness and to hate life because of the agony he had to endure.
Tell us about Bach, the musician. What makes his music so special?
To me, the mystery and the greatness of Bach’s music lie in his unerring mastery, his ability to unify the expression of breathtaking beauty, primal emotion, vast power, and intellectual rigor, and to do so on a giant canvas. The confluence of these elements evokes the feeling of flow, the feeling that each note inevitably follows the preceding one, such that there is never a “wrong” note, only “right” ones – never a random note, only meaningful ones.
The music of Bach has no trace of negativity, only exaltation and upliftedness – “the permissible delights of the soul,” as Bach himself put it. He seems to have created music from a state of reverence, awe, and wonder at Creation itself, as an act of gratitude for having been created to witness and participate in it, and with an innate feeling of personal proximity to eternity itself. One feels exposed to unveiled cosmic truth by means of transparent musical purity.
It is almost as though rather than having been composed, the music emanated from some exalted plane to which Bach was somehow attuned, perhaps something like The Music of the Spheres, the Keplerian notion contemporaneous with Bach, that ultimately music is the sound of Universal relationship. “The movements of the planets are modulated according to harmonic proportions … as God, the Creator Himself, has expressed it in harmonizing the heavenly motions,” as Johannes Kepler put it in his masterpiece, Harmonices Mundi in 1619. Or, as the great Pablo Casals most elegantly and succinctly put it, “Music is the Divine way to tell beautiful, poetic things to the heart.” Like some bodhisattva, Bach seemed born to translate and transmit this music to us all.
I understand Bach fell into obscurity after his death until his work was largely revived by Felix Mendelssohn. Can you tell us about this and how Pablo Casals discovered Bach’s cello suites in a used music shop?
During his lifetime, Bach was not known as a composer, but rather as a keyboard virtuoso. Fewer than a dozen pieces of his music were published during his lifetime. When he died intestate, his two eldest sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel (who was known as “the Great Bach,” and who was keyboardist in the orchestra of Frederick the Great) divided their father’s scores between them.
To make a long story short (or you can read the entire amazing legend in Volume 2), Felix Mendelssohn’s great-aunt, Sarah Levy, herself a virtuosic pianist, over a period of many years collected the scores. When Felix, at thirteen years old, entered the Sing Academy to study music, she donated the scores to that school. There, Felix became infatuated with the score to St. Matthew Passion, decided to devote himself to producing it, and six years later (when he was nineteen) presented it to an astonished audience of the Who’s Who of Berlin society. This event, 80 (well, 79) years after Bach’s death, kick-started the revival of Bach’s music in Germany, and then in Europe.
It’s an astounding saga.
It was many years later, in 1889, on the very day that Carlos Casals, the father of the thirteen year old kid Pablo, bought his son his first full-sized cello, the two of them went wandering into a dusty old used book store on the Barcelona docks to find some music for the kid to play.
Casals later said: “Together we set off for the search. For two reasons I shall never forget that afternoon. First, my father bought me my first full-sized ‘cello — how proud I was to have that wonderful instrument! Then we stopped at an old music shop near the harbour. I began browsing through a bundle of musical scores. Suddenly I came upon a sheaf of pages, crumbled and discolored with age. They were unaccompanied suites by Johann Sebastian Bach — for the ‘cello only! I looked at them with wonder: Six Suites For Violoncello Solo. What magic and mystery, I thought, were hidden in those words? I had never heard of the existence of the suites; nobody — not even my teachers —had ever mentioned them to me. I forgot our reason for being at the shop. All I could do was to stare at the pages and caress them.”
He said he practiced them every day for twelve years before he worked up the courage to ever play one in public. There is no record nor any even anecdotal evidence of anyone ever having played them.
So, that is to say they lay dormant from 1720 to 1889 – 170 years until Casals came upon them, plus another twelve years before he played any of them in public. Plus another 50 years before he actually recorded them! That’s a treasure buried for 220 years!
How long did it take for this biography to come into fruition?
It took me about three years to complete the transcriptions. During that time of reading and thinking about it, the seed for the book got planted. Then, it took another five years for the book to get into its final form. One element of the book I have not mentioned much is the contemporary art: about 335 artists (and foundations) ultimately sent me Bach-inspired art to include. This became a massive art book… the biggest one ever devoted to visual art inspired by Bach.
Jiayi Lu, an exchange student from China here doing her masters degree at American University, did wondrous work with me doing the many videos. And Denise Clifton at Tandemvines Publishing put her hand, mind and heart into designing the gorgeous and first-of-its-kind i-Book. I’d send Word document and .JPGs. She’d send back page designs. I’d send back corrections… Page by page… that’s how this was built. And Richard Roeder is the genius recording engineer who mixed and mastered the whole recording. I hope he gets the recognition he so richly deserves.
And of course my other half Beth Troy who somehow has managed to love me through this entire process, believe in me and in the music and in my playing and writing and collecting the pictures… the whole shebang. Her eye in terms of where words go, lines end, pictures appear, etc. is what gave elegance to the book.
What do you hope readers will get from this work? What will they experience?
Well, first, I like to think the music is heavenly. Whether I did it justice is not for me to say. But I can assure everybody that I did it with plenty of love, complete immersion and attention to detail! As for the book, there is, as I said, the art to enjoy. But beyond that, this is one of the truly grand stories of Western culture – a story I knew nothing about when I started. So, I’d assume the reader will not know about it too. I’d like for people to know about this as a grand legend of our shared Western culture.
What’s on the horizon for Steven Hancoff?
Beats me. Music to play, rivers to run, worlds to see, friends to hang out with. It’s a majestic world out there. And there are still plenty of glorious places to explore, amazing people to converse with, and adventures to partake of.
Leave us with some words of wisdom about music.
“Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue…Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” – Plato
Bach himself knew that Luther wrote: “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”