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Celebrating The Legacy Of Casals In His Beachfront Villa


September 19, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.


Visitors at the recently renovated Pablo Casals Museum in Spain.
[PHOTO: The Associated Press]


SANT SALVADOR, Spain — Pablo Casals, one of the great cellists of the 20th century and one of its toughest crusaders against political oppression, died almost 30 years ago, but his legacy is preserved in an extensively renovated museum in his former summer home here on the Costa Dorada.

The small museum has reopened and in June was inaugurated by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía. The event featured a concert in Casals's honor by old friends — the soprano Montserrat Caballé, the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and the pianist Eugene Istomin, among others.

The white beachfront villa with green shutters was, Casals once said, "the expression and the synthesis of my life as a Catalan and an artist." His widow, Marta, now married to Mr. Istomin, is the president of the Manhattan School of Music and the former artistic director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She has created a charming museum containing artifacts, documents and photographs belonging to Casals, some of which were buried by his family for safety during Francisco Franco's dictatorship. The complex, the Museu Pau Casals, about 45 miles south of Barcelona along the Pau Casals Highway (Pau is Catalan for Pablo), includes a research center, an educational center and an auditorium.

"He was a lover — he loved people and he wanted to be loved and he gave it through his playing and through his actions," Mr. Istomin said. "That was his magic."

Photographs in the museum show Casals with musicians like Arthur Rubinstein and Mr. Rostropovich, but also with Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy, who as president awarded him the Medal of Freedom.

Before opening the museum, Marta Istomin invited friends and colleagues to view the display of objects, which were enhanced by films and slide shows.

First on view when entering the museum is the pumpkin, a hollow gourd with a single string, made by Casals's father, "the first thing that he scratched," Mr. Istomin explained. Although his father taught him to play the piano, violin and organ, Casals did not even hear a cello until he was 11. His talents were obvious, and at 17 he won a royal scholarship to study music in Madrid under the aegis of Queen María Cristina, whom, his widow said, "he loved like a second mother."

Within two years, though, the deal soured because the royal tutors wanted to push the young Casals toward composing rather than performing. He refused, gave up his scholarship and returned to Barcelona. "Even then he was making stands," Mrs. Istomin said.

Mr. Istomin said: "He was a genius, the first of the really virtuoso cellists. Because of him the cello became a star. In his youth he had fantastic virtuosity, and the important thing was he had the personality that could communicate through music."

In the village of Sant Salvador, a mile or so from the house in Vendrell where he was born in 1876, Casals built his Villa Casals in 1909. (His birthplace is also open to the public.) Graced by a small formal flower garden, classical statuary and magnificent views of the Mediterranean, the villa was to be a place to relax and play music with friends. In the music room of the villa, Mr. Istomin pounced on a handsome instrument and recalled: "This is the piano I played with him when I went to see him for the first time. I was so nervous when he asked me to play, I had the nerve to suggest to him to play something for four hands, so I could touch the piano." And he picked out a few bars.

In the early 20th century Casals visited Russia many times, but the violent aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution shocked him. "When he saw the oppression in that country," Mrs. Istomin recalled, "he said, `I will not come back.' "

He turned his back on Hitler as early as 1933 and declared his intent to stay out of Germany, where he was popular. A quotation from Casals projected onto the museum wall attests to his sentiments: "I detest having lived in a time when the law of man is killing."

The issue closest to his heart was the longed-for defeat of Fascism in Spain, but once in exile from the Franco dictatorship, Casals never returned to his homeland, and during the civil war of 1936-39, he organized benefit concerts for victims on the Republican side. In 1938 he gave his last concert in Barcelona; a year later he went into voluntary exile in France and spent the war in Prada de Conflent, a Catalan village on the French side of the Spanish border, where he visited Spaniards in refugee camps and played benefit concerts for the Free French, forces who opposed the Nazis and the Vichy rule in Paris.

In 1946 Casals went into musical exile as well, choosing to give no more public concerts except at his music festivals while the Allies supported Franco. He stuck with that decision for the rest of his life, performing only in his musical festivals and conducting "The Manger," the oratorio for peace that he composed in 1960. A short film showing in the museum depicts him in 1971, vigorous and passionate at 94, speaking at the United Nations, which awarded him the Peace Medal and for which he composed a hymn. In the film he talked about peace, calling it "my greatest concern," and about his beloved homeland.

As Mrs. Istomin said, "He was, of course, a citizen of Spain, but his heart was in Catalonia."

Casals died in Puerto Rico in 1973 at 96, and he was finally returned in 1979 to Catalonia, where he is buried in the Vendrell graveyard. "He was like a hero coming home," Mrs. Istomin said. "It was so moving, and so sad that he couldn't see it."

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