Forty years ago this month, on 22 October 1973, the world lost one of the greatest cellists that ever lived, Pablo Casals. But he was also a great thinker and remarkable human being, and it is for all of these reasons that his life is worth examining a little more closely.

His life is a splendid case study for the importance and fruitfulness of early exposure to music. He was born Pau Casals i Defilló (he took Pablo as his professional name later in life) in 1876 in Catalonia Spain. His father was the parish organist and choirmaster, and taught young Casals piano, organ, singing and violin. By age four, he could play violin, piano and flute; by six he could play the violin well enough to play in public. He saw a cello-like instrument fashioned from a broom-handle played by a travelling musician and was smitten. He pestered his father, who built him a crude cello, using a gourd as a sound-box. When Casals heard a real cello at the age of eleven, he knew it was “his” instrument.

At twelve he had been enrolled in the Escola Municipal de Música in Barcelona to study cello, theory and piano. Five years later fellow Catalan composer Isaac Albéniz happened to hear Casals play in a café trio and got him a royal stipend to study in the Real Conservatorio de Música, Madrid. His international career began with a stint in Paris in 1895, and the rest of the world’s music capitals (London, New York) fell under his spell shortly after. The Casals-Cortot-Thibaud trio from his Paris days became a long association and is a legendary benchmark to this day.

A staunch supporter of the Spanish Republican government, he went into self-imposed exile after dictator Francisco Franco’s rise to power. So scrupulous was his objection to Franco that he boycotted any country that recognised his regime. Casals died in Puerto Rico at 96, and did not live long enough to see the end of the Franco regime. But he was honoured posthumously by Spain and his remains interred in his village of El Vendrell, Catalonia.

Casals remained the eternal student. When asked at the age of 93 why he still continued to practise several hours a day, he answered “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.”

Here are some more of his inspirational quotes, on music:

“Music is the divine way to tell beautiful, poetic things to the heart.”

“Music will save the world.”

“The most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all.”

“The art of interpretation is not to play what is written.”

And perhaps its corollary:

“The heart of the melody can never be put down on paper.”

And Casals the thinker:

“Each person has inside a basic decency and goodness. If he listens to it and acts on it, he is giving a great deal of what it is the world needs most. It is not complicated but it takes courage. It takes courage for a person to listen to his own goodness and act on it.”

“We ought to think that we are one of the leaves of a tree, and the tree is all humanity. We cannot live without the others, without the tree.”

“I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance.”

At a time when jingoism masquerades as patriotism, Casals’ words strike even truer:

“The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?”


“I am perhaps the oldest musician in the world. I am an old man but in many senses a very young man. And this is what I want you to be, young, young all your life, and to say things to the world that are true.”

“The first thing to do in life is to do with purpose what one purpose to do.”

“To retire is to die.”

And these are my personal favourites:

“The child must know that he is a miracle, that since the beginning of the world there hasn’t been, and until the end of the world there will not be, another child like him.”

“You must work – we must all work – to make the world worthy of its children.”

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 27 October 2013)