A Living Link to Two Giants of the Cello

Students have asked me what it was like to study with Pablo Casals. This is not easy to write about, as the experience was so multifaceted, but I will attempt to share something of it. And I also wish to pay tribute to the enormous impactMstislav Rostropovich has had on the cello and music in the 20th century. His passing last April brings this contribution into focus. Much has been written about both Casals and Rostropovich: on their consummate artistry, their advancement of the cello instrumentally, their humanitarian position on world issues, their enormous personalities in individual ways. My task here will to be to try to write something of my experience of their teaching, which both of them took very seriously.

Bonnie Hampton working with Pablo Casals at Marlboro in 1963.

Hampton consults with Rostropovich during a master class a the University of California-Berkeley in 1974.


My studies with Casals began while he was living in exile from Spain in the small Pyrenees town of Prades in southern France, and continued later in Puerto Rico, where he then made his home. The work was very intensive, with two or three lessons a week and with all repertoire memorized. At the beginning, there was also work on basic fundamentals, especially tone and vibrato. His concept of intonation required one to hear and think within a tonality, and to be conscious of the role notes have within a key and how they relate to each other. Vibrato was understood not to have musical meaning in itself, but only in relation to the character and emotion of the music, combined with the differing demands of width and bow speed. Casals had wonderful suppleness and spring in his left-hand articulation, which resulted in a vibrancy of string reaction. This, combined with his concentrated use of the bow, especially in Bach, made for a clear spoken sense, while the overtone ring in his sound gave a glow and singing quality to his playing. His strong sense of tempo was not completely related to a metronomic sense of rhythm, but to a deeper impulse of music in the time/space element. How often, when one was expanding with “musical feeling,” would one hear from him “non retard!” Another challenge he presented was to develop the ability to put one’s hand on any note, anywhere on the cello. In the end, though, all technical issues were related to the music.

Casals was extremely detailed in his work, but the result in his playing was extremely spontaneous. There was constant variety in his playing. The paradox was that he analyzed everything by living with the music until it was internalized, and then it came out in a completely natural and convincing way. Often when he played, a particular phrase would suddenly be illuminated, and I would think, of course, this is how it must be! He kept himself open to his intuition, to the alive moment. He had a sure instinct about reaching for the expressive world of each composer, and allowed himself to tap those energies and depths. The most important thing I learned from him is that it is one’s lifetime task to find one’s own direction, one’s own voice, and connection with the music.

As a teacher and also as a conductor at the Casals Festival, he was very patient but also very insistent until one understood his meaning. There were many sides to his personality: deep contemplation while puffing on his pipe, laughter while watching TV Westerns, the telling of jokes in Catalan. There were times when a black cloud was sitting over his head, and then it was the music that would transform him. He was also just a lovable man. His work in teaching was deeply serious, and one understood his deep concentration and love of the music.

Juilliard’s library has videotapes of his master classes at the University of California at Berkeley, which were held in 1960.

At the middle of the 20th century, Mstislav Rostropovich came to this country presenting Prokofiev’s SymphoniaConcertante, and the impact was overwhelming. Here was playing on the highest possible level, an artist with the power of communication on a scale larger than life. He came often to San Francisco, where I lived at the time, either to play with the orchestra or for recitals, and always with many remarkable and inspirational encounters.

One experience gave me a clear insight into the way he studied a new work. During a period of several days when he was in the San Francisco area, he received the manuscript score of the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra by Benjamin Britten. I was to drive him to a home in Berkeley, where he and his pianist, Alexander Dedyukhin, spent the next five hours playing the work, both using the full score. He said that normally he would have been able to study the score first before playing it on the cello, an important insight into his work process.

During master classes at the University of California in Berkeley, he worked mainly from the piano, only rarely taking a cello to demonstrate a point. He used metaphor, imagery, imaginative association—almost every means other than technical or cellistic but always directly or indirectly related to the musical message. The purely technical work did happen, though; I remember him showing one very talented young student double-stop finger exercises and scales in front of an audience of 800. Another point was made when he asked for another pianist from the audience to play the Beethoven C-Major Sonata which had just been performed. After one movement, he admonished the cellist for playing the work the same exact way even though he had a new musical partner. He could be very demanding of his students at the Moscow Conservatory, stressing the importance of a prodigious musical memory by asking them to bring in a complete work memorized after only three days’ study.

There are so many aspects of Slava’s enormous personality that one could address, but perhaps none more important to his legacy than the 200-plus works which he inspired or commissioned. The ones we know the best are the Prokofiev and Shostakovich concertos; Britten’s works for solo cello and with piano; and the 12 works he commissioned in honor of Paul Sacher by composers such as Berio, Boulez, Dutilleux, Ginastera, Henze, Lutoslawski, and others. These and the many others, both in Russia and the West, have enriched our cello literature immeasurably.

This year at Juilliard, we have a project to perform many of these works in Rostropovich’s honor. There will be special concerts in the spring celebrating his legacy, and works performed throughout the year on cellists’ recitals.

Our young cellists have their favorite cellists and artistic heroes, and quite rightly so. But in this world of musical performance it is so important also to have a strong connection to all that has brought us to this point, so that it becomes a living continuum.


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