By Guy Fishman
When I began my studies with cellist Anner Bylsma, who died on July 25 at age 85, I arrived carrying his book, Bach, the Fencing Master, which caused some controversy by suggesting that the bowings found in Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy of her husband’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello represent the composer’s intentions (Though he reached his conclusions independently, a Russian edition by Alexander Stogorsky—Piatigorsky’s brother—and one for Doblinger by Paul Grummer show Bylsma was not alone.) I annotated it with the disagreements I had with his conclusions; I thought many of Bylsma’s statements were surely intended to provoke.
But what I was confronted with was not an agitator but a man of deep conviction who emblemized true authenticity. He was fully himself. He also expressed himself through a storytelling ability that left me spellbound, and inspired me to glimpse at music as he saw it all the time. What I saw convinced me, and left etched in my mind an ideal of music making to which I continue to aspire, and an understanding of where that ideal originates. More than anything else, he inspired a thirst for an ever-more vivid imagination in me. I doubt anyone will ever compliment me by saying I sound like Anner Bylsma. And I also know that, to Anner, this would mean he was a good teacher.
He was not only that, of course. He was a pioneer in the world of early music and one of the few star cellists it can claim—he certainly enjoyed a career that rivaled that of most cellists on standard instrument. Bylsma appeared internationally as concerto soloist with both period and standard ensembles, performed in recital both with collaborators and alone, toured with chamber ensembles, including L’Archibudelli, which he founded with his wife, superb Dutch violinist Vera Beths, and took part in over 100 recordings for major labels, including Telefunken, Virgin, BMG, Philips, and Sony.
Through this last facet of his career, he introduced listeners to the Bach unaccompanied cello suites on Baroque cello (his beautiful Matteo Goffriller of the late 1690s) in what was the first commercially successful period-instrument recording of the works, as well as to lesser-known concerti of Vivaldi, Boccherini, Leo, and Kraft, sonatas by J.C.F. Bach and Gabrielli, and works by Jacchini and Frescobaldi and Onslow and Bruckner
and Dvorak and Brahms, among many others. He played them all on period instruments, so many of them previously unknown and others played with such imagination that one could not help but hear them as if anew.
He was fully himself. He also expressed himself through a story-telling ability that left me spellbound, and inspired me to glimpse at music as he saw it all the time.
What is less well known is Bylsma’s life as a standard cellist. (Though if you own a copy of his second recording of the Bach suites and have read the liner notes, you know that he made this thoroughly “period” recording using an endpin and his Peccatte bow. I once asked him why he had done so, and he replied that he wanted us all to know that, ultimately, it is your imagination, and not your endpin, that creates a performance. What your ear hears, your bow should do.) Bylsma won the 1959 Pablo Casals Competition and shortly thereafter served for six years as principal cellist of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. Recorded examples of this side of him include sonatas by Debussy and Schubert with modern piano, the second Shostakovich cello concerto, and contemporary music, such as the first cello concerto of Hans Cox, chamber music of Hindemith and Messiaen, and numerous salon pieces by Popper, Davidoff, Servais, and others.
Bylsma did this all using gut strings, never adopting steel strings as most of his colleagues had done. After a concerto performance, he was once asked by cellist Tibor de Machula why he played on such old-fashioned strings. He replied that by then—the 1970s—it was steel strings that were old-fashioned.
Bylsma’s own teacher, Carel van Leeuwen Boomkamp, collected ancient instruments and first introduced him to the Baroque cello. But after his initial success, it was an interest in the music of the 17th and 18th centuries, and subsequent collaborations with fellow Dutch musicians Frans Brüggen, recorder, and Gustav Leonhardt, harpsichord, that necessitated the use of a period bow and led to relinquishing his endpin on the Goffriller. (Of this period, he once told me, “We drove around in a VW bus and all I remember is that I laughed a lot.”) Bylsma explained that when he played with Brüggen, he felt that he was always too loud, and that playing softly robbed him of the ability to be expressive. “Every one of Frans’ notes was like a pearl,” he said, “and I could not match this with my modern bow, so I had a Baroque bow made by Willem Bouman.”
A lifelong pursuit of cultivating a rhetorical, “spoken” use of the bow—both modern and Baroque (he did not use a “transitional” bow)—resulted in performances made uncommonly nuanced by employing a most supple, beautiful, and expressive bow hand. Pieter Wispelwey attributed this to Bylsma’s training with Andre Navarra, believing that the sensitive use of the fingers, in particular, is a staple of French-school bowing.
This may have been true, but as Bylsma said, ultimately, it was more to do with imagination. He told me of his time with Navarra, “I lived in Paris and knew no one, had nothing to do, which was good, because all there was to do was practice.” (Perhaps this was a subtle direction that I should do the same when I lived in Amsterdam.) There seems to have been plenty of time to exercise the mind, and this was, according to Bylsma, equally as important as practicing the fingers—perhaps more so.
“No one makes a mistake and, in frustration, grabs his fingers, yelling ‘Doh!’” he said. “No, you grab your forehead. That is where the error occurs, the brain.”
In an article published in these pages in 1988, David Brin writes that Bylsma told students, “Use your imagination before you play a note—know more about it than just the pitch.” His was an imagination informed by the speaking of at least four languages (“I’m one Anner in Dutch, another in German, another in French . . . ”), a far-reaching erudition, enchanting wit and charm, and an indefatigable curiosity. Few elements in his interpretation or his technique were immovable, because there was always more to learn, always another way to say the same thing.
Guy Fishman is principal cellist of the Handel and Haydn Society and teaches at New England Conservatory of Music.