Transcendent Virtuosity: Guilhermina Suggia Blazed a Trail for Future Female Cellists

Suggia and Casals frequently performed together and premiered works by a favorite composer, Emánuel Moór

By Miranda Wilson | From the July-August 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

Guilhermina Suggia (1885–1950) is best known now as the subject of a dramatic oil painting by the British artist Augustus John. Madame Suggia (1920–23) shows a dark-haired, strong-featured woman in her late thirties, clad in an impossibly glamorous red gown. Her head is turned to the right, following the elegant line of her extended bow arm. Her eyes are closed, her expression rapturous. John’s exoticized portrayal of Suggia suggests that she might be in the middle of a tempestuous performance of the Lalo concerto, but Suggia recalled years later that she had played mostly Bach during sittings in John’s studio. Serious repertoire, she believed, befitted the seriousness of his art. This artistic restraint is confirmed in the autobiography of the pianist Gerald Moore, with whom she collaborated many times: “Her striking appearance [in John’s painting]… gave an impression of boldness, romance, and color. She persuaded you her playing was passionate and intense, but the reverse was the case: it was calculated, correct, and classical… far from being the fiery prima donna she appeared.” 

One reason Suggia is better known for her portrait than for her playing is that she was a private person who kept no journals nor intimate letters. Anita Mercier’s immaculately researched biography Guilhermina Suggia: Cellist has brought much previously unknown information about Suggia’s life to light. Regrettably, Suggia’s cello playing remains little known. In comparison with other artists of her generation, she made few recordings, of which only a handful are accessible. Those posted informally on YouTube are a revelation; they paint an even more fascinating portrait of Suggia than John’s art. In Suggia’s 1927 recording of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei with conductor Lawrance Collingwood and an unnamed orchestra, her daring use of rubato powerfully evokes the liturgical speech-song of Jewish prayer. Her phrasing, rich in portamento and vibrato, enhances the contrasts in Bruch’s score, from the darkness of the D minor opening to the dazzling midway switch to D major. Although she had to make cuts to allow for the limited playing time of 1920s records, Suggia’s interpretation of Kol Nidrei remains one of the most moving. 

Suggia plays Kol Nidrei, Max Bruch, recorded 1927

Equally intriguing is her recording of Haydn’s Concerto in D major with John Barbirolli. Like most cellists of the early 20th century, Suggia plays the heavily edited 19th-century arrangement by Adrien-François Servais and François-Auguste Gevaert, but her appealing tone and judicious ornamentation more than make up for the editorial meddling. Since she lived before the heyday of the early-music revival, Suggia’s performance of Baroque repertoire is “of its time,” but her recordings of Marcello, Sammartini, and Senaillé with pianist George Reeves are sensitively phrased. Suggia could also pull off difficult showpieces, as heard in her breakneck 1923 recording of the Spanische Tänze by David Popper—who, incidentally, was one of her fans. 


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Suggia’s life story is as fascinating as her recordings. She was born into a musical family in northern Portugal, and her cellist father was her first teacher and business manager. Young Guilhermina and her pianist sister, Virgínia, were both child prodigies whose performances amazed local audiences. The teenage Suggias caught the attention of Queen Amélie of Portugal, who summoned them to perform at her palace in Lisbon and gifted them jewel-studded gold bracelets. Royal influence soon led to a three-year government scholarship for Guilhermina to study with Julius Klengel, the most sought-after professor of the day. With her ambitious father as chaperone, Guilhermina moved to Leipzig. Her mother stayed at home with poor Virgínia, who single-handedly supported both parents by working as a piano teacher.

Suggia plays, Spanischer Tänze, Popper, recorded 1923

Suggia became a favorite with the genial Klengel, as seen in a photograph from 1902. The seated Klengel faces the camera, a half-open score in his hand, while Suggia, standing behind him, gazes down reverently. The admiration went both ways: three years later, Klengel dedicated his Caprice in Form einer Chaconne, Op. 43, to Suggia. This nine-page showpiece features back-to-back technical feats, including extended passages in double-stopping, bariolage, up-bow staccato, and other virtuoso bow strokes, and some death-defying leaps to the upper register. Klengel’s tribute is testimony to Suggia’s transcendent command of the instrument.

Suggia came of age during an era when male musicians would not hesitate to marry, knowing that they would enjoy the support of a helpmeet spouse. Women musicians often had to choose between career and romance, knowing that a husband was unlikely to put his wife’s career first. Moreover, dual careers were almost unheard of. Suggia’s six-year relationship with Pablo Casals was therefore unusual. The pair had more in common than their cellos: both were from Iberian countries, both had withstood the pressures of a musically gifted childhood, and both knew the financial and practical struggles of life as a soloist. Suggia had worked too hard at her career to relinquish it, and Casals did not expect her to. Though they were never married, it seems that they pretended to be for respectability’s sake. Suggia often appeared on concert programs as “Mme. Casals-Suggia” and signed her name “Guilhermina Casals.” Suggia and Casals frequently performed together and premiered works by a favorite composer, Emánuel Moór. These include Moór’s inexplicably little-performed double concerto and a Suite for Two Cellos dedicated to “Pablo and Guilhermina Casals.”


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The circumstances of Suggia’s break with Casals are unclear, though the relationship was over by the time the First World War began. Casals spent most of those years in the United States, while Suggia stayed in Europe. As Portugal was not a viable base for career building, she moved to London. She was best-known for her performance of the great Romantic concertos, but also performed the Bach suites and music by living composers. Suggia’s collaborators included the top pianists, conductors, and orchestras of Europe. According to Mercier’s biography, one critic opined, “If Casals is the king of cellists, Suggia is not less certainly the queen.” 

Eventually, Suggia’s concerns for her aging parents led her back to Portugal. In her forties, she was finally ready to marry. Her Portuguese husband was not a musician but a radiologist who provided Suggia with a happy home life and helped care for her mother. Suggia continued to perform but also dedicated this next phase of her career to teaching. Other than a rather spiteful recollection by Augustus John’s daughter, Amaryllis Fleming, there are not many detailed accounts of Suggia’s pedagogy. She did, however, write two extended essays on cello playing in the British journal Music and Letters that give some idea of Suggia the teacher. “Scales,” she wrote, “are beautiful, they are a mine of gold . . . they help articulation, control of the bow, every quality of strength of tone . . . in fact the scale is the basis, and to my mind, the only point from which technique and music can be brought united to perfection. But alas! How rare it is to find anyone who has the slightest conception of a scale as anything but an unpleasant necessity, or any sense of its harmonious relationship to musical ideas.” 


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Rejecting the idea that “technique” and “musicality” can be separated, she wrote, “The study of technique and tone are one with the study of music. Everything should be prepared with the ideal in front of one of being able to interpret a work with its true meaning, and not in any way to force it into showing off tone or technique or vibrato.” 

For Suggia, vibrato was “perhaps the most difficult thing to teach. It is mainly a question of ear, like intonation.” On players who neglected to listen intently to their own playing, she wrote, “It is impossible for such a performer to become a useful teacher, because, in order to teach, one must know exactly how a thing is done—only those who have had the greatest struggle to become good players will make the finest teachers.”

When Suggia began her career in the 1890s, there were very few female cellists. By the time she died in 1950, and thanks in no small part to her example, there were many. Now that Suggia’s performances are no longer within living memory, one must hope that digitally remastered editions of her recordings will one day become more accessible so that cellists can continue to learn from her art.