Pau Casals and JF Kennedy

13 November 1961 Dinner in honor of Governor Luis Muñoz Marín of Puerto Rico Please Credit Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Two roads diverged into a bush, and I
I chose the one less travelled by
and that has made all the difference

(Robert Frost, The road not taken, 1916)

The depth yet gentle touch of Frost’s words of wisdom, were mentioned by President John F. Kennedy in his famous speech at Amherst College upon receiving an honorary degree, 26 October 1963. Furthermore, the very same lines could as well be applied to extraordinary musician and social activist Mr Pau Casals, who put into practice throughout his life and artistic work, the philosophical concepts shared both by Frost and President Kennedy.

Indeed, Pau Casals was born in 1876 from a very poor and large family: 11 children of whom only 3 survived, being him one of them. Casals’s passion for music was most probably influenced by his father, who was an organist playing in the local church.

Even though Pau showed an incredible talent and musical ear since his early years, the economic restrictions of his family though, restrain him from approaching the world of music. While contributing to his family wealth by playing the Cello in some cafes of Barcelona, he bumped into the well known pianist and composer, Isaac Albeni, who decided to introduce him to his then friend, Queen Maria Cristina.

The lucky event changed the life of Casals and his family forever, since the Queen provided them all with financial help, and education, and stability.

While attending his studies in Brussels, Pau demonstrated great dignity and character, even when he lost all his financial fortune, by taking a stand against a disrespectful teacher. Although it seemed a brave gesture, the Queen did not approved, and Pau Casals fell into misery again. Years later, thanks to his stubborness, he reached his success in Paris, where he played among prestigious musicians and composers. Pau Casals funded the “Asociación obrera de conciertos” to provide the poor people with the opportunity to attend concerts and listen to the greatest musicians of the world. Music, in his opinion, was a form of art and as such it had to be accessible to everyone. Casals believed in the value of peace, and in 1939, due to the Spanish dictatorship, he began his exile and his long silence of protest and indignation. After some sporadic appearances in concert in the following years, with the end of the Second World War, Casals’ opposition to the Franco regime intensified to the point of pushing him to suspend his activity as a musician in protest. He exhausted his financial savings by hosting and lending money to refugees. Music became his language of protest, accompanied by the young Marta Montañez, and in 1961 he was invited by President Kennedy to play at the White House, in exchange for 30 minutes of private confrontation.

The two men had so much in common, although their role in life were so different. 

Quoting a President Kennedy’s remarks at Amherst College:

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style. In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society–in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

One of his latest compositions was the United Nations Anthem, commissioned by Secretary U Thant and directed by him for his New York debut in October 1972. On that same occasion he was awarded the UN Peace Medal. He died in Puerto Rico, far from his wife Marta and far from his beloved Catalan land in Spain, and without having seen the end of the Franco dictatorship, which he had so much opposed in life.

Elena Arzani