A Cellist in Exile

Pablo Casals and the Cold War

by | Dec 11, 2016

Pablo Casals is filmed at the United Nations. Photo courtesy of Luis Muñoz-Marín Historical Archive


When Pablo Casals first set foot in Puerto Rico in 1955—his mother’s native land—his life took a dramatic turn. At 79 years of age, any other musician of his artistic stature would have quietly retired, but he did quite the opposite. Not that the previous decades of his life had been peaceful or easy. In exile in France since 1939 and pained to see his native Catalonia torn to pieces by the Spanish Civil War, he watched as Europe was reduced to rubble by Nazi ambition, spreading destruction and tragedy. San Juan offered the possibility of a new beginning, focused on performing and conducting, surrounded by family and friends. But his decision to settle in this unincorporated territory of the United States was also controversial, for he had vowed never to play in a country that offered support to the Spanish dictatorship led by Francisco Franco.

Casals had been an ardent supporter of the Second Spanish Republic at a time of intense political conflict, and had fled Barcelona to avoid execution by the Nationalist Army. He settled in Prades, a small French town only one hour away from the Spanish border and suspended his professional career until 1950. It was then that he received an invitation sent by Jaime Benítez, Chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico, to join the academic community in San Juan. It afforded him the opportunity to get acquainted with members of his mother’s family he had never met, while participating in new developments on the island’s cultural scene led by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín. Yet accepting the invitation also implied a change in his long-held stance against totalitarianism, and would invite government scrutiny.

Born in the small Spanish town El Vendrell on December 29, 1876, he learned to play the cello and the violin at an early age. He focused on the cello and developed a unique playing technique that was eventually named in his honor. He began his professional career in Paris in 1899 and quickly became famous for his talent and charisma. Returning to his native Barcelona in 1919, he founded a new professional orchestra at the Palau de la Musica Catalana, named the Orquesta Pau Casals. The Spanish Civil War and World War II interrupted his highly successful career as a musician and director.

Upon his arrival in San Juan, Casals received a hero’s welcome as he descended from the ship into a multitude that awaited him. An entire week of activities honoring his visit was planned. Thanks to his mother’s heritage, he was treated as a native son.  Governor Muñoz Marín invited to him head a new musical festival bearing his name, beginning in 1957. Casals’ presence stimulated the establishment of a symphony orchestra (1958) and a conservatory (1959), and gave much needed gravitas to the governor’s efforts to develop new cultural endeavors reflecting the island’s aspirations. The economy was moving away from agriculture into manufacturing and new factories were opening everyday. Cultural sophistication would mean that not only banks were flourishing in the island but sensibilities and tastes as well. At least that was how Abe Fortas, the renowned Washington D.C. lawyer who was the governor’s adviser, saw it. His advice was to turn Casals into a symbol of all the good that was happening in the cultural scene. And he was right: Casals was the perfect symbol for this—and he enjoyed being close to family and friends. When asked about Puerto Rico’s subordination to the United States and his rejection of countries that supported Franco, he drew a comparison between his native Catalonia and Spain. For him Puerto Rico was not the United States, just as being a Catalan was not the same as being Spanish. A different language and culture were the fundamental elements.

Photo courtesy of Luís Muñoz-Marín Historical Archive.


In time Fortas became Casals’ American mentor and confidant, even when he was appointed justice of the Supreme Court—and Casals’ prominence only grew.

When he decided to play at the United Nations headquarters in 1958—his first international appearance after his vow of artistic silence in 1945 to protest tolerance by the Allies of Spain’s dictatorial regime—Casals became the focus of an intense international crusade that led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize that same year. Not only was he revered as the greatest cellist of his generation, but he was also applauded for his courage. Such visibility was unparalleled for an artist at 82 years of age, and many were surprised to witness such energy and determination on his part after decades of living practically in seclusion. He began to travel frequently to conduct his oratorio “El Pessebre,” composed with his friend Joan Alavedra as an ode to the highest human values. He was perceived as a cultural diplomat and champion of the arts as a means to prevent violence and war. He still refused to play in any country that recognized Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in Spain; yet in 1961 he accepted an invitation to play in private for John F. Kennedy at the White House, even though the United States had repeatedly expressed support for the Spanish government. For many of his Spanish and Catalonian friends, such a concession amounted to betrayal, something that could neither be explained nor tolerated if one looked at Casals’ history of activism. While he was hailed in the United States, he was shunned and criticized by others, particularly by fellow expatriates.

Casals’ overt crusade against totalitarianism was amplified by a new medium: television. Major television networks and the Voice of America, among others, broadcast his speeches and concerts all over the world. Puerto Rico and the network of people that assisted him in that endeavor had a key role in his success as an international figure. It was with the support of a tight group of benefactors—and Fortas—that he was able to gain access to circles of influence in the United States. His evolving relationship with the United Nations, where he gave three major concerts between 1958 and 1971, and his support of Spanish refugees in France through the Spanish Refugee Aid Committee, based in New York City, also broadened his reach. As a result the FBI took an interest in Casals and his activities, as evidenced in recently declassified FBI documents that reveal how suspicious J. Edgar Hoover became as the cellist’s prominence grew.

Pablo Casals conducts. Photo courtesy of Luís Muñoz-Marín Historical Archive.


In a series of memorandums addressed to the FBI Director between 1958 and 1961, the San Juan office took notice of Casals and reported on his pronouncements in favor of world peace published in the local press. He was also cited for signing a petition to the President urging a new trial for Morton Sobell, a U.S. engineer who worked on government contracts and was tried and convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. His nomination as honorary delegate of the Puerto Rican Council of Peace was noted because it had sent a representative to the Congress for Disarmament and International Cooperation, suspected of being sympathetic to the Soviet cause. In another document he is quoted as voicing “approval for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, support for the Cuban Revolution of Fidel Castro and belief in the liberty of all people,” a problematic expression  given the FBI’s suspicion of all things Cuban.

This particular period of Casals’ life, from his arrival in 1955 and his passing in 1973, has received simplistic treatment in the existing literature instead of a more critical reading. Perhaps because he lived to be 97 years old, many conflicts he experienced during the last two decades of his life were downplayed in favor of events that highlight his many virtues. His correspondence with Alexander Schneider, member of the Budapest String Quartet and a very close friend from this period, revealed his initial reluctance to return to the United States, even with generous financial incentives. He also shared his doubts with Joan Alavedra, his Catalan compatriot, with whom he had shared a house in France for ten years. Both collections of letters from 1949 to 1973 offer a new perspective on Casals’ decision to move to Puerto Rico and his willingness to return to the United States while he still wished to remain an advocate for democracy for his native Spain. Together with his involvement with the Spanish Refugee Aid Committee reflected in personal letters and photographs, and copies of his FBI files proving that Casals was kept under surveillance even as he grew closer to the White House, this correspondence effectively shows that his activities drew suspicion from certain government elements.

Pablo Casals talks with Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo courtesy of Luís Muñoz-Marín Historical Archive.


Taken together, these documents present a more complex picture of Casals’ life than previously considered. His two published biographies (1974, by H.L. Kirk, and 1992, by Robert Baldock) overlook these important aspects and are very general, mainly for lack of adequate sources. The intersection of the musical with the political at that moment in his life prompted his return to the international stage, increasing his exposure and credibility. Likewise his values fueled other personal endeavors, such as his yearly pilgrimage to the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont to teach young musicians, and his participation in the Casals Festival, both in Puerto Rico and France, which offered important platforms for communicating his beliefs. Yet Casals remains a musician better known for his musical than his political achievements. 

His advocacy for Catalonia and Spanish democracy while living in Puerto Rico was unparalleled among his peers but remains mostly ignored in Spain, as historians have preferred to emphasize his previous exile in France. Some even claim erroneously that he died there, choosing to ignore a very important period of his life. As for his concert at the Kennedy White House, which irked some of his friends, that calculated political move had allowed him a private meeting with President Kennedy to lobby for the return of democracy to Spain. It may have been risky but it was bold as well. At his age it would have been unlikely for him to get another such opportunity. In taking it he revealed both his talent for diplomacy and his passion for the pursuit of liberty. Both deserve renewed consideration.


Winter 2016Volume XV, Number 2

Pedro Reina Pérez, a historian, journalist and blogger, was the 2013-14 DRCLAS Wilbur Marvin Visiting Scholar. He is a professor of Humanities and Cultural Agency and Administration at the University of Puerto Rico. Among his books and edited volumes are Compañeras la voz levantemos (2015), Poeta del Paisaje (2014) and La Semilla Que Sembramos (2003). More of his work can be seen at www.pedroreinaperez.com

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