Suggia, Guilhermina (1888–1950)

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Suggia, Guilhermina (1888–1950)

Portuguese cellist. Born on June 27, 1888, in Oporto, Portugal; died on July 31, 1950, in Oporto; daughter of Augusto Suggia and Eliza Suggia (both of Italian descent); married Dr. José Mena (an X-ray specialist); studied with Julius Klengel.

Debuted with the Gewandhaus concerts (1902); studied with Pablo Casals and later lived with him for several years before establishing herself as one of the world's finest cellists; immortalized in Augustus John's portrait of her.

Modern-day visitors gape at the astonishing portrait in London's Tate Gallery. The woman wears a sumptuous geranium gown and sits erect, thrusting out her jaw as she holds her cello. She is slim, dark, olive-skinned, and graceful. This painting by artist Augustus John sums up the remarkable musician Guilhermina Suggia, who laid to rest the prejudice that a woman could not be a cello virtuoso. Born in Oporto, Portugal, in 1888 to parents of Italian descent, Suggia demonstrated musical abilities early. She and her sister Virginia Suggia , who played the piano, studied with their father who was also a fine cellist. Though Guilhermina hated authority and rigidity and often fought with her father, her progress was remarkable. At age seven, she gave her debut at the Palácio de Cristal. At age ten, she played before Pablo Casals. When she was 12, Suggia was the leader of the Porto City Symphony Orchestra's cello section. Before she left to study with Julius Klengel at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany in 1902, the young musician had given 50 concerts.

No sooner had Suggia arrived in Germany than trouble erupted. She had won a royal scholarship to study in Leipzig, while at the same time she had accepted a fee for performing with the Gewandhaus orchestra on February 26, 1902. As punishment for abandoning her amateur status, her scholarship was withdrawn. But events went quite differently than might have been predicted: Suggia remained in Leipzig, studied with Klengel, joined the orchestra there, and kept her scholarship. Talented and tempestuous, Suggia was learning that rules were made to be broken.

In 1906, when she moved to Paris after her father's death, she found her financial situation precarious. She sought out Casals, who was performing and teaching there, and asked if she might study with him. He not only took her on as a student, but also offered to assist her financially. Casals was 11 years older than Suggia, whose dedication to the cello was as great as his own. It was not surprising, therefore, that their relationship soon developed into love.

For the next seven years, Casals and Suggia lived together. Though they sometimes posed as a married couple, no marriage appears to have taken place. But less than a year after she came to Paris, a program announced that a cello soloist named "Madame P. Casals-Suggia" would perform. Since she and Casals were well-known performers from a conservative Catholic country, their living together would not have been accepted, hence the possible use of a diversionary tactic.

These two musicians had very different personalities. Suggia was emotional, volcanic, and capricious, while Casals was organized, disciplined, and serious. Casals was well established as a concert artist while Suggia was only beginning her career. Though both continued their concert tours, these were happy times in Paris where they often met for long evenings with the "band of thieves" as they called their friends. This group included the violinists Fritz Kreisler, Georges Enesco, and Eugène Ysaÿe, the pianists Ferruccio Busoni and Raoul Pugno, and the violist Pierre Monteaux. They went on walks, played tennis, went fishing, and made music.

Guilhermina Suggia's entrance into Casals' life changed its pattern considerably. No longer did he tour for three-to-six months at a time. The two were seldom apart for more than a few days, never more than two weeks. Sometimes she accompanied him to concerts, and he did the same. With the passage of time, more and more differences began to surface between the two. Casals was an older, more established musician than Suggia. It was inevitable that she was cast in the role of a junior partner. Worse still, he did not want her to make a serious success of her career. He was uncomfortable with a woman who wanted professional independence. Suggia fought back, confronting his jealousy with tirades. But her mother Eliza Suggia sided with Casals, maintaining that for any woman with three fur coats, a little dog, and domestic security, giving up her career was a small price to pay. Suggia refused.

Living together was not simple for the two concert artists. Each had to practice for hours daily when not on tour. Casals' jealousy was further inflamed when his friend, composer Emanuel Moór, wrote pieces especially for Suggia. Despite their frequent arguments, she always admired Casals' abilities, a feeling which was mutual. When Julius Röntgen visited the couple in the summer of 1908, he found Casals "stretched out on the sofa in dressing-gown and Suggia playing the cello nearby…. After playing we went into the garden, Casals turned on the fountain, Suggia brought out the Spanish wine, and blackbirds were singing; [it was] the most beautiful summer afternoon." Such peaceful scenes alternated with fights over Suggia's career. The couple separated and reconciled many times, but eventually their tie was broken. It had been a pivotal relationship musically as well as emotionally for them both.

Increasingly, Suggia spent time in England, although she concertized internationally. In 1927, she married Dr. José Mena. Suggia never capitalized on Casals' name, though she always credited him with inspiring her. Her reputation both as an artist and a teacher continued to grow, and ultimately a prize was named in her honor. Jacqueline du Pré , another famous cellist, would one day win the Suggia Prize as did many talented musicians. Flamboyant and determined, Suggia cut a wide swath in London society as well as on stage. She was an unforgettable presence. Devoted to her art no matter the price, she demonstrated that all women could achieve on stage. Her obituary in The Times of London summed up Suggia's remarkable career:

Her playing impressed the listener by its indefinable style. Her technique and control were of a classical purity, but her interpretations were animated by a warmth of temperament and latent passion that belonged to her by birth and nationality. Something of the beauty and power of her phrasing is conveyed in the well-known portrait of her by Augustus John, since they were derived not only from her bow arm, but from her total absorption, body and mind, in what she was playing.


Baldock, Robert. Pablo Casals. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1993.

"Mme Suggia. One of the World's Leading Cellists," in The Times [London]. August 1, 1950, p. 6.

Suggia, Guilhermina. "The Violoncello," in Music and Letters. Vol. I, no. 2. April 1920.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Suggia, Guilhermina (1888–1950)

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