Guilhermina Suggia was born in the Parish of S. Nicolau, in Porto, on June 27, 1885, from a family of Italian origins. The first to recognize her extraordinary talent in playing the cello was her father, Augusto Suggia, who was her first teacher. At the age of 12, Guilhermina was already the first cello of the local orchestra, the Portuense Orpheon. Very soon, she took the decision to pursue a career as a professional cellist, which was absolutely unthinkable for the culture of that time.
With Suggia, began the recognition of the feminine musical genius and its consecration, however, it is right that also other women cellists before Suggia should be remembered. First of all, Lisa Cristiani (1827-1853), from Paris, also gifted with great talent. Then Gabrielle (1855-1875) Belgian, of whom only the brilliant technique is known. Beatrice Eveline (1877 – unknown date), famous for having performed a European tour as a soloist. Then May Mukle (1880 – 1963) and Beatrice Harrison, with English parents, but born in the colonies of Western India, the first woman cellist who played at Carnegie Hall.
In the next generation, we remember two students of Suggia: Thelma Reiss and Raya Garbousoya. The cellist Antonia Butler did not have Suggia as a teacher, but always kept her as her only reference model. Zara Nelsova played the first concert in memory of Suggia in 1950 with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Academy of Music. But among all, we must remember the brilliant and unfortunate Jacqueline du Pré (Oxford 1945 – 1987), who won the “Suggia Prize” at the age of 10.
Guilhermina, for the time, was a very educated woman, of considerable experience, with a developed intellectual logic. Her temperament was due to her connection with music: her life always had music and the cello at its center. While aware of her natural talent for the instrument, throughout her life she continued to study with perseverance and tenacity, in search of technical and stylistic perfection. Suggia considered the cello an extraordinary instrument for its ability to sustain the bass for a prolonged time and for its extraordinary possibility of singing any melody.
It was she who affirmed: “The technique is necessary as a means of expression and the more perfect is the technique, the freer will be the thought of interpreting the ideas that animated the composer“. The study of the instrument, for Guilhermina, means absolute attention to detail, obviously continuity in the exercise. To confirm this, the declaration of the neighbor, upstairs, who complained that Suggia “Taught her students and then played continuously, having done so since her arrival, without ever stopping“. Suggia settled in London from 1914 and returned permanently to Portugal in the thirties.
Both the father Suggia, the first teacher, and the school at the Bernardo Moreira de Sa Quartet contributed decisively to the setting of the technique and to the basic education that was perfected neatly at the Leipzig Conservatory, where Guilhermina was admitted, and which she was able to attend thanks to a scholarship granted by Queen D. Amelia. Julius Klengel, his teacher, gave her the typical style of the German cello school, delighting his pupil who possessed “A high musical intelligence and a complete knowledge of the technique. She has the right to be considered, in the artistic world, as a celebrity. Full of talent, well-informed of all the secrets of the cello, she starts to climb and will go so high that no one will be able to reach her“.
Klengel’s prophetic words came true and precisely in the most prestigious European concert halls. Suggia always mentioned the extraordinary teachings of Klengel, however, also highlighting the later influence on her training by Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973).
In 1898 Guilhermina’s father introduced his 13-year-old daughter to the cellist Pablo Casals who had been hired by the Casino de Espinho to play on some evenings. Casals, after hearing Suggia play, invited her to lessons in Espinho: the cellist spent the summer between Porto and the city, traveling on slow trains in the company of his beloved cello. They met again in Leipzig, for some visits to Klengel. Since 1906 Suggia, in Paris, shared the house with Casals, but never married him.
The house, Villa Molitor, had three small floors: the kitchen on the ground floor, the dining room and the living room on the first floor, two bedrooms and the bathroom on the upper floor. Here the couple returned after concerts and tours, especially in late spring or early summer, to meet friends and give life to music nights for the pure pleasure of playing “just us and music“. Among the friends who frequented Villa Molitor, were the painters Degas and Eugène Carrière, the philosopher Henri Bergson, the writer Romain Rolland, the musicians Ysaÿe, Thibaud, Cortot, Bauer, and composers such as d’Indy, Enescu, Ravel, Schönberg, Saint-Saëns.
But, in 1913, the relationship between Casals and Suggia deteriorated: she herself will define that fragment of life as “the cruelest and the most unfortunate episode of my life“. From then on, Guilhermina referred to Casals only as a cellist and never again as a lover.
In 1914, she moved to London, where, in 1919, she became engaged to Edward Hudson, who gave her a Stradivarius cello from 1717 that now bears her name.
Guilhermina, in 1923, posed for the portrait painted by the painter Augusto Giovanni. During the sessions in the painter’s studio, she played Bach and the painting is said to have preserved for posterity the visual legacy of Suggia’s character and interpretative attitude. Suggia photographs by Alvin Langdon Coburn are preserved in the George Eastman House Photo Archive and a photographic portrait of Bertram Park is in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Primadonna of the stage, she always dominates the score and the music: incredibly magnetized the audience with her technique and her absolute understanding of the interpreted piece. In the chronicles of her concerts, we read often about “thunderous applause”, but sometimes we read even about “acclamations”.
Suggia, in her city, Porto, was the subject of conflicting judgments, but everyone recognized in her a character impenetrable like steel and then, at the same time, an unprecedented generosity. From the most carefree and shrill laughter, she often passed to nostalgia taciturn and austere. Her personality expressed attitudes of eccentric English: she used foreign words in conversation and typically British humor. Not only: in order to differentiate herself from the ladies of Porto, she played tennis, practiced rowing and swimming and, above all, she guided her own black Renault.
In 1927 Suggia married Jose Mena, an X-Ray specialist. During the world war, Suggia remained in Portugal, where she collaborated in raising humanitarian funds, playing in concerts in Porto. Right at the end of the forties, the collaboration with Maria Adelaide de Freites Goncalves, director of the Conservatory of Music of Porto, led to the realization of another important project: the establishment of the Symphony Orchestra of the Conservatory which was composed by the students already graduated, but that the director affectionately called “The nursery school“.
Suggia died during the night of July 30, 1950, in her house of Rua de Alegria, in Porto. From 1949, her disease manifested itself clearly. Despite this, with courage and spirit of initiative, she created the Trio of Porto together with the violinist Henri Mouton, and the violist Francois Broos. She also strengthened musical ties with Portuguese composers and performers playing in Porto, Lisbon, Aveiro, Braga, and Viseu whenever she was invited by the musical circles of these cities. On May 31, 1950, she performed for the last time in public, at the Aveirense Theater; with her, at the piano, Maria Adelaide de Freitas Gocalves. After the concert, she returned to Porto on a car driven by her chauffeur, but full of flowers. Thus she gave up the planned trip to America, forever.
In her will, she established a prize to be awarded to the best student of the cello degree course at the Porto Conservatory. In the same way, she instituted a prize to be awarded to the Royal Academy of Music in London, for contribute to post-graduate studies of cellists with a solo interpreter profile.
Her hometown remembers her with the Premio Internacional Suggia / Casa da Música, arrived in 2019 at its 6th edition, which brings together the young promises of the cello from all over Europe. The prize for the winner is a concert with the Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música.
Some precious vintage recordings testify her way of playing. Her Stradivarius cello is now entrusted to the hands of Maja Weber
TO KNOW MORE
Anita Mercier, Guilhermina Suggia: Cellist
VIDEO ON YOUTUBE
Biographical documentary about Guilhermina Suggia