Deconstructing Bach’s Famous Cello Prelude–the One You’ve Heard in Hundreds of TV Shows & Films

There may be no instru­ment in the clas­si­cal reper­toire more mul­ti­di­men­sion­al than the cel­lo. Its deep silky voice mod­u­lates from moans to exal­ta­tions in a sin­gle phrase—conveying dig­ni­fied melan­choly and a pro­found sense of awe. Hear­ing a skilled cel­list inter­pret great solo music for cel­lo can approach the feel­ing of a reli­gious expe­ri­ence. And no piece of solo music for cel­lo is greater, or more pop­u­lar­ly known, than Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach’s Cel­lo Suite No. 1 in G Major. Bet­ter known as the “Pre­lude,” the first of six Baroque suites Bach com­posed between 1717 and 1723, the piece has appeared, notes the Vox Ear­worm video above, “in hun­dreds of TV shows and films.”

You’ve heard it at wed­ding and funer­als, in restau­rants, in the lob­bies of hotels. “It’s so famous, that if you don’t remem­ber its title, “you can just google ‘that famous cel­lo song’ and it will invari­ably pop up.” What is it about this piece that so appeals? Its con­stant, rhyth­mic move­ment con­ceals “what’s most com­pelling about it”—its sim­plic­i­ty. “The whole thing just takes up two pages of music, and it’s com­posed for an instru­ment with only four strings.” The Ear­worm video goes on to explain why this enor­mous­ly pop­u­lar, decep­tive­ly sim­ple piece is “con­sid­ered a mas­ter­piece that world-class cel­lists… have revered for years.”

Bach’s cel­lo suites “are the Ever­est of [the cello’s] reper­to­ry,” writes Zachary Woolfe at The New York Times, “offer­ing a guide to near­ly every­thing a cel­lo can do—as well as, many believe, chart­ing a remark­ably com­plete anato­my of emo­tion and aspi­ra­tion.” World-class cel­list Yo-Yo Ma has in fact been trav­el­ing the world play­ing these pieces to bring peo­ple togeth­er in his “Days of Action.” He recent­ly released the video below of the Pre­lude, demon­strat­ing the out­come of a life­time of engage­ment with Bach’s cel­lo music.

Ma plays this piece as “the musi­cian of our civic life,” writes Woolfe, appear­ing at col­lec­tive moments of both grief and cel­e­bra­tion, “to make us cry and then soothe us.” What we learn in the Vox video is that the cel­lo suites come from music designed to lit­er­al­ly move its lis­ten­ers. “With­in each suite are var­i­ous move­ments named for dances.” Cel­list Alisa Weil­er­stein demon­strates the Prelude’s beau­ti­ful sim­plic­i­ty and helps “decon­struct” the piece’s ide­al suit­abil­i­ty for the instru­ment “clos­est in range and abil­i­ty to express to the human voice.”

What’s inter­est­ing about Bach’s six cel­lo suites is that they were writ­ten by a non-cel­list, “the first non-cel­list com­pos­er to give the cel­lo its first big break as a lead actor,” writes musi­col­o­gist Ann Wittstruck. He drew on Baroque social dances for the form of the pieces, which increase in com­plex­i­ty as they go. The pre­lude is loos­er, with arpeg­gios cir­cling around an open bass note that gives the first half “grav­i­tas.”

As the piece shifts away to the dom­i­nant D major, then to “cloudy” dimin­ished and minor chords, its mood shifts too; with­in sim­ple har­monies play a com­plex of emo­tion­al ten­sions. Its sec­ond half wan­ders through an impro­visato­ry, dis­so­nant pas­sage on its way back to D major. Weil­er­stein walks through each tech­nique, includ­ing a dis­ori­ent­ing run down the cello’s neck called “bar­i­o­lage,” which, she says, is meant to cre­ate a “feel­ing of dis­or­der.”

Per­haps that’s only one of the rea­sons Bach’s Pre­lude res­onates with us so deeply in a frag­ment­ed world, and fits Ma’s har­mo­nious inten­tions so well. It’s a piece that acknowl­edges dis­so­nance and dis­or­der even as it sur­rounds them with the joy­ful, styl­ized move­ments of social dances. Music crit­ic Wil­frid Mellers described Bach’s cel­lo suites as “mono­phon­ic music where­in a man has cre­at­ed a dance of God.” But they were not rec­og­nized by his con­tem­po­raries with such high praise.

Com­posed “just before Bach moved to Leipzig,” Woolfe writes, “the cel­lo suites, now musi­cal and emo­tion­al touch­stones, were lit­tle known until the 1900s. It was thought, even by some who knew of them, that they were mere­ly études, noth­ing you’d want to per­form in pub­lic.” Now, the most famous cellist—and per­haps most famous clas­sic icon—in the world is trav­el­ing to six con­ti­nents, play­ing Bach’s cel­lo suites in 36 very pub­lic con­certs. Learn more about his Bach project here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How a Bach Canon Works. Bril­liant.

Watch J.S. Bach’s “Air on the G String” Played on the Actu­al Instru­ments from His Time

Down­load the Com­plete Organ Works of J.S. Bach for Free

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • David LaRondelle says:

    This piece is also a clas­si­cal gui­tar favorite. On the gui­tar the har­monies are beau­ti­ful.

    The gui­tar is a both a har­mon­ic and melod­ic instru­ment.
    But…the cel­lo has such res­o­nance that its sound vibrates into your body.

    You can phys­i­cal­ly feel the music. The record­ing of the cel­lo may not do it jus­tice.

  • Cesar Viana says:

    Pre­lude is not the name of the first suite, it is the name of the first move­ment of the first (among six) suite.

  • Vallory Friesen says:

    The arti­cle’s title led me to think there would be some depth here, as “decon­struc­tion” sug­gests analy­sis and struc­tur­al insight into the music itself. What a dis­ap­point­ment.

  • Mark says:

    I assume that you missed the first video at the top of the arti­cle fea­tur­ing Alisa Weil­er­stein. She def­i­nite­ly decon­structs it.

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