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.