Three Hours of Yo Yo Ma Playing Bach’s Six Cello Suites: Music That “Helps Us Navigate Through Troubled Times”

“Believe it or not, this was the very first piece of music I start­ed on the cel­lo when I was four years old,” said Yo Yo Ma before play­ing the “Pre­lude” from J.S. Bach’s Unac­com­pa­nied Cel­lo Suite No. 1 for NPR’s Tiny Desk con­cert series in 2018. That same year, the world-famous cel­lo prodi­gy released his third record­ing of all six suites in an album titled Six Evo­lu­tions — Bach: Cel­lo Suites. The “two-and-a-half hours of sounds that map human­i­ty in all its tri­umphs, joys and sor­rows,” write NPR’s Mary Louise Kel­ly and Tom Huizen­ga, “has become a lodestar for the cel­e­brat­ed cel­list.”

Ma made his first record­ing of the Unac­com­pa­nied Cel­lo Suites in 1983, and won a Gram­my the fol­low­ing year. “He released anoth­er set in 1997,” a record­ing that shows the musician’s own evo­lu­tion in col­lab­o­ra­tion with “archi­tects, ice skaters and Kabu­ki artists.” But his per­for­mance of the suites has always been evo­lu­tion­ary, as a New York Times review­er not­ed of a live per­for­mance in 1991: “Cer­tain­ly soli­tary study or at most the pres­ence of a few col­leagues was the intend­ed milieu, not the vast­ness of Carnegie Hall, the pres­ence of 2,800 lis­ten­ers and the marathon for­mat of two com­plete recitals with an hour’s break between them.”

No mat­ter Bach’s inten­tions for the pieces, they have served as Ma’s musi­cal home, and he’s car­ried them with him wher­ev­er he goes, as in the full 2015 per­for­mance above at the Roy­al Albert Hall. See time stamps of the per­for­mance just below:

0:00 Intro­duc­tion
3:49 Suite I in G Major
22:25 Suite II in D Minor
42:51 Suite III in C Major — with inter­view and short break
1:13:09 Suite IV in E‑Flat Major
1:40:50 Suite V in C Minor
2:08:46 Suite VI in D Major

Here, as he had done near­ly a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry ear­li­er at Carnegie Hall, Ma not only proves that Bach’s music “trav­els well,” but he also reaf­firms his com­mit­ment to the Unac­com­pa­nied Cel­lo Suites. As he writes in the notes to Six Evo­lu­tions:

Bach’s Cel­lo Suites have been my con­stant musi­cal com­pan­ions. For almost six decades, they have giv­en me sus­te­nance, com­fort, and joy dur­ing times of stress, cel­e­bra­tion, and loss. What pow­er does this music pos­sess that even today, after three hun­dred years, it con­tin­ues to help us nav­i­gate through trou­bled times? Now that I’m in my six­ties, I real­ize that my sense of time has changed, both in life and in music, at once expand­ed and com­pressed. Music, like all of cul­ture, helps us to under­stand our envi­ron­ment, each oth­er, and our­selves. Cul­ture helps us to imag­ine a bet­ter future. Cul­ture helps turn ‘them’ into ‘us.’ And these things have nev­er been more impor­tant.

These are the prin­ci­ples upon which Ma has staked his musi­cal claim, as he now trav­els the world to deliv­er Bach to audi­ences every­where. The Bach Project aims for “36 con­certs. 36 days of action. 6 con­ti­nents,” and “1 exper­i­ment: how cul­ture con­nects us.”

Unable to trav­el in May of 2020, Ma instead played all six cel­lo suites live on tele­vi­sion at Boston’s WGBH stu­dios, live-stream­ing the broad­cast on YouTube. Now, he’s back on his trek, play­ing every­where “the same mas­ter­piece,” notes Radio Open Source, “the rarest solo per­for­mance piece that can show you infin­i­ty… an old artis­tic mas­ter­piece that’s also a mod­ern show­piece for a solo per­former who fills giant venues, East and West, indoors and out, in Chile and Chi­na, in Africa and the Andes, with audi­ences that seem to sit breath­less for most of two and a half hours.” Does Ma’s belief that Bach can “save the world” seem a lit­tle Pollyan­ish? Per­haps. But what oth­er piece of music, and what oth­er per­former, has attained such uni­ver­sal good­will? Learn more about Ma’s Bach Project here and see him play the Pre­lude for the whole world in the video above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonard Bern­stein Intro­duces 7‑Year-Old Yo-Yo Ma: Watch the Young­ster Per­form for John F. Kennedy (1962)

Yo-Yo Ma Plays an Impromp­tu Per­for­mance in Vac­cine Clin­ic After Receiv­ing 2nd Dose

Yo-Yo Ma Per­forms the First Clas­si­cal Piece He Ever Learned: Take a 12-Minute Men­tal Health Break and Watch His Mov­ing “Tiny Desk” Con­cert

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

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