Austere comfort…

I first encountered the Bach Cello Suites in the late 1980’s when I was in one of those I-know-this-is-important-music-that-I-am-just-not-familiar-with-so-what-am-I-waiting-for moods. I had a pretty clear idea of what I was about to hear, but I did not realize the size of the dose of musical profundity I was going to experience.

You may recall from Music I Love #318, the Bach B-flat Major Partita for keyboard, that I mentioned a few things about the baroque suite. A suite—which also went by other names such as “partita”—was a grouping of stylized dances—pieces not meant to be danced to, but reminiscent of dances that had been, or were, known to audiences of the time. Typically, these dances could include an allemande, a courante, a sarabande, a minuet, a bourree, a gavotte, and a gigue. Suites could include all of these dances or just a few. In his virtuoso suites for solo keyboard, violin, and cello, Bach would also include an introductory Prelude, which was often—because of its position and length—the most substantial piece of his suites.

So I knew, from reading about them, that Bach’s cello suites were landmark—monumental, even—works for cello. I knew they had lain in obscurity for nearly 200 years until the 20th century cellist Pablo Casals brought them to public attention. I knew that, in writing for the solo cello, Bach had created textures that would make it seem to the listener that multiple musical lines were occurring—that he effectively wrote counterpoint for cello. I had even read the famous quotation from Wilfred Mellers Man and His Music that in the cello suites, Bach had, in his monophonic cello music, “created a dance of God.”

But I had not listened to a single note of the cello suites until I was in my late 30’s. And so the first notes of a cello suite I heard were the first notes of the first suite in G major in the set of complete cello suites played by a relatively young Yo-Yo-Ma.

I found—and still find—the music to have dual qualities—austere yet comforting. Like hearing a comforting voice from afar while you are crossing a lonely space. That is still my reaction to them. They draw you in and keep your attention, note by note.

In the G Major Suite, the Prelude has, over the decades since Casals, become the most recognizable piece in the suite. But make no mistake, Bach draws the listener “into” every movement, one after another.

Pablo Casals, the Spanish cellist who is considered one of greatest cellists of all time, was in a thrift shop at the age of 13 when he found a very old score of the cello suites. Subsequently, he learned them and performed all six suites in public his whole life. But it was not until he was 60 years old that he recorded them. Their popularity skyrocketed, as the whole world of art music became aware of their existence.

The Cello Suites are a central part of every serious cellist’s repertoire today. Every great cellist has recorded them. Two cellists—Yo-Yo Ma and Janos Starker—won Best Instrumental Soloist Grammys for their respective recordings of the suites.

Just to give a little context and chronology to where these works appear in Bach’s output: I’ve posted a number of his Cantatas in MIL, the vast majority of which were written after Bach settled in Leipzig in 1723—where he remained for the rest of his life, and where his duties were, primarily, wrapped up with the Lutheran Church. The BWV numbers given to these cantatas—which start at #1 and proceed upwards—would give the idea to the uninitiated that these were Bach’s first works. But such is not the case. The BWV (Bach Werke Verzeichnis) catalog simply lists works by category with no regard for chronology. The Cello Suites—numbered BWV 1007-1012—actually predate Bach’s time in Leipzig when he lived and worked in Kothen, and could spend considerably more time writing instrumental, secular music. The G Major suite dates from 1717, when Bach was 32 years old.


The performance I am linking to is one I find quite amazing. Once again, this is a performance in Royal Albert Hall in London. Royal Albert Hall seats 5300 people and has a 150 year history of hosting the very best performers in every musical genre. When Tiraje and I saw Royal Albert Hall, we were blown away by its size, its majesty, and its incredible history—all well documented in photos along the corridors which ring the outside of the performance space.

To confidently come out into the middle of its stage, in front of a full house, and melt into your own world of sound creation for an extended period of time—to hold an audience captive with your every note—with perfect intonation and grace—all of which Ma does here—is…well, I’m at a loss for words. Astonishing? Amazing? Admirable?

This is a great performance. I hope everyone will enjoy it.

0:12 Prelude
2:42 Allemande
7:02 Courante
9:47 Sarabande
12:33 Menuet I & II
16:04 Gigue

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