Yo-Yo Ma and the Bach Suites for Solo Cello

I stayed in on Saturday night especially to listen to a very special promenade concert live on BBC Radio 3 during which renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma played all six of the Suites for unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was an absolutely brilliant concert which you can, if you missed it, or even if you didn’t,  download for the next month here. The whole thing runs for over two and a half hours, but I didn’t move from my seat once.

I’ve loved all these pieces from the moment I first heard them. How Bach manages to conjure up such a vast range of melodic and rhythmic possibilities using just the one instrument is almost miraculous. Despite using very few chords, they manage to explore the  harmonic domain too. Part of what makes them so special is the instrument itself – its earthy sound, complete with occasional growls and scrapes, emphasizes how this sublime music is somehow at the same time deeply human, somehow connecting the listener to something from far beyond the mundane world we normally inhabit. I’m not a religious man, but listening to music like this is a spiritual experience for me.

Do listen to the whole concert if you can, but if you can’t here’s a short taster (recorded elsewhere). This is the Prelude to the 1st Suite, the first page of which is here:


If you look at the sheet music you might be forgiven for thinking that it is just a dry exercise in playing across the strings. Listen to it come to life, however, and you’ll quickly realise that you were wrong. The ending of this prelude always sends shivers down my spine.

I know these suites have been transcribed for other solo instruments, such as the flute, but listening to them on Saturday I wondered if they had been transcribed for my favourite earthy and growly instrument, the tenor saxophone. In fact they have; you can hear an example here.  One problem that struck me immediately is that saxophonists have to pause for breath! Anyway,  I must get a copy of the transcription and have a go at learning it, though I think it would take a Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane to do them justice!


16 Responses to “Yo-Yo Ma and the Bach Suites for Solo Cello”

  1. Michael Kenyon Says:

    Thanks, looking forward to this.

    Wasn’t Bach’s cello music a big influence on ‘On the Corner’?

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “how this sublime music is somehow at the same time deeply human”

    When I was working in Blighty, I saw a BBC programme in which Ma gave his reason why Bach’s music is even better than the very, very good music by contemporaries such as Händel, Vivaldi, and Telemann: it appeals simultaneously to the intellect, to the emotions, and also has a physical aspect.

    Bach also wrote 6 (a common number in his œuvre) works for solo violin which are at least as sublime. He transcribed them himself for lute. Both versions are worth hearing.

    When asked what humanity should send to extraterrestrials as a representation of humanity, Lewis Thomas replied: “The complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach—but that would be boasting.”

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      “He transcribed them himself for lute.”

      Well, probably not.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      You beat me to it! I’ll say only that I prefer the solo violin works even to the cello. The Ciaccone is unbelievably wonderful.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      “it appeals simultaneously to the intellect, to the emotions, and also has a physical aspect.”

      That is why you can listen to it intently or have it as background music. Try that duality with other composers and it isn’t possible.

      I went to a concert once in which the violinist played from a photocopy of Bach’s scores. He was available to talk at the interval and said that he had to resolve the ambiguities in the scores in real time. Obviously he had made some decisions in advance but the point is that all editorial editions make the choices for you.

      • I can’t really do anything else when listening to Bach, especially these works and the keyboard works. However I do often use such pieces to gear up for work. Something about them seems to get the little grey cells working..

  3. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “One problem that struck me immediately is that saxophonists have to pause for breath!”

    Ritchie Blackmore speculated that pauses often heard in rock-music guitar solos might stem from (probably subconsciously) emulating sax players.

    Some woodwind players have mastered the technique of circular breathing, so actually don’t have to pause for breath. However, Bach’s works for solo string instruments also make use of playing more than one string (sometimes all 4) at once. While Dick Heckstall-Smith and Roland Kirk (who was also a circular breather) sometimes played two saxes at once, I think 4 would be beyond even their considerable capabilities.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’m not sure what the transcriptions for wind instruments do about chords, but actually Bach using them quite sparingly in the cello suites, a fact which makes the harmonic richness of his compositions all the more remarkable. This is mainly achieved by playing chords as arpeggios, as is heard to good effect on the Prelude included in the post. I guess you’d have to play everything like this on a wind instrument.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        There are more in the solo-violin works, but there it is somewhat easier to play more than two strings at once. (Of course, “somewhat easier” is relative.)

      • telescoper Says:

        The original form of the 5th Suite involves a retuning of the A-string down to a G. Sadly, modern performances don’t employ this scordatura, with the result that the chords have to be changed because they’re basically unplayable with the standard tuning.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Ritchie rules!

      Deep Purple Mk II are my alltime fave rock group.

  4. I like Yo-Yo Ma’s version, but you should really check out the recent recording by David Watkin, which just received a Gramophone Award. Outstanding.

  5. I too greatly enjoyed the Yo-Yo Ma Bach Cello Suites.

    Perhaps we could also mention some of the other late evening BBC Proms Bach concerts, particularly the music for solo violin performed by Alina Ibragimova.

    The only one I attended was the performance of the Goldberg Variations on the piano by András Schiff, which was also excellent. The Albert Hall was completely full and the Arena as densely packed as I’ve seen it, but very quiet throughout. It was wonderful.

  6. Adrian Burd Says:

    Sadly, Auntie Beeb blocks this content to those of us in the US. However, I did have the good fortune to see Ma play several of the pieces here in Athens a couple of years back. We are lucky to have an excellent Performing Arts theatre here at the University — it’s acoustics are so good that folks from other major concert halls come to find out how it was done, and many performances are recorded for broadcast on NPR’s Performance Today. It was a great performance, with Ma on stage surrounded on three sides by 50 or so local high school and undergraduate music students. I seem to recall that he had met with them earlier in the day.

    We’re quite fortunate in having this facility on campus. Over the past few years we have had Dave Brubeck, Bela Fleck, Itzhak Perlman, and many others play. James Galway also holds a flute masterclass and concerts here every couple of years which means he’s on campus for a week or more. For a city of 100,000 folks, I think we do pretty well.

  7. His Irreverence Says:

    I tried Doug Yeo’s transcription for trombone and found them an education in hitting the right note after octave jumps – not the usual experience for trombone!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: