Program Notes from Yo-Yo Ma, Bach Cello Suites
About this Piece
These reflections from Yo-Yo Ma and Michael Stern at the start of the Bach Project in August, 2018, are adapted from the liner notes to Six Evolutions, Yo-Yo Ma’s new recording of the suites, available now from Sony Classical.
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? What did Pablo Casals find in this music that made him devote his life to bringing it to the world? And why am I sharing it with you, today?
Three memories from early life return whenever I play or hear the suites. My father taught me the first suite, measure by measure, when I was four years old, and I remember as a child the aesthetic pleasure of finding just the right space and timing between the gentle landing of the last note of the Sarabande and the slight increase of energy in the Menuet’s initial lilt. The second memory is from my father, a violinist who spent World War II in both China and France. He used to tell me about the utter loneliness he felt in occupied Paris during the blackout, and how he would spend his days memorizing Bach sonatas and partitas, then play them to himself at night. The final memory is of discovering the words of my musical hero. I was a teenager when I first read the memoirs of Pablo Casals and found a philosophy for music and life that resonated then as it does now, even more strongly: I am a human being first, a musician second, and a cellist third.
Over the years, I came to believe that, in creating these works, Bach played the part of a musician-scientist, expressing precise observations about nature and human nature. He did so, in the first three suites, by experimenting with all that the cello can do as a solo instrument. In the final three, he demanded even more of the cello, and of himself, asking a single-line instrument to speak in multiple voices. His compositional invention is at once explicit and implicit, requiring the listener’s unconscious ear to fill in what the cello can only suggest, achieving a sonic and architectural richness that ultimately transcends the instrument itself.
I’ve just finished my third recording of these works. The first time I recorded the suites I was in my late twenties; it was a time of new purpose in my life: thanks to the extraordinary support and devotion of my wife, Jill, I had successfully undergone major spinal surgery, and we were looking forward to starting a family. Sheldon Gold, the visionary founder of ICM Artists and my manager at the time, challenged me to perform and record the suites. I felt it was a somewhat brazen idea: who was I to do what many older artists waited decades to accomplish? But I believed then, as I still do, that a recording is a snapshot of a moment, and it was music that I had been living with since I was a child. The recording captured my deep gratitude for a new lease on life.
I was entering my forties when I recorded the suites a second time. For years, I had been receiving letters from children and adults writing to say how this music inspired them. I wanted to share the suites’ creative force with more people, so I decided to perform an experiment. What if I asked a number of deeply imaginative artists — choreographers, filmmakers, and a garden designer — to each immerse themselves in a different suite? What would emerge from their art forms? The result was Inspired by Bach, six films documenting this process of immersion and creation.
So, why a third time?
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. I am conscious of the fact that my grandson Teddy — my daughter Emily’s firstborn — will be 83 in the year 2100, and that, as I write this, we are just months away from the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the Great War that was meant to end all wars.
My son, Nicholas, recently reminded me that when Fred Rogers, of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was asked where he turned in times of crisis, he repeated his mother’s advice to “look for the helpers.” Casals, my father and I, and countless others found a helper in Bach. 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.
This concert is just one stop on a journey to share this music with people seeking equilibrium and solace at a moment of unprecedented change. I share this music, which has helped shape the evolution of my life, with the hope that it might spark a conversation about how culture can be a source of the solutions we need. It is one more experiment, this time a search for answers to the question: What can we do together that we cannot do alone?
I invite you to join me on this adventure, to listen and be inspired by the helpers in your own life.
– Yo-Yo Ma
For more about the Bach Project, visit bach.yo-yoma.com and explore how #cultureconnectsus.