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

By Josh Jones

“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.

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