Yo-Yo Ma, On Bach's Six Cello Suites
On Friday, April 12, famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed all six of Johann Sebastian Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello at a concert sponsored by Arts San Antonio. The following day, Ma traveled to Laredo and Nuevo Laredo to give a free performance for audiences on both sides of the border, as part of what he called a "day of action." You can see video from that performance at the bottom of this post. Ma also took some time to talk to Texas Public Radio's Norma Martinez (a cellist herself) about Bach's music. Audio and a transcript is below.
Norma Martinez: The Bach six suites, you’ve been playing them pretty much for your life. I’ve been touching upon them pretty much the whole time I’ve been playing cello as well. It is a marathon. When I heard you were going to be performing all six suites back to back, I thought, that’s gotta be exhausting. When somebody is talented, you don’t hear the effort that went in behind the music. It’s supposed to sound effortless. But the Bach six suites, from the very first one, gradually working your way through the six, they’re gradually getting more and more difficult until you get to that final suite and that final gigue - I believe it was that gigue with which you finished your performance in Laredo. So unbelieveably difficult. Do you still find it difficult to make your way through two and a half hours of music, and still feel like you can do it again?
Yo-Yo Ma: I can tell you, the next day, my fingers are raw. You touch them, and it’s like ‘ouch!’ because I’ve been hitting the strings so many times. I have to say, when I first played all six in one day, probably around 25 years ago at Carnegie Hall, it was such a marathon. But it was also such an incredible journey. It was very much like a spiritual journey. Certainly a physical journal. It was one of those things that I promised myself that I would never abuse doing that as, ‘oh, this is something I can do, therefore, I will do a lot of it.’ But I wanted to make sure that the circumstances would be the right ones when I would play them again. I think at this moment, and since I travel so much, I have the privilege of seeing many different parts of the world and seeing it from different perspectives. I feel like we’re kind of in a funny moment where there are a lot of fractures everywhere. It’s not just in the United States. I think there are a lot of people who feel insecure and afraid. Afraid of the changes that are coming that they can’t control. There’s something incredibly dangerous about when people are afraid. I was talking to some of the students at Laredo today who each overcame their fear because they had a passion. There was a flutist, there was a chess player, cellist, there was a ballet dancer, there was an opera singer. And each one went through some kind of, either, fear, trauma. But because they loved something, that gave them the strength to get through. This is sort of like a microcosm of what I think is a cultural thing. If you care about something – you care about your community – you are that much better set to deal with changes. I was in Flint, Michigan, just a couple of months ago. In Flint, they were so proud of their culture. Three generations of GM workers, out of jobs, but they were proud because they have a history. They have a history of knowing how to do things. That’s what I love about culture. It’s always seeding something new when it has strength. The Bach suites, to a cellist, is one of those monuments, or Mount Everest that you try to climb. Or K2, or Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s an effort to go through it, but to bring an audience along on that journey. That’s the kind of striving that I feel matches what we all need to do and actively participate in in order to create the society that we can all feel part ownership of and be proud of, and feel that dignity that comes when that work is in progress and is being achieved.
Any cellist can make the Bach suites their own. There are no tempo markings. There’s no dynamic markings. There’s no bowing markings. They can take it a little faster, a little slower. They can add an ornamentation – a trill here, or a turn of the phrase. Have you found your approach to Bach changing almost every time you perform it?
I actually think of Bach as a scientist-composer. As a scientist, he figures out the DNA of a piece, of some beginning, and he stays true to it. You know that when you get to that essential – the first principles of something – you can have an infinite amount of variety within it. To your point, there’s so many different interpretations because the essential – the first principles – of each suite is so strong, and Bach - the scientist part of him - says, ‘I know what these principles are.’ The composer part of him says ‘I can actually, like Shakespeare, know everything and sympathize with everybody that participates in the human experience.’ Tragedy. Comedy. It’s all part of his study, and he can be the narrator but he’s not the omniscient narrator. He doesn’t pretend that he knows everything so he leaves you a lot of choices. He’s empathetic to all of how you feel, but he’s also objective about how you feel. And that is really comforting, because when we are in need of advice, you don’t someone want to just say, ‘oh, you’re right, everybody else is wrong.’ You want someone who actually can do some of that, but also kind of stand aside and say, ‘but you know, you’ve always been a little bit like that.’ You start to then have a slightly different perspective. We all need that. We all need a version of Bach in our lives. Whether it’s in a story, or a friend, or in a work of art. I think that the challenge of playing all the Bach suites for cellists, in that sense, it’s the cellist’s bible. There’s so much wisdom in there. You can always find out more things, and it changes as you change. As I get older, I see different things. I see more richness, I see more texture. And I see that Bach was actually attempting to do something – writing for the cello – something kind of almost impossible. He as a composer writes for the organ. He can play many, many different lines at the same time. And the cello can’t. What does he do to make the cello be able to essentially suggest all these different lines? He enlists the listener’s ear – really – the listener’s ear, by saying okay, I can’t hold on to that note, but I’m going to make you remember that note so that when I follow with another note that’s on a scale – you know about scales –you have a good memory, and when that comes in, you subconsciously fill what’s missing. That’s what community is about, and I think that’s what Bach exemplifies in his suites.