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May 20th, 2009
Yo Yo Ma on Bach's 5th Cello Suite
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Yo Yo Ma: So this is the sarabande of Bach’s 5th Cello Suite. Now, we can look at this very simple sounding piece, only about 80 or 90 notes. I’d say “Okay, well these are the notes. That’s the piece, that’s it.” That would be the material viewpoint. Now, but who is Bach? Where did this music come from? Did he invent all of it? Well, let’s think about it. Bach, we know Bach as a German composer but except he—Germany didn’t exist when Bach wrote this piece. So we think of him as a religious composer, lots of cantatas. But he wasn’t working for—this is not a religious piece, this is a dance. A sarabande is a dance. He probably knew it from when he was writing it as a French dance. But actually, what we know of the sarabande, that this was a dance from North Africa, and the sarabande was danced by Bedouins. And it arrived in Spain, and when it arrived in Spain hundreds of years ago, it was banned because people thought it was an erotic dance. It was lewd and lascivious. So it was just banned. So then it went from Spain and you actually have it in Latin America, the same dance exists, and the dance is in three with an emphasis on the second beat.

So it’s in three, so Bach didn’t invent the structure of the dance, he didn’t invent the dance, but he composed around it. So basically he thought okay he knew the key because this is part of a [baroque?] movement, and so he said okay he chose where that dance was gonna be in that whole composition. So he knew why he wanted it to be there. He had an emotional reason for it to be there, but the dance he didn’t invent.

Did he know that it came from Spain? Possibly. The guy was pretty interested in lots of things. Did he know it was from North Africa?  No. So who owns the dance? Well, the North Africans do, the Spanish do. By the time it went to France, it was a dance.  So the French say “This is ours”. Is it a German piece of music? Well is it? Now we sort of agree more or less So for a longtime this music was used as exercises until Pablo Casals came along and said “This is incredible music. I got to get all of this music together to make it one piece. Is it exercise music? Is it great music? It’s all of those things!

  • T

    “number of movements” , I think.

    Thank you for the video!!


    The first notes come from Bach’s own name: G (Italian for J) – Eflat (Es in German) H (H = B in Germany, name “Bach” inverted here) C – Aflat (A plus “B”, which lowers the A)
    So he writes his own name in music, like for instance Sjostakovitsj imitated.

    Gé BARTMAN, cellist from Holland

  • David Finnamore

    4th to last line should read:
    “I got to play all of these movements together to make it one piece.”

  • elizabeth mooney

    i enjoy this music as most soothing, calming ^ lovely one. I certainly have a different outlook on the very same music ! Thank you, Yo-Yo. it was beautiful.

  • Meg König

    I love it when performers know and understand the background of the music they’re playing. It shows dedication and true interest in their talent and work.

    Meg König, violist from Kansas City, MO

  • david calderon

    i am in no way a fan or connoisseur of classical music. i am a fan of rock and roll, but anything having to do with music and its history is very interesting, and entertaining. thanx for the video and the knowledge.

  • Bernard Souw

    Most of this presentation contains bla bla bla .. that everybody already knows. Who cares?

    But important is this: Yoyo Ma asked, “Who owns Sarabande?”

    This is a wrong question according to my logic as a philosophically oriented physicist, because it is logically nonsense: “Sarabande” or “dance” is an abstract and generic word. Thus, this question is a Logical Fallacy! It is like the question, who owns HORSE? One can ask, who owns THAT horse, or THIS horse, or THE horse named “Beauty”. But the question “who owns horse” does not make any sense, because “horse” is indefinite. This logical fallacy may be of cultural origin. In some language there is no difference between definite and indefinite articles (there is no difference between THE horse and A horse; both are simply “horse”).

    Logically correct would be: Although Sarabande historically may have originated from the Bedouins (who cares?) THE Sarabande played by Yoyo Ma is “owned” by J.S. Bach.

    Even more bizarre is Yoyo Ma’s statement regarding Sarabande: “there are many, many truths” (this wording has been omitted from the Youtube recording found on the website, but I still remember, because I disagreed strongly). Obviously, his thinking is static, maybe again caused by heritage. For at one time there can be ONLY ONE truth, i.e., the most complete and most comprehensive truth. This truth may change with time.

    My last –but not least– criticism is directed to Yoyo Ma group performance with some violinists who played the musical instrument as a percussion instrument. Obviously, the presentation was a misfit amidst the other high quality presentations in the TV series. The violin is a highly sophisticated and perfectly developed musical instrument throughout the entire music history, technically as well as artistically. It is an obvious perversion to play this noble instrument like that, primarily because its primary purpose and its superior quality and value are blatantly violated! It must here be emphasized, novelty alone does not make a work great, or progressive. In the first place, it must be good! If it is just “novel”, i.e., different than usual, but nothing else, it must be judged “perverse”.

    Bernard S, physcist and violinist from Herndon, VA

  • Aviva Gabriel

    Brief (quick) thoughts on reading Bernard Souw’s intriguing, well-written comments:

    1. Yo-Yo Ma’s point is merely that this music is humanity’s music; he wishes to highlight the multicultural origins of much of the world’s music. Ethnomusicologically, philosophically, semantically, and in various other ways, his rhetoric may be flawed, misinformed, incomplete, and simplistic or reductive. But his implicit point seems clear to me; let’s knock down bias and prejudice while we’re in the musical arena (for starters)…

    2. Who gets to articulate the “ONLY ONE truth, i.e.; the most complete and most comprehensive truth”? How does it get expressed? Who has the hubris to pretend to know (much less communicate) this “complete and comprehensive” truth?

  • Gail Multop

    Amen, Aviva!

  • david

    Bernard S. from Herndon, VA is a huge douche. I am also from Herndon, VA and if I see Berndard S. walking down Elden street I am going to smack him in the face with my noble instrument.

    1. Quit arguing semantics and enjoy the beautiful music.

    2. ONE TRUTH!?? are you serious? stay off the internet man. It is not for you.

    3. Just because you are unable to appreciate progressive and experimental music does not mean it is not important. The great music on this earth is made by those who violate the rules of people like you. Please keep your ignorance to yourself.

    David R, musician, Bach lover, and all around cool guy from Herndon, VA

  • Brad H.

    I enjoyed this video. As a music educator, I appreciate Yo Yo Ma’s approach to the material and evocative questions. He is a great example to musicians and developing musicians in that it is obvious he has done his homework through the years but yet he does not put on airs as if he has all the answers. Indeed as another post said, one does not have all the answers, certainly not in musicology. There are snobs who *think* they do, but unless one boards a time machine and lives in a specific era as eye (and ear) witness, you cannot possibly know all.

    All of Ma’s questions are also a great educational example of a worthy approach to not only learning music, but any discipline. Don’t just take things for face value. Ask. Probe. Dig. Wonder and question out loud. Look at options and possibilities.

    Finale point that I would like to make is I appreciate how musical and emotive his playing is. In spite of the much repetition in a sarabande, his technical skill and musicality made it beautiful to experience.

    @Bernard Souw
    Talk about “bla bla bla bla,” your post was nothing but that. Mr. Souw, there is no tactful way to put this, but you are a snob. With no life. I find your remarks to be offensive, uncalled for, rude, ignorant, and way off the mark. You cannot see the forest through the trees regarding the purpose of this presentation.

    You started your caustic remarks only because the transcription of the video does not place the word “Sarabande” in quote marks. So you are set off because of a perceived grammatical and semantic error. I’m rolling my eyes at you. Such juvenile behavior.

    Then your last paragraph has nothing at all to do with this video. Nothing. You obviously have a petty jealousy toward Mr. Ma. I suggest that you go do plenty of volunteer service for your fellow man somewhere to build your ego in a healthy manner.

  • Sarah N.

    Absolutely FASCINATING remarks regarding the North African origin of the Sarabande. This is not generally known. I, and my fellow community of dance scholars, would love to know more about this.

    Sarah N.
    Dance Historian

  • Bernard S

    To Aviva Gabriel:

    1. What’s your point? You agree with me that his rhetoric is ethnomusicologically, philosophically, semantically, and in various other ways, flawed, misinformed, incomplete, and simplistic or reductive. It seems to me, there is nothing left to be argued. We are not talking about bias and prejudice, but about proper expression.

    2. At one point in time there is truly “ONLY ONE truth, i.e.; the most complete and most comprehensive truth”. This truth is called “synthesis”, and it may change with time.

    To David R. from Herndon (it will be my great pleasure to meet you in Elden Street):

    1. Semantics and beautiful music are two different things that are not to be confused or mixed together.

    2. Regarding “ONE TRUTH,” please see my reply to Aviva.

    3. “Progressive” mostly means “low quality”, or mediocre at best, while anything that is “experimental” usually does not prevail, just because of its low quality. However, I totally agree with you that “great music on this earth is made by those who violate the rules of people like YOU”. A good example was Beethoven, who broke the rules of classical music and opened up a new era, i.e., the romantic era. However, most progressive and experimental music will soon be forgotten, again, just by virtue of their low quality.

    To Brad H.:

    I am not talking about Ma’s playing, which I enjoy and appreciate, too. But I am talking about his misleading remark, which –as correctly said by Aviva- ethnomusicologically, philosophically, semantically, and in various other ways, flawed, misinformed, incomplete, and simplistic or reductive.

    By the way, your last paragraph is a logical fallacy in the form of argumentum ad hominem. It does not prove my arguments wrong and does not make your own arguments right, either. In other words, it has neither useful nor healthy purpose.

    Bernard Souw, Ph.D.
    Herndon, VA

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  • John P

    very nice and instinctive! I play the cello myself and to be honest, I don’t believe I can be compared with such a great Grammy-winning cellist like Yo-yo ma! He’s been to Carnegie Hall, but I don’t stand a chance getting there :(

  • travellers

    Bernard ‘Fucking’ Souw is a Ph.D. bullshitter which travelling in the internet and always give negative and offensive respond to all matters, no matter you are right or wrong…
    This man is always mess around everywhere, like David said, be careful if I found you on the street….

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  • josé mendpnça

    Saraband rememora a magia de Bach, quer seja vista como uma ‘dança’ ou não; a beleza da música de Bach, portanto, por sua universalidade, transcende toda possibilidade humana.

    j mendonça teixeira.

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    Who would have know that music would be the cause of such disharmony. So entertaining was the duel of gentlemen that I had to laugh. Forgive me, I know you were quite serious…which makes me laugh more. I was moved by the recording of Pablo Casals. He made his instrument speak without words.

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