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May 20th, 2009
Yo Yo Ma on Bach's 5th Cello Suite

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!

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