The Most Glittering Kind of Poetry: 3 Ways to Experience The Bach Cello Suites

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By Jessica Keyes

The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by J.S. Bach represent some of the finest, most rapturously beautiful music ever composed for solo instrument. They are among the most performed solo repertoire, and have been transcribed for instruments ranging from saxophone to viola da gamba to marimba.

How could anybody think of Bach as 'cold' when these cello suites seem to shine with the most glittering kind of poetry.
- Pablo Casals
Bach Cello Suites
Title page of Anna Magdalena
Bach's manuscript.
From the Wikipedia Commons.

As a young saxophonist studying classical performance, I played the first and second cello suites in recital during my freshman year of college. During all my most stressful times I listen Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of all six suites on repeat to focus my mind and relax my body. Still today, I sneak away to play Bach on my lunch breaks in the recesses of the Central Library. No music has or will affect me as profoundly as these transcendent movements.

Here are three ways you can experience this music for yourself:

Listen: Recordings in the Pratt catalog
Peabody grad, Zuill Bailey released this chart-topping recording of the cello suites in 2010.

This Grammy-winning recording by Yo-Yo Ma plays on my iPod at least once a week

Read: The Cello Suites by Eric Siblin
Canadian author Eric Siblin’s debut book was released in the US earlier this year. Part biography, part music history, and part literary mystery, The Cello Suites pulls together three dynamic and painstakingly researched stories. The first reconstructs Bach’s life and the time during which he wrote his cello suites, and the search for the lost manuscript. The second tells the story of Pablo Casals, the first cellist to rediscover and bring fame to the suites in the early 20th Century. The third traces Siblin’s experiences with the Bach Society, as a cello student, and his travels across Europe while he researched Bach and Casals.

See Casals play the Allemande from Suite 1 in this rare archival video:

I was propelled through Siblin’s beautifully written, intricately woven journey through this musical masterpiece; reading it was like being carried along by one Bach’s own galloping Courantes.

In this short video produced by the Canadian organization English-Language Arts Network, Siblin reads from his book and discusses his inspiration:


Watch: Yo-Yo Ma—Inspired by Bach
During the mid-1990s, world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought a unique vision to Bach’s cello suites to the screen. He worked with six independent film directors, each of whom interpreted one of the suites as performed by Yo-Yo Ma. The interpretations range from images of nature, Italian architectural etchings, Kabuki dance, and an exploration of the relationships between a limousine driver, doctor, and real estate agent.

These films are available in the Pratt catalog on VHS. If you (like me) no longer have access to a VHS player, you can view clips from the films on YouTube:

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