Bach's Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major is my favorite of the six Bach suites. I love the brightness and drama of it and the way that the key of C major makes full use of the cello's resonance. I also have a fondness for overly romanticized interpretations of Bach, and the melodic third suite lends itself rather easily to excessive emoting.
Like all of my favorite pieces of music, the C Major Suite figures prominently in my personal history. There are two events in my life in which the suite played a significant role, and both of them have deepened my connection with the piece in very different ways.
The story I tell most frequently about the third Bach suite is a tale from my days as a young, broke cellist, trying to establish myself in Chicago. To make ends almost meet, I took a part-time job at the library of a large non-profit organization. It was a good job for me. The hours were flexible, most of my co-workers were friendly, and the building had a fantastic view of Lake Michigan. Not long after I got that job at the library, I moved out of the room I was renting and into a tiny studio apartment. My furniture consisted of a folding chair and a steamer trunk that also served as my dining table and TV stand. My bed was a sleeping bag I'd owned since high school.
With visions of a futon bed dancing in my head, I entered my workplace's annual employee talent show, in hopes of winning the $200 cash prize. After a contentious debate among the judges, my performance of the Prelude of the C Major Suite was awarded the grand prize, which was just enough money to purchase a bed. The second-place competitor, and the favorite of an extremely vocal minority of the judges, was a heavyset, hirsute man who performed a very athletic and surprisingly precise impersonation of Rhythm Nation-era Janet Jackson. (He turned out to be a frighteningly sore loser, but that's a story for another day.)
I was still a year away from making my living entirely as a cellist when I won that rather surreal contest, and it marked a change in the way that I saw playing the cello. Having my earnings as a musician literally keep me from sleeping on the floor marked a significant step toward adulthood. When I gave away that futon a few years later to another broke musician who had just moved to town, I described it to him as "the futon that the C Major Suite paid for."
The other story involving the C Major Suite is just as pivotal, but it isn't one that I often tell.
Around the same time that I bought that futon, I was stopped by the police in my hometown, Indianapolis, one night. The reason for the traffic stop was never made clear to me. The officers directed me to pull over into an alleyway. And after handing over my license and registration, I was immediately accused of having stolen the cello in the back seat.
My assertion that the cello belonged to me was greeted with laughter, and I was given the option of being placed under arrest or proving that the cello was mine by playing it for them. I chose the latter option and played the opening phrases of the C Major Suite for an audience of two policemen in an alley in Indianapolis.
I wasn't arrested. And the two policemen appeared to find the notion that I could actually play the cello nearly as amusing as they'd found my earlier claim that the instrument was mine. At the end of the encounter, I was given a good-natured slap on the back and told to "Have a good day," as if the three of us had all shared a joke.
Some of my friends who've been poor have stories like my story of obtaining my futon, although most of those anecdotes don't include a big, hairy, Janet Jackson impersonator. However, only a few of my colleagues have had experiences like the one I had playing Bach in an Indiana alley. Together, the two stories tell a lot about my experience as a cellist and, in particular, my experience as a black cellist. Playing the cello has provided for me both physically and emotionally. But I'm also someone for whom a wonderful piece of music is permanently connected to one of those moments of casual humiliation that sometimes happen to people who look like me.
Just as it wouldn't do for me to disregard the wonderful things that playing the cello has brought into my life, it also wouldn't make sense for me to forget playing Bach in that alley. Understanding such things is essential to my survival. After all, that impromptu performance helped provide context for the two later traffic stops during which policemen approached me with drawn guns and no apparent desire to hear cello music.
Like everyone, the extremes of my personal history have handed me challenges, choices and rewards. One of the challenges for me has been to accept that certain unpleasant realities related to race will likely accompany me throughout my life. But wisdom imparted by good parents and smart mentors has led me to respond to that challenge by choosing to reject bitterness, prejudice, and self-pity. The reward for making that choice is that nothing will ever dilute my enjoyment of Bach's C Major Suite.
Edward Kelsey Moore lives and writes in Chicago, where he also enjoys a career as a professional cellist. Edward's short fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines and has been performed on National Public Radio. A New York Times bestseller, The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat, is Edward Kelsey Moore's first novel.