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About "Air on the G String

Johann Sebastian Bach can arguably be touted as one of the greatest composers of all time – his “Mass in B Minor” and “St Matthew Passion” cementing his place among the pantheon of classical music masterpieces.      

Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach had composed 4 orchestral suites, with the “Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D, BWV 1068” being his most celebrated work. However, the numbering on the orchestral suites lacks a little in the accuracy department. Also, Bach’s definition of orchestral suites can be considered a little ambiguous too. This is a testament to the fact that a group of musicians as small as a string quartet can perform it – aided with a percussionist, some trumpets and few woodwind players. The Orchestral Suite No. 3 was crafted for 3 instrumental choirs - strings and timpani, 3 trumpets and 2 oboes.      

Origin 

Johann Sebastian Bach had created the 4 orchestral suites in the later period of his life. The most interesting fact is, the suites were not created by any particular order, in spite of being named as 1,2,3 and 4. Suite number 1 can be dated back to 1723 when he held the position of “Cantor of the Thomasschule.” Bach created Suite No. 4 in 1725, during the Christmas period while the manuscript of Suite no. 2 dates from 1738 to 1739. Bach originally crafted Suite No.3 for “Prince Leopold of Anhalt,” his patron. There is no exact date of creation, but the estimated time period ranges between 1717 and 1723. However, its nickname was framed when August Wilhelmj, a German violinist created a piano and violin arrangement of the second movement of the suite, No. 3

August Wilhelmj

Composer, August Wilhelmj

August Ferdinand Wilhelmj (1845-1908) was born in an Usingen, Duchy of Nassau. This eminent German violinist was a child prodigy, who went on to become the Attorney-General of Prussia for some time. Hailed as the future “German Paganini,” he performed his first concert at the age of eight. 

That he is also considered as Germany’s last great violinist, is a testament to several factors – his breathtaking poise, majestic rendering, rich and cultured tone, stable technique and the sheer force of his effervescent personality. He was one true emblem of breadth and dignity, who believed that people deserved their intellectual renderings. He spent his life searching for that exact balance of imagination and intellect, suggesting an equally majestic reserve force. Air on the G String was undoubtedly his most famous work.   

Analysis

August Wilhelmj transcribed “The Air” (the 2nd movement of Orchestral Suite No. 3). The piece could only be played on 1 string of a violin, which led to the creation of its nickname “Air on the G string.” However, it also led to the belief that the entire suite was crafted for strings only, which also would make it Bach’s only work crafted exclusively for 4 part-strings.       

Wilhelmj invented a new way to play the piece on a single string of violin by transposing the melody down by an octave and changing into “C major.” His utilization of “auf der G-Saite” led to the arrangements nickname. When he transposed down an octave, he also transferred the first parts of the violins to a solo violin, enabling it to play on the lowest string - “the G string.” These dynamic markings incorporated by August were more inclined towards a “romantic interpretation” than a baroque original.      

August further reduced Bach’s music in all other parts of the piece, owing to the fact that a violin cannot play in a loud note in its lowest register. He played the keyboard as pianissimo and staccato, creating a cocoon of interweaving melodies. The bass drive was reduced, while the violas and violins were muted in the string accompaniment. The double basses and bass part of cellos also offered the same level of change.    

The popularity of the piece also led to “on the G string” being a permanent feature on most arrangements, irrespective of whether a string instrument on its G string was utilized or not. Majority of these versions have some common factors – the original music of the first violins being played through a low register and reduction of other parts of Bach’s original creation.      

Conclusion

The arrangement of “Air on the G string” is an extremely fitting melody for wedding ceremonies, as it utilizes the traditional combination of a violin and piano. The melody is equally graceful, offering a slow tempo with an added haunting counterpoint. The soulful interplay between the two instruments gives birth to a great array of musical tension, which is prevalent between the sweeping music of the violin and the walking bass melody of the piano. The palpable similarity between the counterpoint of this Baroque masterpiece to the metrical polyphonies of Renaissance music in Italy pushes this innovation towards the new musical zenith.    

 

 

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