Bach: Air on a G String

Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685-1750. Air on a G String, from Suite in D, B.W.V. 1068. Probably composed 1722-23. Scored for first and second violins, viola, and continuo.

In 1717, Bach was offered an appointment at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen (today Köthen), which is located about 30 miles northwest of Leipzig. Until then the famed organist had had a post at Weimar, and we can guess that he must have been unhappy there, for he took the new position even though his new employer could not offer him a good organ, choir, or theater. To increase his difficulties, Duke Wilhelm August, his former patron, imprisoned him for nearly a month as punishment for the manner in which he resigned!

The change in jobs produced a matching shift in focus, and Bach turned from organ and church music to chamber works that would be more likely to please the Prince, who played the viola da gamba (a predecessor to the modern cello) in his own chamber group.

There is no exact record of the composition of the four Orchestral Suites (or ``Overtures,'' as Bach termed them), and different writers place them as early as 1722 and as late as 1731, but most sources agree on the earlier date. In any case, they represent something of an experiment by Bach, who may have wished to try his hand at a French style pioneered by Lully. The third of these, numbered 1068 in the standard catalog of Bach's works, is the most popular and probably the most masterful.

The so-called ``Air on a G String'' is the brief (36 measures) second movement of this suite. Although the full suite includes trumpets, oboe, and tympani as well as the strings and continuo (a bass line usually played on harpsichord and cello), this movement is reduced to strings and continuo only.

The title is inappropriate in the work's original setting, having been invented by a violinist to identify his solo transcription. But the oddness of the title is not reflected in the music, which is one of the most pleasing trifles a listener could ask for.

© 1996, Geoff Kuenning

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