In today’s video I want to explore Bach’s famous and beautiful Air on the G String, which was one piece played during my wedding ceremony. As such, it’s near and dear to my heart.
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Different versions of “Air on the G String”
The first thing worth specifying is that there are two different versions of this piece – the “Air on the G String” version, and Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068.
In the later part of the Romantic era, a violinist named August Wilhelmj arranged the Air movement from this suite for violin and piano. He switched key signatures from D to C and transposed the violin melody down an octave, thus enabling him to play the entire composition on one string – the G string.
Another difference between the Wilhelmj edit and Bach’s original is in the edit, the melody is carried by a single violin, whereas Bach’s version uses the first violins playing together as a group.
In today’s video, we’re going to be looking at Bach’s original version, though we will briefly compare the two so you can hear some of the differences.
Structure of Bach’s Suite no. 3 in D major, BWV 1068
The Air from Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 is the second movement. Here are the six movements in this suite:
If you’re interested in learning more about the Baroque dance suite in general, you can check out our video on the subject.
Today we’ll just be looking at the Air, though I encourage you to check out the suite in full.
Backstory of Air on the G String
This suite was composed in 1731 when Bach was in his mid-forties. A full performance of all six movements is about 23 minutes long (the Air movement is about 3 minutes).
It was scored for a small Baroque orchestra: 2 oboes, 3 trumpets, timpani, a first and second violin part, viola, and basso continuo. The oboes typically follow the violin parts, and the trumpets and drum are there to add a little pizazz here and there.
In the Air movement, only the strings and basso continuo play. It’s the only movement of the six where the other instruments are silent, so this movement creates a nice contrast to the others.
Comparison between Bach’s version and the arranged version
The “Air on the G string” version, aside from being transposed and with a much lower melody, had some other changes made to it as well. Since violins can’t play as loudly in the lower registers, in keyboard/violin versions the keyboard part is made staccato and pianissimo. In string arrangements, the violins and violas play muted and the cello and double bass are played pizzicato and very quietly.
I’d like to start by taking a listen to the opening of Bach’s original, followed by the opening of Air on the G String, the arranged version with strings, so that you can compare the two and hear some differences. Following that we’ll focus on Bach’s version.
Form of “Air on the G String”
Let’s start by discussing the form of this Air. In true Baroque style, it’s written in simple binary form. We’ve done a video on binary form (and our current PTV course is exploring this concept in more detail), but here’s the basic idea:
- Binary form is in two parts, labeled A and B
- The A and B section are different, but not dramatically different (they’re based on the same material)
- The sections are usually marked by repeat signs
- Usually a piece in binary form will feature a modulation (brief key change) right around the transition from the A section to B section
This Air is written in asymmetrical binary form, which just means that the A and B sections aren’t equal length – the B section is quite a bit longer.
Modulation in binary form
Again, in true Baroque style, you’ll see the modulation happen right at the end of the A section. If a piece is written in a major key (and this one is written in the key of D major), you’ll usually see a modulation to the dominant key (in this case, A major).
(The dominant key is 5 notes up from the original key. If we’re in the key of D, the dominant key is the key of A).
At the end of the A section you’ll see a perfect cadence in the “new” key of A, with an E chord moving to an A chord. This cadence helps us establish the new tonality, which will carry through some of the B section.
Let’s have a listen to this section briefly – you probably won’t even notice the modulation. It’s cleverly done, meant to sound seamless.
More on modulations in binary form
Of course, this isn’t a simple binary piece with just the one modulation – Bach takes us through a wide variety of keys in this piece, everything from the original key of D and the dominant of A to Cm, Bm, Em, G major and more.
All these keys are closely related, which means they have 1-3 sharps or flats. Generally, composers will modulate to keys that have a similar number of sharps or flats.
For example, if your piece was in the key of G with one sharp, your modulations would have 0-2 sharps or flats. So you could modulate to the key of C, Am, F, Em, D, Bm, Bb or Gm. It sounds natural to modulate to nearby neighbors – modulating from the key of C (no sharps or flats) to the key of B (5 sharps) doesn’t usually work as well.
Let’s have a listen to the start of the B section. We’re modulating to new keys in almost every bar – do you notice it? Probably not! What you mainly end up noticing is an intriguing and rich sound.
What’s an Air?
If you’re listening to music from a Baroque dance suite, like airs, gavottes, minuets and so on, it helps to know the styles and qualities of each of these dances. What is an air?
An Air isn’t a dance at all, but rather the English term for “aria”, which is a lyrical and expressive movement. This is likely why Bach took out all the instruments from this movement that weren’t strings and continuo (keyboard/bass) – he really wanted to pare it down and let its beauty shine. He does the same thing in slow movements of the Brandenburg Concertos.
Musical features: Walking bass line
Another feature of this piece that’s well-worth pointing out is the elegant bass line. It’s nothing more than octave leaps interspersed with steps:
There are variations in the pattern as the piece continues (for harmonic reasons, this pattern can’t continue in such a perfect way), but it’s beautifully straightforward and consistent.
You’ll also notice another pattern in the bassline:
The bass is slowly taking us through scales. In the A section we basically go on a descending D scale journey, with an interesting twist at the end – instead of landing on a D to finish it off, we land on a D#. Bach always keeps us guessing!
Musical features: Suspensions
One melodic feature Bach employs frequently here are suspensions. Suspensions are basically holdouts – they create tension as we wait for the sound to resolve. Let’s bring that explanation down to earth.
Say you’re playing a C chord. A suspension might be the notes D-C. The D is dissonant played over the C chord, since there’s no D in a C chord (C-E-G). That dissonance is resolved as we move from D to C. That’s a suspension.
Another example: If you’re playing a D chord, and the melody goes from G-F#. We go from a tension note (a note not in the chord) to the resolution note (a note that is in the chord). You’ll notice suspensions go from an upper note to a lower note as a step. Let’s look at some of Bach’s suspensions at the end of the piece:
(There are many more suspensions than what I marked in there.)
Let’s take a listen to the very end of the piece – try to listen for these tiny moments of tension, artfully interwoven with the other parts. One of the most beautiful aspects of this piece is how all the parts move together.
Musical features: Perpetual motion
A final note about this piece is that, except for the strongest cadences – the end of the A section and the end of the B section – there is no stop in motion. There aren’t any held notes or breaks. We’re always restlessly moving from one harmony to the next – we just don’t notice it as much because it’s a slow piece.
I think this is one reason this piece manages to be quite gripping and engaging even though it’s so slow – Bach hooks us in with this restless movement and intriguing harmonic movements.
Isn’t it amazing that a composition that’s only 18 bars long (!) can be so rich, interesting and beautiful? Sometimes we get caught up in these 30-minute sonatas and we forget that short music also has the capacity for deep inventiveness.
Thanks for watching today’s video, and there’s always more Bach where that came from:
I want to give a shoutout to this website, which I leaned on to detail this composition.
Composition: Air on the G String
Performer Credit: US Air Force Band
Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0
Music: Air on the G String
Can be found @: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wiki_naxos_8.550194_01_13.ogg#