Johann Sebastian Bach
Air (from the 3rd orchestral suite)
Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method
Duration: 3–4 Minutes
Time of Creation: Unknown
World Premiere: Unknown; secured performances from 1723 on (Leipzig)
Table of Contents
Bach's Air in 5 Sentences
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Air from the 3rd orchestral suite is one of the best known single works of classical music. Its genesis is largely unclear. The only certainty is that Bach performed his orchestral suites (and thus also the Air) in concerts at the Zimmermann Coffee House in Leipzig beginning in 1723. The Air was arranged many times. The best known may be the arrangement by violinist August Wilhelmj, in which the piece is played only on the G string of a violin (hence the title “Air on the G String”).
4 Highlights from Bach's Air
Highlight 1: soft sound
To understand the specificity of Bach’s Air, it’s important to know the context: The Air is the second movement from a larger work, a suite for orchestra. The first movement features not only strings, but also trumpets, oboes, and timpani, which makes for a louder, more pompous sound. And then… comes this second movement, with only strings and the continuo group playing. Softness as contrast:
Highlight 2: Contrasts between high and low
Try listening in two “layers” for a moment: The low instruments advance in a regular pulse. The high instruments, on the other hand, first play a recumbent note and then begin an expansive melody (from 0:20):
Highlight 3: elaborate middle voices
Now that you’ve already identified two layers, you may already have an inkling of what’s coming next…a third layer! And it’s in the middle. Bach fills up the musical movement with elaborate middle voices:
Highlight 4: rising independence
The two upper layers become more and more independent of each other towards the end. Only the lowest layer – the bass – stoically sticks to its steady pulse:
3 Questions and Answers about Bach's Air
Question 1: What is an Air?
An air (often “aria”) is a piece for instruments that evokes song-like associations but has no vocals.
Question 2: Who composed famous airs?
Among the most famous composers are Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. Both liked to use movements with the title “Air” in their dance compositions (French Suites, Water Music, etc…).
Question 3: What is special about Bach's Air?
The special feature of the Air from Bach’s 3rd orchestral suite is mainly its sound: trumpets, oboes and timpani are silent. Strings and basso continuo play the movement alone.
2 Recommended Recordings of Bach's Air
Recording 1: Netherlands Bach Society, Lars Ulrik Mortensen (Live, 2017)
Lars Ulrik Mortensen leads an original sound ensemble from the harpsichord here. The recording was made for the All of Bach project:
Recording 2: Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Ton Koopman (Live, 2015)
For comparison, here is a recording with modern instruments – it is conducted by baroque specialist Ton Koopman: