Air on the G String is one of Bach's most familiar and best loved pieces. A concert classic, it has also appeared countless times in film, television and advertising. We may feel, therefore, that we know this piece well, but the work's rich history includes some rather surprising facts....
Not composed for the G string.
The title of the piece suggests it was written to be played on entirely on the G string of the violin. This is not, however, the case—the work, simply entitled ‘Air’, originally formed the second moment of Bach’s 1731 Orchestral Suite No.3, BWV 1068, the violin playing in a much higher register. The ‘G string’ element was an invention of violinist August Wilhelmj, who arranged the work for solo violin with strings and piano or organ in 1871.
In doing so he transposed the key downwards from D to C major, the violin part being further transposed down an octave, making it playable entirely on the lowest string of the instrument.
Hardly ever played today....
Wilhelmj’s version did much to popularise the work and it was taken up by many amateur and professional performers. Henry Wood, for example, programmed it repeatedly over period of 30 years at his London Proms concerts. Many, however, criticised the arrangement, especially because it’s downwards transposition disturbed the clarity of its texture. Violinist Joseph Joachim, for example, called the version an ‘appalling regicide’ and ‘sultry claptrap’, whilst musicologist Donald Tovey unfavourably compared its ‘contralto depths’ with the ‘D major angelic soprano’ of the original. Nowadays Wilhelmj’s arrangement is hardly ever played, even though it is still frequently transposed to be playable on the the G string.
Air in context.
The complete work from which the ‘Air’ is taken consists of six movements, taking over twenty minutes to perform. It is also quite fully orchestrated, with 2 oboes, 3 trumpets, timpani, strings and continuo. This movement, however, in the only one where only the strings and continuo play, emphasising the feeling of tranquility. The word ‘Air’ itself means ‘aria’ or, more simply, ‘song.’ Though there is some gentle polyphony among the other parts, Bach fixes our attention on the glorious serenity of that violin line.
The movement is probably one of the most tranquil that Bach wrote. This has made it a favourite for evoking similar emotions in television, movies and advertising. Examples include the Hamlet cigar adverts in the UK in the 1980s, in a Coca-Cola China commercial in 2015 and in a Geox and Infiniti Red Bull Racing commercial in 2014.
It has also, however, been used as an effective counterpoint to scenes that are more disturbing in nature. In the 1995 Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman film ‘Seven’ the music is used as the two detectives leaf through violent depictions of the deadly sins and photographs of crime scenes. And in the 1977 James Bond film ‘The Spy Who Loved Me,’ the music is used as Stromberg feeds his disloyal employee to a shark.
Other musical features.
The piece is an example of binary form, a piece of music in two sections, where the first begins in the home key, in this case D major, modulating to the dominant by the beginning of the B section (A major), before returning to the home key by the end. The two sections are clearly delineated by the central repeat mark. A sense of movement in created by the walking bass figure, by the subtle polyphony in the inner parts, the coherent harmonic plan (the piece moves though a number of closely related keys) and the use of suspensions. This last feature is when a note from one chord is held even after the harmony has changed, creating a tension that eventually resolves. This helps to create sense of yearning forward momentum.