Revisiting Bach's Air on G String, from a singing and dancing viewpoint

Three years ago, I wrote a post comparing three very different performance styles for Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous music, Air on G String and indicating which I preferred.

I have received an unexpected number comments over the years, and thought it was time to write an update of my thoughts in response.

Primarily, I am responding to those who (correctly) criticized the unfortunately chosen exemplar of the style that I preferred. I tried to find better versions that might illustrate my perceptions. I also integrated some thoughts based on how I perceive music as a singer and as a dancer.

Better than the rushed Croatian Baroque Ensemble’s performance?

I agreed quickly with the first commenters that the Croatian ensemble’s performance was too perfunctory, even downright brutal and unpleasant in various ways. I wish I had chosen a better example of what I actually like rather than prefer to the other two versions.

I searched YouTube for period-style performances that are closer to what I envision than either the Croatian ensemble’s or Koopman’s. It proved impossible for me to find a perfect performance.

A period performance I like more: Christopher Hogwood

I like this version by the late Christopher Hogwood’s Academy of Ancient Music:

There is a sweetness and bouncy lightness to this version that I like, but it is also somewhat anemic. Personally, I would play up more contrast and fullness of sound and passion, but the overall tempo and breathing to this version seems right to me.

“Voices of Music”: richer sound

“Voices of Music” here in a good performance:

I like the richness of sound in this performance. I miss the lighter, more bouncy feeling that Hogwood brought out though. This performance is a bit too legato for me.

I care about singing

I approach this music from the viewpoint of singing.

The bouncy lightness is very important to me, along with the rhythmic characterization. I feel this music as a song (it is an “air”, after all), and I cannot help singing along when I hear it. Therefore, when it’s taken too slow for me to sing and make it to natural breathing points in phrases, that considerably lessens my pleasure.

Yehudi Menuhin, solo violin

Here’s an interesting old black and white video of a performance by a young Yehudi Menuhin on violin with accompaniment. It’s not a period performance, but moves along at a decent “singing” tempo, as befits violin, that singing instrument.

I confess that I rather like this performance for its virtues, although it distorts Bach’s music by so emphasizing just the musical line, at the expense of the balance of the other voices and the essential character of the dissonances among the voices.

More Menuhin, but as conductor

Here’s Yehudi Menuhin not as violin soloist but as conductor of the Bath Festival Orchestra in 1960. Again, not a period performance, but he takes the music briskly, and has the violins create sufficient phrase delineations that I feel the music alertly as though it sings.

It’s direct and clear, maybe not the most subtle and warm, but I like it.

Dancing is possible too

I also like to dance to expressive music. A pioneer of modern dance, Doris Humphrey, famously choreographed a dance to a slowish performance of this music:

This is not how I would dance to it, because I feel the music differently. Surprisingly, I could find few examples on YouTube of dancing to this music. I may consider choreographing a dance myself as a project to express my own personal vision.

One thing I would like to mention is that I feel that the walking bass is very important in this music and gives it the impetus. When played too slow, the walking bass no longer feels like it’s walking.

I feel this music in my legs, not just in my lungs. Yes, I have actually hummed it to myself while walking in time to the bass leisurely in the local park. There is a limit to how “leisurely” I can walk without feeling frustrated.

Ice dancing

I found this somewhat frenetic but nevertheless beautiful ice dancing performance from the 1992 World Figure Skating Championships:

Recorder quartet

A final performance to enjoy: the Japanese “Sekishi Recorder Quartet” playing their hearts out in 2009. I think it’s lovely: impeccable phrasing, transparency, and rich ensemble balance and tone. (As a twist, the melody line performer adds his own ornamentations.)


I was inspired by the accumulated comments on my previous post on Bach’s “Air on G String” that I decided to flesh out my thoughts by using more example performances, as well as relate the orchestral music to singing and dancing. I hope you have enjoyed these explorations. There is no single “right” way to experience music, but I wanted to share how I experience it.

If you’ve read my previous post, does this one help clarify where I’m coming from with my musical values? Do you dance or sing? Does this affect how you perceive this piece of music and like to perform it or hear it performed?

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