J. S. Bach’s Air

An “air” is a song-like, lyrical composition, and I’ve put my own spin on this classical Bach piece.

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Performing Bach is always a wonderful pleasure, no matter the length of the piece.

I have an extensive Youtube playlist of just classical piano performances. Some are audio-only studio recordings, some are professionally-filmed live concerts, some are edits with a “scrolling effect” on the music score. However, I very rarely found what I was looking for: an overhead recording of the pianist’s hands playing the piece, with an overlay of the piano score. And I am looking for this format for very particular reasons.

You see, I decide which piece I want to learn by first listening to it, to see if the musicality draws me in, and second by looking at the sheet music, to see if I am physically able of playing it. So far I have just about managed to do both by listening to a audio file while I scroll through the pdf of the score, but it’s not ideal. If it’s a particularly fast performance and it’s only my first few times processing it, then I will lose the point in the score due to its unfamiliarity. So this is why I really, really want a horizontal split-screen, with the music sheet on top and the piano keyboard on bottom, to have the best of both worlds.

To my knowledge, such trend has not yet started on Youtube – or at least, not with the pieces I’m interested in learning – so I decided to start my own Youtube channel and do just that.

This piece is “Air” by Bach, which is far too short of a title if you know anything about Bach. It’s actually a piano arrangement by P. Froeding, with the original being from Bach’s third Orchestral Suite in Ré Majeur (D major), from the second movement, called “Air” (you might recognise its Italian equivalent – “aria”). Its main characteristic is a song-like, lyrical composition. Bach wrote this “Air” for four instruments: first and second violins, violas, and continuo (don’t worry if you don’t know what that is – even with my classical background I had to look it up, and there’s no shame in that; a “continuo” is a backing group in an orchestra, usually played by a harpsichord and a bass instrument, like a cello). If you’d like to hear how the orchestral version sounded – and even better, with original instruments from Bach’s time, here’s a recording by the ensemble “Voices of Music”.

Actually, it wasn’t the first time somebody took this orchestral piece and transposed it for single instruments. The first transcription was for violin, and was made by August Wilhelmj in 1871. It’s a very sweet melody, and I recommend you to listen to a violin transcription as well (here’s one by Anastasiya Petryshak).

There are multiple ways you can transcribe an orchestral piece, of course. Just by glancing at the page on Petrucci Music Library (public domain music sheets, highly recommend!), there are over 100 arrangements and transcriptions! You want to play it on accordion? Harpsichord? With 8 hands (you’ll need some friends for this one)? Of course you can!

I picked the piano transcription by P. Froeding, copyright to The Chicago Music Co. (1882). Meaning, it’s in the public domain now, and you can absolutely link and share it.

cover art
Cover for Air & Gavotte piano arrangement by Froeding

I also wanted to do something different with my own recording. See, I have quite small hands, and can’t grasp above an octave with one hand (that’s a distance of 8 notes). Froeding, on the other hand (heh, hand!), seems to have Rachmaninoff level of hands, since he wants me to play chord of 10 notes’ distance, which I physically am not able to. So I’ve made some alterations to the score, took some artistic liberties where I felt it was warranted (for example, I love playing the first chord of each bar as an arpeggio – meaning, not all notes at the same time, but sequentially with a melodic flair, spreading the chord from bottom to top).

Where you see green markings on the sheet music in the video, those are my own personal annotations and amendments, mirrored from their pencil renderings on my paper music sheet. I think it would be fascinating to see how other pianists’ are tackling technical challenges, how they are modifying (or not) the score to better fit their style, and really, what are the sort of mistakes that they keep making over and over again because for some dumb reason your fingers keep pressing that key even though it’s not part of the key signature, so you just give up and pencil in a giant RE♯ at the beginning of the piece, and circle it for good measure. But hey, it works!

I’ve just now realised that this might be why other pianists might not be so keen on making public their own annotated sheets – because it reveals such silly mistakes like these. Oh well. I find it fascinating, and I think it helps to see other pianists struggle with the same mistakes that you might have, one sillier than the next.

So without further ado, here is my interpretation of Bach’s “Air”. Also available on YoutubeIf you’re interested in reading my annotated score, here’s the pdf.

This article is part of the Piano Performances series, where I record myself playing the piano with an overheard view while the annotated music sheet is displayed concomitantly. Watch the rest of the series here.