Watch J.S. Bach’s “Air on the G String” Played on the Actual Instruments from His Time

There is no wrong way to lis­ten to the music of Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach. You may pre­fer the aus­tere, idio­syn­crat­ic piano inter­pre­ta­tions of Glenn Gould; you may pre­fer the ground­break­ing ana­log-syn­the­siz­er ren­di­tions painstak­ing­ly record­ed by Wendy Car­los (whose ear­ly fans includ­ed Gould him­self); or you may pre­fer faith­ful per­for­mances using only the instru­ments extant in the late 17th to mid-18th cen­tu­ry peri­od in which Bach lived. In that last case, the San Fran­cis­co ear­ly-music ensem­ble Voic­es of Music has you cov­ered. You may remem­ber us pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tur­ing their per­for­mances of Vival­di and Pachel­bel; in the video above, you can hear and see them play Bach.

More specif­i­cal­ly, you can hear them play the sec­ond move­ment, Aria, from Bach’s orches­tral suite in D Major, BWV 1068. The instru­ments they play it on include an Ital­ian baroque vio­lin from 1660 and an Aus­tri­an baroque vio­la from 1680, as well as more recent­ly craft­ed exam­ples rig­or­ous­ly mod­eled after instru­ments from that same era. “As instru­ments became mod­ern­ized in the 19th cen­tu­ry, builders and play­ers tend­ed to focus on the vol­ume of sound and the sta­bil­i­ty of tun­ing,” says VoM’s expla­na­tion of their use of peri­od instru­ments. “Mod­ern steel strings replaced the old­er mate­ri­als, and instru­ments were often machine made. His­tor­i­cal instru­ments, built indi­vid­u­al­ly by hand and with over­all lighter con­struc­tion, have extreme­ly com­plex over­tones — which we find delight­ful.”

Any lover of Bach’s music has heard this piece many times, not least due to its pop­u­lar­iza­tion in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, in an arrange­ment by Ger­man vio­lin­ist August Wil­helmj, as “Air on the G String.” The orig­i­nal work dates to “some time between the years 1717 and 1723,” writes music blog­ger Özgür Nevres, when Bach com­posed it for his patron Prince Leopold of Anhalt. It also holds the hon­or of being the first work by Bach ever record­ed, “by the Russ­ian cel­list Alek­san­dr Verzh­bilovich and an unknown pianist, in 1902 (as the Air from the Over­ture No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068).” But no mat­ter how many dif­fer­ent record­ings from dif­fer­ent eras of Bach’s orches­tral suite in D Major in which you’ve steeped your­self, if you’ve only heard it played on mod­ern instru­ments, a per­for­mance like Voic­es of Music’s shows that it still has sur­pris­es to offer.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the Sounds of the Actu­al Instru­ments for Which Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Han­del Orig­i­nal­ly Com­posed Their Music

The Authen­tic Vivaldi’s The Four Sea­sons: Watch a Per­for­mance Based on Orig­i­nal Man­u­scripts & Played with 18th-Cen­tu­ry Instru­ments

The Authen­tic Pachelbel’s Canon: Watch a Per­for­mance Based on the Orig­i­nal Man­u­script & Played with Orig­i­nal 17th-Cen­tu­ry Instru­ments

Watch Glenn Gould Per­form His Last Great Stu­dio Record­ing of Bach’s Gold­berg Vari­a­tions (1981)

All of Bach for Free! New Site Will Put Per­for­mances of 1080 Bach Com­po­si­tions Online

How a Bach Canon Works. Bril­liant

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (7)
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  • Dennis says:

    To Pizz. or not to Pizz! That is the ques­tion! (Most­ly) Retired prof. Dou­ble Bass play­er and have played the Orch. Suites / Air count­less times with all kinds of groups…small cham­ber, large orches­tra. Some thoughts on the Dbl. Bass part, whether to pizz or not. Have been direct­ed by con­duc­tors to pizz. because “it’s always done that way,” (no it isn’t) or bowed because the part is not marked “Pizz,” so why pizz?! Divid­ed sec­tion, half / half and some­times told to do whichev­er I pre­fer! I’d be inter­est­ed in peo­ple’s thoughts on this, not that it mat­ters, I guess, because I doubt there’ll ever be a con­sen­sus on the issue. This video is an excel­lent alter­na­tive, I think…Cello / arco, String Bass / pizz. Regards. (Good either way!)

  • Mark Gable says:

    I dont know much about music. I know what i like. Ive been lis­ten­ing to Bach for sev­er­al months. This is my favorite record­ing . Almost moved to tears. Okay moved to tears.

  • Brad Sims says:

    That’s one phat loot!

  • Giuseppe Umberto says:

    I enjoy lis­ten­ing to Bach it takes me to anoth­er realm, it takes me back to Bach at the cathe­dral where he is per­form­ing his mas­ter pieces,it’s some­thing else,. by the way what is the expres­sion (phat loot) mean­ing!

  • Georg Mertens says:

    Can’t find who is play­ing. Did I miss it or does any­one know?

  • Jason says:

    This is not Air on the G string.…Air on the G string is played C major all on the G string…hence the name. Am I miss­ing some­thing?

  • Manuture says:


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