Air on the G String

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"Air on the G String", also known as "Air for G String" and "Celebrated Air", is August Wilhelmj's 1871 arrangement of the second movement of Johann Sebastian Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068.[1][2][3][4][5]

The arrangement differs from the original in that the part of the first violins is transposed down so that the entire piece can be played on just the violin's lowest string (the G string). In performance, that part is generally played by a single violin (instead of by the first violins as a group).

Bach's original[edit]

Bach's third Orchestral Suite in D major, composed in the first half of the 18th century, has an "Air" as second movement, following its French overture opening movement. The suite is composed for three trumpets, timpani, two oboes, strings (two violin parts and a viola part), and basso continuo. In the second movement of the suite however only the strings and the continuo play. This is the only movement of the suite where all other instruments are silent.

The music of the "Air" is written on four staves, for first and second violins, viola(s), and continuo. The interweaving melody lines of the high strings contrast with the pronounced rhythmic drive in the bass.

Wilhelmj's arrangement[edit]

In 1871, violinist August Wilhelmj arranged the second movement of Bach's third Orchestral Suite for violin and an accompaniment of strings, piano or organ (harmonium).[1] On the score he wrote auf der G-Saite (on the G string) above the staff for the solo violin, which gave the arrangement its nickname.

In Wilhelmj's version the piece is transposed down from its original key (D major) to C major. Then the part of the first violins is transposed further down an octave and given to a solo violin that can play the entire melody on its lowest string, the G string. The dynamic markings added by Wilhelmj are more in line with a romantic interpretation than with the baroque original.

As a violin can't play very loudly in its lowest register, all the other parts of Bach's music were firmly reduced in Wilhelmj's version: the keyboard part is to be played staccato and pianissimo, causing the effects of interweaving melodies and of drive in the bass part to get lost. The accompanying violins and violas play muted (con sordino), and the bass part for cellos and double basses is to be played pizzicato and sempre pianissimo, with the same change in effect compared to Bach's original.

Later, a spurious story circulated that the melody was always intended to be played on the G string alone.[6] The solo violin part of Wilhelmj's arrangement is sometimes played on the counter-tenor violoncello. As a result of the popularity of the piece, on the G string remained in the name of various arrangements whether or not a string instrument playing on its G string was involved. Most of these versions have in common that the original melody of the first violins is played in the low register of a solo instrument, accompanied by a reduction of the material of the other parts of Bach's piece, although occasionally versions that stay more in line with Bach's original can go by the same name.


In a period that stretched over three decades, and started in 1905, Henry Wood regularly programmed Wilhelmj's arrangement at the London Proms.[7][8][9] Wood recorded his orchestral rendering (i.e., the G string part performed by a group of violins) of the Bach/Wilhelmj "Air" in the early 1930s.[10][11]

Early recordings[edit]

Recordings of Wilhelmj's "Air on the G String" arrangement, from the era preceding the Second World War, include:

Early recordings of Air on the G String
Rec. Soloist Accompaniment or Ensemble (Conductor) Company Matrix (Take) Title
1902 Hartmann, Leopold Gramophone 2155B Air auf der G-Saite[12]
1903 Dessau, Bernhard [de] Gramophone 1528x Air auf der G-Saite[13]
1904-02-01 Kreisler, Fritz Gramophone 2087x [14]
1905-03-01 Geyer, Stefi Dienzl, Oszkár [scores] [piano] [15]
1909-05 Rosé, Arnold Gramophone 14680u Air auf der G-Saite[16]
1911-01-01 Vecsey, Ferenc [5]
1911-05-17 Elman, Mischa Kahn, Percy B. [piano] Victor C-9871 (3) Air for G string[17]
1913-10-01 Kubelík, Jan Falkenstein, George [piano] Victor B-13892 (1) Air for G String[4]
1913-11-09 Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra (Godfrey, Dan) Gramophone [18]
1918-07 Belov, Joel Gayler, Robert [piano] Edison 6289 (A–C) Air for G string[19]
1919-01-03 Belov, Joel Gayler, Robert [piano] Edison 6289 (F–H) Air for G string[20]
1919-11-11 Elman, Mischa Bonime, Joseph [piano] Victor C-9871 (5) Air for G string[17]
1921-04-01 Weißgerber, Andreas Raucheisen, Michael [piano] Odéon xxB6659 [5]
1923-01-24 Royal Albert Hall Orchestra (Goossens, Eugene) HMV Cc2215(-4) [21]
c. 1920–26 Soldat-Roeger, Marie Union A3012 (3) [22][23]
1923-08-10 Strockoff, Leo Columbia AX126 [5]
1924-01-01 Příhoda, Váša [5]
1927 Rosé, Arnold Rosé Quartet HMV Ck2847 (1) [24][25]
1927-02-14 Thibaud, Jacques Craxton, Harold [piano] HMV Cc9913 [5]
1928 Rosé, Arnold Rosé Quartet HMV Ck2847 (2) [26]
1929-11-04 Hubay, Jenő Budapest Conservatory Orchestra (Zsolt, Nándor) HMV CV713 [24][27]
1930-02-25 Cassadó, Gaspar [cello] Columbia WAX5416 [5]
1930-09-16 Huberman, Bronisław Schultze, Siegfried [fr] [piano] Columbia WAX5007 [5]
1931-03-05 Zimbalist, Efrem Sanderberg, Theo [piano] Columbia 98737 (1) Air on the G string[28]
1932-06-16 British Symphony Orchestra (Wood, Henry) Columbia CAX6441(-1) Air on G String[10][11]
1936-05-20 Benedetti, René [it; de] Orch. de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire Columbia CLX1919 [5]

Soldat-Roeger's recorded performance of the "Air on the G String" was the subject of scholarly analysis.[24][29]

Appreciation of Wilhelmj's arrangement[edit]

In the early 20th century, Joseph Joachim called Wilhelmj's arrangement "a shameless falsification of a work by Bach".[30] In Casper Höweler [nl; fr]'s XYZ der Muziek (1936, here quoted from the 1939 edition):

Het Air, alleen voor strijkers en continuo, met zijn volmaakte cantilenen in alle stemmen, van sfeer een onovertroffen ‘Der Welt abhanden gekommen’, heeft de ontstellendste majesteitschennis ondergaan, die de muziek meemaakte: de violist Wilhelmj maakte er een zwoel effect-stukje van, door het als ‘Aria op de g snaar’ te zetten, waarbij zoowel de evenwichtige polyphonie als de teere stemming vandalistisch vernield werden.

The "Air", exclusively for strings and continuo, with its perfect singing in all voices, breathing an unsurpassed "lost to the world", has suffered the most appalling regicide in music: the violinist Wilhelmj converted it to sultry claptrap by setting it as "Aria on the G String", thus vandalising and annihilating both its equilibrated polyphony and delicate atmosphere.

X-Y-Z der muziek (1939)[2] —translation

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b French 2014, II, p. 71.
  2. ^ a b Höweler 1939, pp. 47–48.
  3. ^ Works by August Wilhelmj: list at the International Music Score Library Project
  4. ^ a b "Victor matrix B-13892. Air for G string / Jan Kubelík". Discography of American Historical Recordings. Retrieved 2020-10-03. Contains several audio versions of this recording.CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Search Results for BACH, J.S. (arr.Wilhelmj)". CHARM. Retrieved 2020-10-03.
  6. ^ Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th edition, 1954, Vol. IX, p. 298, "Wilhelmj, August"
  7. ^ French 2014, I, pp. 49, 162.
  8. ^ Prom 61 - Last Night of the Proms 1907 at BBC website.
  9. ^ Prom 19: 20:00 Sat 4 Sep 1909 Queen's Hall at BBC website.
  10. ^ a b Henry J Wood at website.
  11. ^ a b 1CL0047154 at British Library Sounds website (contains audio file).
  12. ^ Kelly 2009, 320.
  13. ^ Kelly 2009, 321.
  14. ^ "Search Results for Kreisler". CHARM. Retrieved 2020-10-03.
  15. ^ "Search Results for Stefi Geyer, violin, Oszkár Dienzl (p)". CHARM. Retrieved 2020-10-03.
  16. ^ Kelly 2009, 323.
  17. ^ a b "Victor matrix C-9871. Air for G string / Mischa Elman". Discography of American Historical Recordings. Retrieved 2020-10-03. Contains audio of one of Elman's recordings.CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  18. ^ "Search Results for DAN GODFREY'S (BOURNEMOUTH MUNICIPAL) ORCHESTRA". CHARM. Retrieved 2020-10-03.
  19. ^ "Edison matrix 6289. Air for G string / Joel Belov ; Robert Gayler". Discography of American Historical Recordings. Retrieved 2020-10-03. Contains audio of take A.CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  20. ^ "Edison matrix 6289. Air for G string / Joel Belov ; Robert Gayler". Discography of American Historical Recordings. Retrieved 2020-10-03.
  21. ^ Eugene Goossens III at website.
  22. ^ Milsom 2015a, pp. 6–7.
  23. ^ Milsom 2015b, p. 2.
  24. ^ a b c Milsom 2015a, p. 12.
  25. ^ Milsom 2015b, p. 1.
  26. ^ Milsom 2015b, p. 3.
  27. ^ Jenő Hubay – Carl Flesch: The HMV Recordings (Media notes). Biddulph. 1991. LAB 045.
  28. ^ "Columbia matrix 98737. Air on the G string / Efrem Zimbalist". Discography of American Historical Recordings. Retrieved 2020-10-03.
  29. ^ Cho 2017, pp. 32, 36.
  30. ^ Milsom 2015a, p. 7.


External links[edit]