“Air on the G String” from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068
arr. for organ by Smith Newell Penfield
When music scholars began sifting through Bach’s long-forgotten works in the nineteenth century, they came across four orchestral masterpieces that they catalogued as “orchestral suites” because of their similarity to suites for keyboard or individual string instruments—and simply to avoid confusion. Bach, however, had called them “ouvertures” in the tradition of his German contemporaries, who used the term for an orchestral work consisting of an overture and several dance movements in the French style.
Bach most likely wrote his Third Orchestral Suite around 1731 in Leipzig. (For a description of his myriad activities there, see the note for the Sinfonia from Cantata 29 above.) Though he may have composed some of the orchestral suites earlier, the earliest existing copies date from Bach’s Leipzig days, so we can assume he performed all of them there with the Collegium Musicum.
The Third Suite may be the most famous of the four on account of its meltingly beautiful Air. One of the most popular and arranged pieces of all time, it achieved special notoriety through August Wilhelmj’s version for the violin G string (1871). The Air’s binary form—two halves, each repeated—and its “stepping” bass overlaid with a long, sustained melodic line are standard Baroque procedures, but its poignant effect transcends all formulas.
Paul Jacobs plays an arrangement by American composer and organist Smith Newell Penfield (1837–1920), who studied at Oberlin College, with James Flint in New York, and at the Leipzig Conservatory. Penfield taught in Rochester, New York, and in Savannah, Georgia, where he founded a conservatory, and he later served as organist for the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City. He published his arrangement of Bach’s famous Air in 1880 as the fifth installment in his series of arrangements of pieces by Schumann, Chopin, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Donizetti, and Rossini.
© Jane Vial Jaffe