Air On The G String

When I launched this blog I said it would cover a wide range of genres, including a “smattering of classical”. I was using ‘classical’ to mean anything in the styles prevalent in the 300 years or so from about 1600 – mainly orchestral and in one of a number of recognised forms (symphonies, concertos, etc.). Music historians divide those centuries into three periods, each with its own style: Baroque (1600 to 1750), Classical (1750 to 1830) and Romantic (1810 to 1900).

For my first venture back in time I’m going to choose a piece from the Baroque period that is now known as Air on the G String. It is the second section of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D major. Originally written around 1720 for an ensemble of about a dozen instruments, it was arranged for violin and piano by August Wilhelmj in the late 19th century. It is the later arrangement that can be played entirely on the G string of a violin, which gives the piece its popular name.

J. S. Bach is easily my favourite classical (small ‘c’) composer and his Air on the G String is a particular favourite of mine. It has a lovely tune, all the parts have something interesting to say and the chords wander through the musical landscape like a stroll in the countryside. I invite you to put on your headphones and come for a walk with me…

More Info:

  • The air is familiar to modern audiences as the theme from the Hamlet TV advertisements. The tune is also incorporated into Procol Harum’s 1967 single A Whiter Shade of Pale and (according to Wikipedia) the Beatles Sea of Monsters track on their Yellow Submarine album.
  • The link given above is a performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra that feels a bit slow to me. There’s a much better rendition available as an ‘ogg’ file under a creative commons licence, but it stops abruptly after 2 minutes 50 seconds. You may need to download a player that understands the ogg file format to play it.

Magic Is Afoot

One morning earlier in the week there was a knock on the door. I was up but not yet dressed. Opening the door I was greeted by a woman carrying a bundle of small, glossy brochures. It was cold outside and a stiff breeze ruffled my dressing gown. I feared I was about to be embroiled in a protracted conversation – the kind of conversation that starts with, “I’m not selling anything…” and ends with some unfortunate double glazing sales executive going away with a red hot flea in her ear.

But I was wrong. The opening gambit was something about local churches. God is very much alive in York and it was no surprise to find a mild-mannered evangelist on the doorstep. A cold-calling salesperson gets very short shrift at our house but I have more sympathy with well-meaning Christians even if I don’t agree with them. In fact, I quite enjoy arguing about whether God exists or  discussing some moral dilemma with them. It gives me an opportunity to put forward the other side of the argument without invading the privacy of strangers or boring to death those who are just not interested.

Not wanting to freeze, I invited the woman in. It soon transpired that she was a Jehovah’s Witness. Like all well-trained salesmen she insisted that she wasn’t trying to convert me but, nevertheless, did her best to show that my belief in science was just too ridiculous for words. Now, I welcome reasoned argument but the Witness’s approach is very different; it’s what the popular press calls ‘spin’. They carefully research the subject, preferentially select facts that support their view or challenge the opposing view, and appeal to your emotions rather than your intellect. This is cheating and it annoys me intensely.
The outcome was inevitable. She stayed calm; I got quite angry. Neither of us changed our opinions one jot. I remained angry for a long time after she had gone. Now that I’ve calmed down that encounter with a Jehovah’s Witness reminds me of a piece by Leonard Cohen put to music by Buffy Sainte-Marie. It’s an extract from Cohen’s second novel, Beautiful Losers, and it’s called God is Alive, Magic is Afoot.

I’m choosing this as my track-of-the-week. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it throws any light on the big philosophical questions of life.


On your computer keyboard, down by the Control key, there’s an Alt key. In fact, there are two of them, one each side of the space bar. In most applications the two Alt keys have identical functions; they modify the effect of typing some other key. On an Apple Mac holding down the Alt key and typing ‘J’ produces a character that looks like a triangle, like this ∆. (This may look entirely different on a Windows PC but, believe me, it’s a triangle on my Mac.)

‘Alt’ is short for ‘alternative’ and Alt-J is the name of my band of the year for 2014. It’s an entirely appropriate name for a band whose music falls squarely in the ‘alternative’ genre. They blend together guitars, keyboards and voices in interesting ways; music for the head as well as the heart. Last FM tags them as indie, electronic, alternative and indie pop; Spotify describes their music as “layered, folk-inflected dub-pop and soaring alternative rock”. The former is accurate, but not particularly helpful; the latter is even less helpful, but at least it says loud and clear that these guys are different.

They’re good, too. They sit comfortably alongside Guillemots and Elbow at the top of my list of bands currently performing and recording. I highly recommend all three bands for their inventiveness and musicianship. Alt-J win my band-of-the-year tag for 2014; I’ll be awarding Guillemots and Elbow retrospective band-of-the-year status in future posts. Until then, sit back and enjoy the alternative triangle band.

The Trees Grow High

Last week a post appeared on my Facebook timeline saying something about Guardian Music’s playlist. I don’t read The Guardian, wasn’t aware of ‘Guardian Music’ and don’t normally follow playlists but its one-sentence content mentioned The Trees They Do Grow High, a traditional folk song that I know from Pentangle’s Light Flight – Anthology album.

According to the Guardian article the song goes back at least as far as the 17th century. It tells the story of a king who marries his daughter to a nobleman’s son. It is only after the wedding that the princess discovers that her husband is only 14 years old. The king defends his decision saying, “He’s young, but he’s daily growing”, and that forms the refrain for the song.

Jacqui McShee

Pentangle’s version is quite simply the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. The guitars of Bert Jansch and John Renborn weave an enchanting tapestry of sound, Danny Thompson’s double bass adds depth and interest, the understated drums of Terry Cox push the tune along, and over all that Jacqui McShee’s clear voice reaches out to caress the listener as the tale unfolds.

This is not so much a track-of-the-week as a track-of-a-lifetime. If you’ve never heard it, listen now. And if you have, listen again. However you feel right now The Trees… will lift your spirit.

Back Door

Back Door

We’re half way through January already, so I think it’s time to start the Album of the Month. Here’s one for jazz fans, although there’s nothing quite like it – not even in the infinite space of the Internet.

Whatever your musical tastes are your education won’t be complete until you’ve listened to Back Door’s eponymous first album. And if you play bass you must hear what Colin Hodgkinson does with the instrument; with a bass player like that you don’t need a rhythm guitarist or a keyboard player.