Strings and voices

Bach on erhu and saz

My splendid neighbours Fiz and Mike just held a great 50th-wedding anniversary party. Otherwise gifted with fine taste, they inexplicably cajoled me into giving the guests a burst on the erhu Chinese fiddle—oblivious to my plea that its plaintive timbre really needs to be experienced at the hands of someone who can actually, like, play the instrument. After all, like Bernard Bresslaw in The Ladykillers,

I just sort of… picked it up.

Judiciously waiting until everyone was suitably inebriated, after a rousing (and apparently not entirely unrecognizable) erhu rendition of Jerusalem à la chinois (mercifully brief—my friends have suffered enough), I boldly attempted not to entirely mangle Bach’s so-called Air on the G string.

At short notice I secured the estimable services of another neighbour, Martyn—possibly the leading exponent of the Turkish saz in the whole of Bedford Park (sic)—who sensitively provided the bass line. Without regard to expense or the feelings of the public, we stretched to nine strings between us—four and a half each, three of them doubled (“Go figure”). As if it didn’t represent enough of a challenge, I rashly tried further to fill in the texture with the occasional juicy bit of counterpoint by “singing” (I use the word loosely). So I now admire fiddlers who manage to sing at the same time (actually, I shouldn’t be too hard on myself—perhaps it’s not so common to hear fiddlers singing counterpoint as they play).

A World Music version of the Bach Air is an Idea whose Time has Come, if not necessarily the intonation. We didn’t so much play it as hint at it, an esquisse in roughly drawn lines.

Thankfully, no audible trace survives of our rendition (“Case for prosecution collapses due to lack of evidence”)—nor, for that matter, of the ear-scouring Chinese wind-band version that our shawm band had played for a friend’s wedding during our, um, heyday.

The Bach Air is another instance of music that we can only hear with our own modern ears (also here)—imbued by the old cigar ad, and its whole ubiquity in popular culture. But in performance (OK, in the right hands…) it can hardly fail to move—eighteen bars of intense perfection.

Like Christopher Small (Musicking—essential reading), I now greatly value playing in an informal setting for people I know. In post-industrial societies this has inevitably been diluted by the exigencies of concert economics, with the irony of coming together to share “intimate and personal cultural moments with strangers” (George Lipsitz, cited in Musickingp.39).

Still, the Air always moves me by association with memorable concert renditions in which I’ve taken part over the years—like in Windsor Chapel once on my birthday (as part of the Bach 3rd suite, all the more moving in between exhilarating trumpets and ecstatic fast jazzy string noodling), and as an encore in Budapest with Trevor Pinnock.

It can be beautiful in the a cappella version too:

Like the Mahler Adagietto, another media staple that transcends its hijacking by popular culture is the Barber Adagio, equally moving in string quartet and orchestral versions, as well as this ethereal choral arrangement:

Although the Agnus Dei text was added later to fit the melody, it gives me a pretext to play Bach’s version from the B minor mass, sung again by the divine Michael Chance—more vocal and instrumental intertwining:

5 thoughts on “Strings and voices

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