Orchestral Suite No. 3: Air (Bach)

Program note

French Horn
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068


The stately procession of the bass in the second movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3, BWV 1068, might have made it a favourite of weddings, but this Air was more likely composed for a cafe than a church.

The bulk of Bach’s music was written for sacred purposes, but the Orchestral Suite from which this Air originates was probably written – or at least performed – for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a private, secular musical society established by Telemann, centred around performances at Café Zimmermann in Leipzig. Bach was appointed Cantor of the St Thomas Church in Leipzig in 1723, providing music for four of the city’s churches, and became director of the Collegium Musicum in 1729.

Bach’s four orchestral suites follow the format of dance suites very much in vogue at the time – a collection of dance movements beginning with a French style Ouverture. The Air of the third suite is unusual in that it is a song, or aria, rather than a dance form.

The third Orchestral Suite grew in popularity during the nineteenth century – it was a favourite of Felix Mendelssohn – but it was August Wilhelmj who coined the name ‘Air on a G String’ for his 1871 arrangement, which transposed the movement so the entire violin line could be played on the instrument’s lowest string. Wilhelmj’s arrangement was wildly popular – it was a regular fixture at the London Proms for many years – and while that arrangement isn’t performed quite as often today, the name has stuck.

It’s a testament to the power of Bach’s music that this piece has been heard at weddings, in television advertisements, in films (such as the 1977 James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me or the 1995 crime thriller Se7en) and remains as beloved as ever in the concert hall.

© Angus McPherson, 2022

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