Bach for banjo? Just like he intended

Bach for banjo? Just like he intended


norman lebrecht

April 01, 2018


    • Robert King says:

      Thanks so much for the link to the Passacaglia transcription on YouTube – wonderful sonorities. There was a brilliant programme recently on BBC Radio 3 presented by Lord (Colin) Low in which he played a variety of transcriptions, including Bach’s Brandenburg 1 on synthesiser (so compelling that we sat in the car outside our house listening right up to the final bar), the Swingles singing Brandenburg 3 (equally wonderful) and suchlike. Which all went to prove once again that the greatest of music will work in many different guises. I’ve always had mild regrets that Bach didn’t have the saxophone around during his lifetime as he’d have written brilliantly for it.

      • John Borstlap says:

        I always found the saxophone an ideal instrument for JS Bach, giving flavor to his juvenile delinquent dissonances.


        • buxtehude says:

          O ye scornful unregarding people, listen to this and be amazed:

          You start with the Art of the Fugue, which sounds as if it were written for a sax quartet, I dare you to tell me it doesn’t!

          • John Borstlap says:

            Very good players indeed. But woven into the sax sound is this watery, slightly ironic quality, which makes the instrument better suited to music where this quality is more appropriate. Hence its popularity in jazz, and in Lulu to underline the smokey atmosphere of the rather morbid subject.

    • HugoPreuss says:

      I love Bach transcriptions for “weird” instruments. He also sounds great on the bandoneon. In fact, IMHO there is absolutely nothing you can do to Bach. No matter how “alienated” the setting is, he will still be Bach and the music is glorious on every single instrument and in every ensemble. And Bach is the only composer for whom this is the case.

      • buxtehude says:

        A slightly different angle, from Shostakovich:

        “A great piece of music is beautiful regardless of how it is performed. Any prelude or fugue of Bach can be played at any tempo, with or without rhythmic nuances, and it will still be great music. That’s how music should be written, so that no-one, no matter how philistine, can ruin it.” – in a letter to Isaac Glikman, 1955

  • John Borstlap says:

    In Bach’s music, the relationships between the notes are rather independent from their sound, so it is possible to transfer the music to other mediums without loosing the musical meaning.

  • Scotty says:

    Bela Fleck has been banjoizing Bach for decades.

    • Scotty says:

      And somewhat more compelling:

    • John Borstlap says:

      Oxford English Dictionary:

      “Banjoizing (verb / social / professional): a) attempting to destroy another person’s musical perception framework by performing established classical works on a banjo without any ethical concern about the author or received traditional family values; b) recovering period from serious injuries after military service; c) uninhibited writing by a music critic after an enraging concert of classical music; d) illegal courting of underage girls by serenading under their window; e) using a banjo for entirely different functions than the one for which the instrument had been carelessly designed.”

      The Webster’s dictionary, after rendering the above-mentioned explanations with some spelling deviations, adds to this:

      Phrases: ‘swing the banjo’, informal use of the instrument in the manner of a shovel, especially in a vigorous way.
      ‘I hope to be swinging the banjo around some of those stony ridges’
      ‘After swinging the banjo for eight hours, I sit down to write a few lines on what I think to be right.’

      Informal use of the instrument itself in different contexts:
      ‘At the scene, no DNA could be detected but the banjo which was left on the kitchen table gave the officers who conducted the investigation a definite clue as to the murderer’s identity.’
      ‘At the opening of the tomb, Prof. Hofstädter immediately saw the banjo on top of the sarcophagus, proving his theory that the Aztecs had a frivolous musical tradition accompanying their human sacrifices.’

      Webster’s also offers a ‘Dream Dictionary’:

      To dream that you are playing a banjo, symbolizes that your time spent with friends the other day will signify the beginning of long feuds and profound alienation. To see someone playing a banjo in your dream, foretells of a dangerous escapade of which you will be the inevitable victim, possibly in the form of having to listen to some Bach arrangement. Dreaming of a banjo being strangled by a gorilla means that your new love will meet an untimely death for which you will be held responsible without perspective on justice being done. If you dream of a banjo being thrown under a bus or train, this predicts promotion on your day job, but with the result that you will have to sacrifice your secret pleasures at night.

      One wonders what the instrument has done to deserve such reputation.

      • buxtehude says:

        You don’t seem to think much of he banjo but the five-string banjo is I think the only acoustic instrument invented in the United States and its sound in the right hands is unique, unforgettable and beautiful and the range of its styles impressive. Bela Fleck has extended this range more than anyone alive. There’s a nice rendition of the violin partita #3’s prelude in that Live at the Quick concert I linked to.

        For some this will be an acquired taste. It’s worth acquiring.

        (I’m not referring to the ukulele, which the English sometimes refer to as banjo, nor to the four-string version used as a rhythm instrument in barbershop quartets back in the pre-amplification decades of the 20th century.)

        • John Borstlap says:

          Why bother to use these cumbersome instruments like the organ, or the orchestra, or clavi-things of sorts if we can play Bach on an ukulele??!!


  • Caravaggio says:

    And Peter Hill has been playing Bach on the grand piano, gasp!, for decades. His French Suites are exquisite and so are his WTC I & II. I hear his Goldbergs are imminent.

  • Doug says:

    The strings aren’t made from the gut of organic free range non-GMO sheep so it’s normt authentic.

    • Ellingtonia says:

      But I thought they were made form purely organic material e.g. the intestines of the Lesser Spotted Thrutch Warbler, a rare but beautiful bird that is only found in the salt marshes in Wigan!

  • Henry Peyrebrune says:

    I’ve always found it fascinating that almost any transcription of Bach works – but transcriptions of Mozart NEVER do.

    • Sixtus says:

      Nor does playing harpsichord music of the French Baroque on a piano, a current fad and a pet peeve. It starts with using equal temperament and gets worse from there.

  • Also check out Jens Kruger playing Bach, totalky amazing

    • Roger Emanuels says:

      J.S. Bach on not-intended instruments? I once spent a lovely afternoon reading through the two-part inventions at the cello with a friendly trombonist. Seemed perfectly natural for both of us.