Johann Sebastian Bach: Air on the G String

Before starting this, I hadn’t realized the extent to which Wendy Carlos’ album “Switched-On Bach” influenced my love of classical music. My friend Kerry Wade loaned me his copy of it shortly after I met him, and I must have played it scores of times. The ebullient energy of the inventions and the Sinfonia really captivated me. It made me realize that “serious” music could be light-hearted and entertaining.

In my last post, I wrote about how baroque music could even be funny. Hopefully that entry didn’t sound like I was trivializing music from that time period. As promised, today I will write about a sublime work from that epoch, but before that, I want to suggest that composers of the baroque era might have had a sense of humor as well.

I have told you that Bach wrote a Mass for every day of the year in cantata form. Cantatas are kind of like mini-oratorios. Around the time that Bach was active, it just so happened that in Europe a new plague was sweeping over Europe. This scourge was not “The Black Death,” and in truth, probably didn’t really kill anyone. But the effects of it galvanized European culture, which it changed irreversibly.

I’m talking of course about coffee.

When coffee first arrived in Europe, it was like the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Dens of iniquity sprang up all over Europe. These were called “cafes” and the upper classes spent countless hours, wasting huge sums of money, in caffeine induced stupors. And they didn’t even have “decaf iced mocha-frappucinos.”

Public officials were outraged at this epidemic, which obviously tickled Bach. In 1732, he penned Cantata Number 211,called the “Coffee Cantata,” to be performed in a café. One of the lines from it goes:

“Ah! How sweet the taste of coffee is, sweeter than thousands of kisses…”

In all truth, the baroque period covered a span of 150 years, and though the upbeat tends to get the spotlight, you don’t have to go very far to find thoughtful, beautiful, and deeply emotive works. Today’s piece, Air on the G Stringprobably is the most well-known and beloved piece in this category. Unfortunately, since it is so well-loved, it tends to get repackaged in every compilation of thoughtful, beautiful and deeply emotive works. If you look it up on the net, for example, you’ll find it included on albums like “Classical/Quiet Nights,” “Stress Busters – Music for a Stress-Less World”, “Serene Journeys through Classical Music.”

Still, it will transport you back to a time when Starbucks did not exist and few people ever died of stress-related diseases. Just the plague, religious wars, and from not knowing about germs.


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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