Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) composed timeless music for solo instruments. With his partitas for the flute and the violin and his suites for cello, he created monumental works based on the different dance forms of his time. With its particular characteristics, each dance forms the basic structure for the rhythm, melody, and harmony of the respective composition. Despite having to leave out a lot (he had only one instrument at his disposal), Bach developed an imaginary sonic world— an entire musical spectrum. Like a player on the chessboard, he makes a move while thinking far ahead — all possible variants seem to have been “calculated.” And wonderfully, the result is a pure, architectural beauty.
In Johann Sebastian Bachʼs music, the notes themselves do most of the work. Of course, he has also composed specifically for the instruments, but the universal nature of his compositions ensures that they often sound good on other instruments.
The variety of arrangements of his music can sometimes produce surprising results. In that respect, the Swingle Singers still come out on top: this vocal quartet surprised the music world in the early 1960s with an interpretation of The Art of Fugue accompanied by a rhythm section. In doing so, they showed how Bachʼs music could be transformed without losing its original value and genius; in fact, people became even more aware of his genius!
In my opinion, one can speak of the “miracle of Bach and the saxophone.” Even though Bach composed his music well before the invention of the saxophone (around 1840), an extraordinary “chemical reaction” occurs when his compositions are performed on this instrument. I first experienced the phenomenon when I played The Art of Fugue with the Aurelia Saxophone Quartet in an arrangement by Willem van Merwijk (released in 2006 on the CD Fugue in C of Dog). The tonal colors of the four saxes interlock in a beautiful way, and the polyphony in this work comes into its light in this version.
But the same miracle can be found in saxophone arrangements of the Italian Concerto, parts of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and many other pieces. In some ways, the instrument seems able to make the historical leap backward to the music of Bach. And that the composer’s music, as a rule, lends itself so well to an alternative interpretation further makes the personal timbre of the saxophone well-suited.
When we attempt to extend the “miracle of Bach and the saxophone” to his works for solo melody instruments, several things need to be kept in mind:
- Special techniques: In these pieces of music, particularly those for cello and violin, Bach uses two, three, and sometimes four-part chords to his heart’s content to create harmony. It can hardly be imitated literally on the saxophone; the use of the “multiphonics,” which are often found in modern music, would give the interpretation a somewhat ridiculous character. The saxophone, however, has an enormous tonal palette. Moreover, it is very flexible and moves quickly across its different registers. These are attractive character traits when arranging music and, in the case of Bach’s solo works, serve as an excellent means of exposing the inner polyphony and thus compensate for any lack of harmony. Furthermore, to imply the idea of harmony, a chord can also be “arpeggiated” before or after the melody note.
- What is indeed possible, and what isn’t? It remains an interesting dilemma for the curious musician when it comes to adapting works of music. There are limits to what is acceptable. In the compositions selected (remarkably, all in minor keys), that balance tips to the positive side, in my opinion. In the other solo music that Bach composed for cello and violin, I don’t see a role for myself and the saxophone.
- Stylistic aspects: Developing an interpretation of Bach’s music is a beautiful puzzle, and thousands of different choices can achieve a convincing result. In my case, these are mainly personal decisions related, among other things, to phrasing, timbre, articulation, drive, and emotional content. But general musical conventions also play an essential role and form a kind of “collective unconscious” regarding playing early music, as it has developed substantially in the last 70 years under the influence of historical performance practice.
- The choice of the type of saxophone: In the saxophone, there is a whole family of instruments available from which to choose. There are many reasons why the baritone saxophone is very suitable for playing the second cello suite; after all, it is the exact mirror of the cello in terms of tonal range and bears a similar melancholy in its timbre. In my opinion, the mercurial character of the flute partita is best suited to the soprano saxophone. In contrast, the second violin partita exudes a deep melancholy, for which I believe the alto saxophone is the most appropriate instrument.
- The choice of key: This is crucial for every arrangement. In Bach’s case, various considerations play a role. On the one hand, of course, there is the key that Bach himself proposes and, on the other hand, the practicality of the instrument in terms of pitch and range. In the Cello Suite No. 2 on baritone saxophone, there is no reason to deviate from the original key of D minor because of the parallel mentioned above between the cello and the baritone saxophone. But in the case of the Flute Partita in A minor on soprano saxophone and the Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor on alto saxophone, an adaptation is necessary due to practical elements. Therefore, I chose a different key for these two pieces; the flute partita is now played in G minor and the second violin partita in A minor.
- Last but not least, there is my personal connection with the music. I have always admired the craft of Bach as a composer and his mastery of harmony, rhythm, melody, and form. But my fascination for the composer only really started when I began to discover how I could link and transform my 21st-century musical ideas to his music, as well as how I felt welcomed by him to play his music. This CD bears the fruit of those ideas.