It’s Banjo Friday again, folks, & we’re here with some banjo music for you that’s both unusual & inspiring! Yes, this month’s selections of the banjo used in uncommon contexts continues with Béla Fleck’s version of Bach’s “Prelude from Violin Partita #3.”
Béla Fleck is a major force in the banjo world both because of his remarkable proficiency & musicianship & also because of his innovative vision. Although Fleck’s playing style in many ways hearkens back to the three-finger bluegrass style of Earl Scruggs—with very large doses of Bill Keith’s melodic style deplyed as well—he has taken the banjo into new realms, especially in his forays into jazz & jazz fusion with his band the Flecktones, & in both live & recorded sessions with Chick Corea, Jean-Luc Ponty & Stanley Clarke. But he also plays bluegrass (& “newgrass”) with the likes of Doc Watson, Sam Bush & Jerry Douglas & has also been active in World Music circles, in part thru his exploration of the banjo’s African roots, which was captured in the documentary Throw Down Your Heart.
With Bach’s "Prelude from his Violin Partita #3," in E MajorFleck is adapting a well-known piece from violin literature to the banjo. Of course, Fleck is far from being the first to bring classical music to the banjo. Popular classics were a big part of the fare of the turn of the 20th century banjo orchestras, & in an example that’s closer to home (involving as it does a solo banjoist), Pete Seeger performed an arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,” which was originally released on his Folkways album Goofing Off Suite in 1954 (this was re-released on cd in 1993 by Smithsonian-Folkways.)
In some ways, the banjo seems a very odd choice for playing a violin piece. The violin, because of how the bow produces notes, has a great deal of sustain & is a highly melodic instrument, while the banjo’s notes tend to be crisp, percussive & with little sustain—in that sense, it in some ways resembles the harpsichord.
Bach, however, himself arranged the partita for lute, which is of course much closer to the banjo, tho it also has greater sustain, & in addition a lower bass range than either the violin or the banjo. As is common with Bach’s lute literature, this arrangement has been frequently adapted for classical guitar as well. If anyone is interested in listening to other versions, here is a link for Jascha Heifetz playing the Prelude on the violin, as well as a classical guitar version & a lute version. It’s interesting to me that the violin versions on YouTube all clock in at around three & a half minutes or slightly less, while Fleck’s & the guitarist's version each extends to around four. In part these tempo differences are caused by the exigencies of the instruments.
As commentors on YouTube have noted (leave it to YouTube commentors to find anything negative), Fleck’s version loses much of the counterpoint & other nuances of the original. Still, Fleck displays much more musicality than if this were merely a tour de force, & he brings a fine spirit to his rendition to go along with his amazing banjo chops.