Friday, November 11, 2011

Prelude from Bach Violin Partita #3

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.

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.



  1. Bach & Bela, what a great combination! And btw, the actual Bach piece doesn't start until 1:24; all that stuff in the beginning is Bela warming up. His time on the Partita is really just around 4 minutes.

    Interestingly, the first version I ever heard of this piece was Segovia on guitar; he was the first to transcribe Bach for guitar. Bach's music always seems to attract the attention of fellow geniuses. Which brings me to my favorite quote about Papa Johann, from another genius, the late Douglas Adams: "When I hear Mozart, I understand what it is to be a human being; when I hear Beethoven, I understand what it is to be Beethoven; but when I listen to Bach, I understand what it is to be the universe." Amen, brother!

  2. Hi Roy: Thanks! That is a great quote--I love it! Thanks for catching my oversight also--I'm going to correct that in the post itself.

  3. Vivaldi Concertos would be interesting (the guitar/mandolin stuff). Come to think of it, I bet it's been done.

  4. Hi Dominic: Interesting thought! I wonder what one might find on YouTube in that way.

  5. I loved this. Thank you for the background on the piece and the comparison between the arrangements for different instruments.

  6. Hi HKatz: So glad you enjoyed. I'm hoping that--with a big assist from Roy--I now have the explanation right or close to it!


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