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Bach In Translation: From Jazz Vocals To Electronic Blips

Perhaps no composer is considered more serious than Johann Sebastian Bach. Scholars have debated for decades about what constitutes the proper tradition for performing his music, while others have thrown tradition out the window and taken Bach down a less serious path.

My interest this summer in the lighter side of Bach began with a new release from accordionist Richard Galliano. Bach's delightful "Badinerie" from the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor is usually heard with flute and orchestra. But Galliano plays the part on the accordina, a smaller relative of the accordion, and takes the composer's high art into a cozy cafe.

Bach always seemed to me the greatest of all composers, so when the Swingle Singers came along -- the first really popular Bach-singing jazz vocalists -- I tried not to like them. But their snappy "do-be-do-dahs" were irresistible. Their a cappella rendition of the fugue from the Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor for the organ is nothing short of spectacular. One has to admire the sheer technical brilliance it takes to sing something like that.

People often say that Bach's music is timeless. Wendy Carlos proved it with her futuristic Switched-On Bach, a historic recording on the Moog synthesizer, a type of early synthesizer invented by Bob Moog. With this album, Bach's Two-Part Invention in F Major became a favorite of many piano students.

Bach's music works especially well on guitar. Among many Bach transcriptions by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet is the arrangement of movements from the sixth Brandenburg Concerto. The warmth and clarity of the guitar's plucked string sound allows this music to seem relaxed and complicated at the same time.

Some may consider these lighthearted versions of Bach a blemish on his genius. I think the opposite is true. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is so great, so well-structured, that it can exist in all kinds of styles, even styles that Bach could never have imagined.

What would Bach think about all this? My guess is that he would like it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Composer and author Tom Manoff has been the classical music critic for NPR's All Things Considered since 1985.