Jacques Loussier (26 October 1934 – 5 March 2019) was a French pianist and composer. He arranged jazz interpretations of many of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, such as the Goldberg Variations. The Jacques Loussier Trio, founded in 1959, played more than 3,000 concerts and sold more than 7 million recordings—mostly in the Bach series.
Loussier composed film scores and a number of classical pieces, including a Mass, a ballet, and violin concertos. Loussier’s style is described as third stream, a synthesis of jazz and classical music, with an emphasis on improvisation.
When Loussier began applying jazz improvisation and swing to Johann Sebastian Bach’s exquisite symmetries, some jazz pundits and fans dismissed it as a betrayal of an African-American music’s expressive earthiness and blues roots, aimed at an audience that preferred its jazz pretty rather than passionate. And from the classical angle, observers were liable to perceive the young Frenchman’s work as little short of vandalism.
The New York Times critic John Rockwell’s review of a Loussier concert at Carnegie Hall in 1975 reflected that distaste when he proclaimed: “There is a certain sort of sensibility that is actively appalled by the very notion of ‘popularising’ Bach – or any classical composer, for that matter. This listener’s sensibility is one of those, and so he found the Tuesday evening performance at a sparsely attended Carnegie Hall by the Jacques Loussier Trio tiresome and offensive.”
Nonetheless, the success of concerts and recordings by Loussier and his Play Bach trio (originally formed with the eminent Paris jazz sidemen Pierre Michelot on bass and Christian Garros on drums) took off almost overnight from the group’s first appearances in 1959 – shifting millions of Play Bach recordings in the almost two-decade life of the original band.
The group’s suitably chilled-out, languidly hip treatment of Bach’s Air on the G String famously accompanied the Hamlet cigar company’s TV advertising from 1962, with cinema versions finally being banned at the end of the century, though these soundtracks did not include Michelot’s subsequent driving bass-walk and Loussier’s freewheeling improv theme-stretches.
Loussier, however, was no one-trick populist who had chanced on a hit formula and milked it. A piano virtuoso from early childhood, he attended the Conservatoire National de Musique in Paris from his mid-teens under a celebrated mentor – the classical pianist and educator Yves Nat – travelled in the Middle East and Latin America absorbing musical ideas in his early 20s, and composed scores for more than 60 films and TV shows. There was also the tireless touring of the Play Bach trio – and after its breakup, he worked on both acoustic and electronic projects at his own Studio Miraval in Provence.
Born in Angers, in western France, Loussier began piano lessons at the age of 10, and within a year was fascinated by the music of Bach. When he heard a piece from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena at 11, he took to playing it incessantly. “I was studying this piece and I just fell in love with it,” Loussier told an interviewer in 2003. “Then I found I loved to play the music, but add my own notes, expanding the harmonies and playing around with that music.”
In this, as Loussier was later to observe, he was not subverting Bach but paying his respects to an improvising tradition to which the composer also belonged, even if classical music’s subsequent assumptions preferred to bury that unruly element.
Loussier’s potential had been brought to Nat’s attention when he was 13, and Nat supplied him with practice projects that the boy would visit Paris every three months to demonstrate. At 16 he entered the conservatoire, financing his courses by playing jazz in the city’s bars.
In the mid-1950s Loussier then took off on his travels, which included Cuba, where he stayed for a year. Back home, he found work as an accompanist, to the singer and actor Catherine Sauvage and Charles Aznavour.
Loussier later recalled that in 1959 he had told Decca Records that he was a classical pianist and they said they already had plenty. Then he said he was a jazz pianist and they said they had plenty of those, too. “Finally I started to play some Bach with my improvisations and they said, ‘What is that? Why don’t we make a record of that?’ I was still doing it out of fun. I never thought the public would like it. I was wrong.”
With Michelot and Garros, and with the American chamber-musical Modern Jazz Quartet as a significant and celebrated inspiration, the Play Bach trio made four hugely successful Decca albums between 1960 and 1963, launched a performance schedule rarely numbering fewer than 150 shows a year worldwide, and expanded the repertoire to include double-tracked recordings of Loussier parts on organ and piano, and arrangements of Bach concertos.
In the midst of it all, Loussier was also a sought-after composer for film and TV. In 1978, weary of travelling, he wound the trio up and retired to Studio Miraval to explore composition more deeply, experiment with electronics and studio techniques, and play host and offer recording time to visiting rock stars including Pink Floyd, AC/DC and Sade.
He wrote the full-scale symphony Lumières (with the countertenor James Bowman, soprano Deborah Rees and a rock rhythm section on its Paris premiere), concertos for trumpet and violin, strings suites, a ballet score and the crossover fusion works Pulsion, Pagan Moon, and Pulsion Sous la Mer.
But Bach’s 1985 tercentenary had already tempted Loussier back to the piano stool. With the jazz/classical bassist Vincent Charbonnier, followed after illness in the 90s by the comparably virtuosic Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac and the percussionist André Arpino, Loussier formed a more broadminded, genre-fluid and technically sophisticated version of the Play Bach trio, which if anything amplified just how creatively musical his original vision had been.
Recording for Telarc from 1996, Loussier returned to his beloved Bach, explored Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in improv conversations with Charbonnier and Arpino, with an affectionate nod to the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Django (1997), and Satie, with De Segonzac and Arpino (1998).
Interpretations of Ravel, Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin followed (with the last-named occasioning Loussier’s first solo piano album in his 70th birthday year, on which he breezily threw flamenco, gospel, calypso and stride-piano into the mix), and ambitious Bach homages taking on the Goldberg Variations and the Brandenburg Concertos.
In 2002, the pianist’s life took an unlikely turn when he embarked on a lawsuit against the rapper Eminem for allegedly stealing hooks from Pulsion for the track Kill You from the Marshall Mathers LP – a confrontation eventually settled out of court. In a conversation that year with the writer Sholto Byrnes, Loussier seemed mainly miffed that the Americans had not asked him first, and typically claimed: “I like good music whatever it is.” He later registered an interest in Eminem’s music.
Jazz reference books have not been so generous to Loussier, but, a true jazz improviser rather than an embellisher of the classics, he sidelined the snobberies from both sides in his early years. He paid tribute to the composers he loved with unmistakable and expert devotion, performing long enough to see his inclusive vision of a music with far fewer borders come to pass.
J.S. Bach The six cello suites performed by Pau Casals, 1936-39
Suite No. 1 In G, BWV1007 16:54 1-1 Prelude 2:28 1-2 Allemande 3:40 1-3 Courante 2:32 1-4 Sarabande 2:22 1-5 Menuet I & II 3:14 1-6 Gigue 1:50 Suite No. 2 In D Minor, BWV1008 19:41 1-7 Prelude 3:43 1-8 Allemande 3:54 1-9 Courante 2:16 1-10 Sarabande 4:06 1-11 Menuet I & II 3:19 1-12 Gigue 2:35 Suite No. 3 In C, BWV1009 20:14 1-13 Prelude 3:28 1-14 Allemande 3:45 1-15 Courante 3:14 1-16 Sarabande 3:30 1-17 Bourrée I & II 3:23 1-18 Gigue 3:04
Suite No. 4 In E Flat, BWV1010 22:29 1-19 Prelude 4:15 1-20 Allemande 3:45 1-21 Courante 3:55 1-22 Sarabande 4:09 1-23 Bourrée I & II 3:37 1-24 Gigue 2:35 Suite No. 5 In C Minor, BWV1011 22:31 2-1 Prelude 7:18 2-2 Allemande 3:17 2-3 Courante 2:03 2-4 Sarabande 2:45 2-5 Gavotte I & II 4:29 2-6 Gigue 2:20
Suite No. 6 In D, BWV1012 27:58 2-7 Prelude 5:06 2-8 Allemande 7:31 2-9 Courante 3:42 2-10 Sarabande 4:17 2-11 Gavotte I & II 3:04 2-12 Gigue 3:59 – 2-13 Adagio In A Minor From Toccata, Adagio And Fugue In C Major, BWV 564 Arranged By – Siloti* 3:53 2-14 Musette (Gavottes I And II) From English Suite No. 6 In D Major, BWV 811 Arranged By – Pollain* 3:45 2-15 Komm, Süsser Tod, BWV 478 Arranged By – Siloti* 3:27 2-16 Andante From Sonata No. 2 For Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1003 Arranged By – Siloti* 3:36 2-17 Air From Suite No. 3 In D, BWV 1068 Arranged By – Siloti* 3:47 Companies, etc.
Composed By – Johann Sebastian Bach Engineer [Restorations] – Ward Marston Liner Notes – Tully Potter Notes Tracks 1-1 to 1-6: Recorded 2.VI.1938, Paris Tracks 1-7 to 1-18: Recorded 25.XI.1936, Abbey Road Studios, London Tracks 1-19 to 1-24: Recorded 13.VI.1939, Paris Tracks 2-1 to 2-6: Recorded 13-16.VI.1939, Paris Tracks 2-7 to 2-12: Recorded 14, 15..VI.1939, Paris Tracks 2-13 to 2-17: Recorded 3.VI.1938, Paris Total playing time: 148:47
Pau Casals biography
“Music, this marvellous universal language, would have to be a source of communication between all people. “
Pau Casals (Pablo Casals as he was commonly called in English) was one of the 20th century’s greatest cellists, internationally recognized as one of the finest performers and orchestra conductors of his times.
Born in El Vendrell on 29 December 1876, he showed a great sensitivity for music from childhood. His father, himself a musician, taught Pau his first notions of music, which Casals would go on to extend through studies in Barcelona and Madrid. At the tender age of twenty-three, he started out on his professional career and performed in the world’s most famous concert halls. As a performer, he made innovative changes in the way of playing the cello, introducing new technical and expressive possibilities. As a conductor too, he sought depth of expression – the musical essence which he achieved with the cello. Pau Casals was also a teacher and a composer, writing works such as the oratorio “El Pessebre” (The Manger), which became a veritable hymn to peace.
The outcome of the Spanish Civil War obliged him to go into exile, settling first in Prades (France) and later in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
In addition to his extraordinary career as a musician, Pau Casals was always a staunch defender of peace and freedom. His numerous benefit concerts, his commitment to humanitarian actions and his various speeches at the United Nations characterized him clearly as a man of peace.
Pau Casals died in 1973 at the age of ninety-six in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His remains now rest in the cemetery of El Vendrell.
United Nations speech – 1971
Over the course of his life, Pau Casals struggled constantly for peace, justice and freedom. In recognition of his stance, in 1971 the Secretary-General of the United Nations, U-Thant, awarded Pau Casals the U.N. Peace Medal. The speech that Pau Casals gave to express his gratitude for this distinction, and afterwards his performance of “El cant dels ocells” (The Song of the Birds), form one of the most impressive testimonies to his human dimension.
WORDS OF PAU CASALS AT THE UNITED NATIONS – 24 October 1971
This is the greatest honour of my life. Peace has always been my greatest concern. I learnt to love it when I was but a child. When I was a boy, my mother – an exceptional, marvellous woman -, would talk to me about peace, because at that time there were also many wars. What is more, I am Catalan. Catalonia had the first democratic parliament, well before England did. And the first United Nations were in my country. At that time – the Eleventh Century – there was a meeting in Toluges – now France – to talk about peace, because in that epoch Catalans were already against, AGAINST war. That is why the United Nations, which works solely towards the peace ideal, is in my heart, because anything to do with peace goes straight to my heart.
I have not played the cello in public for many years, but I feel that the time has come to play again. I am going to play a melody from Catalan folklore: El cant dels ocells – The Song of the Birds. Birds sing when they are in the sky, they sing: “Peace, Peace, Peace”, and it is a melody that Bach, Beethoven and all the greats would have admired and loved. What is more, it is born in the soul of my people, Catalonia.
(English translation of the original version in Catalan, from Enric Casals’ book “PAU CASALS, dades biogràfiques inèdites, cartes íntimes i records viscuts”, Ed. Pòrtic, Col. Memòries, Barcelona, 1979.)
Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ – J.S. Bach, Piano Transcriptions I (by W. Kempff) with sheet music download
Piano transcription performed by Kempff himself in 1975.
“Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 639) : Choralvorspiel in
f-moll of the “Orgelbüchlein” (BWV 599-644)
Johann Sebastian Bach composed the church cantataIch ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (I call to You, Lord Jesus Christ),BWV 177. He wrote the chorale cantata in Leipzig for the fourth Sunday after Trinity and first performed it on 6 July 1732. The cantata text is formed by the unchanged five stanzas of Johann Agricola‘s hymn.
History and words
Bach composed the cantata in Leipzig as late as 1732 in order to complete his second annual cycle of chorale cantatas of 1724/25, which lacked a cantata for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity because that Sunday had been the Feast of Visitation in 1725, celebrated then by Meine Seel erhebt den Herren, BWV 10.
The prescribed readings for the Sunday were from the Epistle to the Romans, “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:18–23), and from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Luke: the admonition to “be merciful”, “judge not” (Luke 6:36–42).
The cantata text is formed by the unchanged five stanzas of Johann Agricola‘s chorale (ca. 1530), a main hymn for the Sunday, used also in Bach’s cantata Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe, BWV 185, written in Weimar. In Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott, BWV 129, also composed to complete the second annual cycle of chorale cantatas, Bach also used the unchanged words of the chorale, different from the cantatas originally composed for the cycle.
Bach first performed the cantata on 6 July 1732.
Scoring and structure
The cantata in five movement is scored for three soloists (soprano, alto and tenor), a four-part choir, two oboes, two oboes da caccia, two violins, viola, basso continuo, an obbligato violin and an obbligato bassoon.
- Chorus: Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ
- Versus 2 (alto): Ich bitt noch mehr, o Herre Gott
- Versus 3 (soprano): Verleih, daß ich aus Herzensgrund
- Versus 4 (tenor): Laß mich kein Lust noch Furcht von dir
- Versus 5 (chorale): Ich lieg im Streit und widerstreb
Similar to most chorale cantatas, the opening chorus is a chorale fantasia, presenting the chorale line by line, the cantus firmus here sung by the soprano. Most of the lines are preceded by entries of the other voices in imitation of motifs independent of the chorale melody. In line 6 the imitation motive is taken from the chorale. In the two last lines 8 and 9 the lower voices enter together with the soprano. The vocal structure is embedded in a concerto of solo violin and two oboes which play the cantus firmus colla parte with the soprano, strings and continuo.
The three arias for the following verses show increasing instrumental complexity. Verse 2 is accompanied by continuo only, verse 3 by oboe da caccia, verse 4 by the rare combination of violin and bassoon. The musicologist Julian Mincham observes a “journey from uncertainty and doubt to warmth and acceptance and finally to rejoicing and jubilation”.
In the finale chorale Bach used ornamentation for expressiveness.
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J. S. Bach Air on the G String Piano solo arrangement from BWV 1068 with sheet music
“Air on the G String”
“Air on the G String”, also known as “Air for G String” and “Celebrated Air”, is August Wilhelmj’s 1871 arrangement of the second movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068.
The arrangement differs from the original in that the part of the first violins is transposed down so that it can be played entirely on a violin’s lowest string, i.e., the G string. It is played by a single violin (instead of by the first violins as a group).
Bach’s third Orchestral Suite in D major, composed in the first half of the 18th century, has an “Air” as second movement, following its French overture opening movement. The suite is composed for three trumpets, timpani, two oboes, strings (two violin parts and a viola part), and basso continuo. In the second movement of the suite however only the strings and the continuo play. This is the only movement of the suite where all other instruments are silent.
The music of the “Air” is written on four staves, for first and second violins, viola(s), and continuo. The interweaving melody lines of the high strings contrast with the pronounced rhythmic drive in the bass.
In 1871, violinist August Wilhelmj arranged the second movement of Bach’s third Orchestral Suite for violin and an accompaniment of strings, piano or organ (harmonium). On the score he wrote auf der G-Saite (on the G string) above the staff for the solo violin, which gave the arrangement its nickname.
In Wilhelmj’s version the piece is transposed down from its original key (D major) to C major. Then the part of the first violins is transposed further down an octave and given to a solo violin that can play the entire melody on its lowest string, the G string. The dynamic markings added by Wilhelmj are more in line with a romantic interpretation than with the baroque original.
As a violin can’t play very loudly in its lowest register, all the other parts of Bach’s music were firmly reduced in Wilhelmj’s version: the keyboard part is to be played staccato and pianissimo, causing the effects of interweaving melodies and of drive in the bass part to get lost. The accompanying violins and violas play muted (con sordino), and the bass part for cellos and double basses is to be played pizzicato and sempre pianissimo, with the same change in effect compared to Bach’s original.
Later, a spurious story circulated that the melody was always intended to be played on the G string alone. The solo violin part of Wilhelmj’s arrangement is sometimes played on the counter-tenor violoncello.
As a result of the popularity of the piece, on the G string remained in the name of various arrangements whether or not a string instrument playing on its G string was involved. Most of these versions have in common that the original melody of the first violins is played in the low register of a solo instrument, accompanied by a reduction of the material of the other parts of Bach’s piece, although occasionally versions that stay more in line with Bach’s original can go by the same name.
In a period that stretched over three decades, and started in 1905, Henry Wood regularly programmed Wilhelmj’s arrangement at the London Proms. Wood recorded his orchestral rendering (i.e., the G string part performed by a group of violins) of the Bach/Wilhelmj “Air” in the early 1930s.
Bach – French Suite No. 5 BWV 816 (complete) with sheet music
The fifth ‘French’ suite is the most tuneful and elegant of the six. It is also the most Italian, says harpsichordist Francesco Corti. You can hear that straight away in the Allemande, but even in the Sarabande – a piece where Bach usually searches for harmonic expression – the melody gains the upper hand. This Sarabande could easily be an adagio from an Italian sonata. The right hand plays a beautifully ornamented melody and the left hand provides the accompaniment. The ornamentation is written out in two variations in various manuscripts. Francesco Corti is happy to use both, keeping the most exuberant variation for the da capo.
The relatively uncomplicated Gavotte with its catchy melody is a great audience favourite. In the Bourrée, Bach goes into a higher gear with an extremely active left hand, which races along below the simple rhythm of the right hand.
In this suite, Bach adds an extra dance, a Loure, which Corti explains is a sort of slow minuet. Bach rarely used this dance form. Only one other example survives, in the Violin Partita No. 3, BWV 1006. Later on, Bach may have taken out the Loure, as it no longer appears in later copies of the suite.
The Gigue that closes the suite is one of the most extensive written by Bach. The time signature (12/16) demands a fast tempo. But it is not just hard and fast. The piece is actually a reasonably complete two-part fugue. In the second section, the theme is mirrored and Bach places it in a breathtakingly harmonic rollercoaster.
Bach composed his ‘French’ suites as a young man of thirty, when he was working at the court of Köthen. However, the suites have nothing to do with the court. Bach wrote them for teaching purposes in his own private circle. The first five appear in their original form in the little music book he compiled in 1722 for his second wife Anna Magdalena, possibly as a wedding present. But Bach continued to rework the pieces. The later versions, with the addition of a sixth suite, have survived thanks to the many copies made by his pupils. They are rewarding practice pieces that despite a certain compositional complexity (it is Bach, after all), do not make extreme demands on the player.
The epithet ‘French’ was not given by Bach himself and appears for the first time in a text from 1762, twelve years after Bach’s death. The pieces are no more French than his other keyboard suites, just as the previously composed ‘English’ suites are not particularly English either. Indeed, the ‘English’ suites, with their extensive preludes, actually follow the French model to a certain extent. But as usual, here Bach is using a cosmopolitan language; an ingenious synthesis of various European styles.
The ‘French’ suites do not have a prelude, but launch straight into the first dance: an allemande. This is followed by the classical sequence of courante, sarabande and gigue, with a somewhat freer selection of dances in between the sarabande and gigue, ranging from the minuet and the gavotte to the bourrée and the less common loure.
The Bartolotti House
We made this recording at The Bartolotti House, at Herengracht 170 and 172. The house at the back of no. 170 was occupied by harpsichordist, organist and conductor Gustav Leonhardt from 1974 to his death in 2012. Leonhardt was one of the pioneers of early music in the Netherlands. As a teacher and performer, he was a source of inspiration to many harpsichord players around the world.
It is one of the most impressive buildings in the old centre of Amsterdam. It was built around 1620 as a residence, on commission from the wealthy businessman Willem van den Heuvel, who had inherited a lot of money from a childless uncle by marriage, called Giovanni Battista Bartolotti, who came from Bologna. The Dutch Renaissance-style design was probably done by the Amsterdam city architect Hendrick de Keyser.
Over the centuries, the house has been split up and has undergone several modernisations. You can still see many wonderful historical decorative features from the various renovations. The two parts of the Bartolotti House came into the possession of Vereniging Hendrick de Keyser, which now has its office there.
Bach – Invention No. 1 in C Major, BWV 772 with Sheet Music
Upon listening to Bach’s Invention No. 1, many students often comment that it is “like a conversation”. Of course, this is true of many of Bach’s great contrapuntal works because that’s the nature of counterpoint: 2 or more melodies (also known as voices, parts or lines) of equal importance sounded together.
What’s the subject of the conversation? The subject is clearly this melody that takes up one whole bar plus a sixteenth note.
The subject and its motifs are guided by an underlying harmonic progression. Overall, the structure of the piece is in three parts:
- Section A: in the key of C major: bars 1 to 6
- Section B: starts in G major and ends in A minor: bars 8 to 14
- Section C: brief visits to several related keys and a return to C major: bars 15 to 22.
Despite being just 22 bars long, we still get a great example of tonal music at work. Section A establishes the tonic. Section B moves away from the tonic and towards the dominant. Section C begins in the relative minor of the original key, and then goes through some other related keys briefly before returning to the tonic.
The key scheme is deceptively simple going through a number of closely related keys:
C major -> G major -> D minor -> A minor -> D minor -> C major -> F major – C major
Most importantly, observe how the motifs themselves always begin on a weak part of the bar. Because of this they overlap and connect over the bar lines (or over the strong beats) and this continually drives the music forward.
When a cadence is due at the end of a phrase, Bach changes the rhythm slightly so that the music conforms to the pulse. At these cadence points, the motifs are abandoned for a very short while and what we get instead are melodies and rhythms that begin and end on the beat.
Motifs, rhythm and harmony all work together at the same time to hold the whole structure together. This is why the piece is admired so much by composers – it’s a mini masterpiece and a gem of musical architecture.