I’ve decided to embark on a new song series, devoted to the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, which gets us into the potentially sticky question of whether classical composers wrote “songs” or not. Most definitions include some reference to vocals. Songs must be sung. But Mendelssohn wrote “Songs without Words” and Blake wrote “Songs of Innocence and Experience” which have no music, so let’s say that the category is a bit malleable. I’ll keep the pieces short, anyway.
Of course, Bach pieces are often as great for vocal settings as instrumental ones, and one of the most delightful (something about Bach compels me to use that fruity and slightly anachronistic adjective) vocal settings of a Bach instrumental is by French a cappella group The Swingle Singers. Their Little Organ Fugue is a version of Bach-Werke–Verzeichnis 578, the “Little Fugue in G Minor”, which has also been put to use in the video game Mega Man Legends; by Cornelius (the Japanese Beck); and the electric guitar swashbucklery of Swedish metal man Yngwie Malmsteen.
Though I have played (badly), at various times piano, guitar, and trumpet, I have very little technical knowledge of music. My favorite song is probably “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen. The best understanding I have of a fugue is that it is a very complicated version of “Row Row Row Your Boat”. When I first heard Bach I thought it sounded like math. But it grew on me, and I’ve come to feel that this is really universal music, as Shakespeare is a universal poet. As the great science writer Lewis Thomas wrote, “Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brains work. We listen to Bach transfixed because this is listening to a human mind.” So anyone with a mind ought to like it.