Bach on Saxophone? What Would Bach Say? Andrew Dahlke Tells Us
At first blush, arranging Bach’s Cello Suites for saxophone would seem to be a fool’s errand. Not only did
the instrument not come into existence until almost 100 years after Bach’s death, pressing questions
relating to the saxophone’s technical capabilities present themselves—for example, how and what to do
about the profusion of double-stops and chords Bach wrote for the cello.
Ordinarily, this is not an assignment I’d have agreed to take on, especially since I tend to look askance at
arrangements and transcriptions of musical works in general. But as I’ve shared with readers before, the
saxophone holds a special significance for me beyond my just liking the sound of it. It was the instrument
my father played, and my love for music and any musical talent I may have inherited, came from him, my
mother being tone-deaf as a rock. So, while admittedly skeptical at first, I was intrigued by Andrew
Dahlke’s undertaking to arrange Bach’s six Solo Cello Suites for a combination of soprano, alto, tenor, and
Who is Andrew Dahlke? With degrees in music from the University of Michigan and a Doctor of Musical
Arts degree in saxophone from the University of North Texas, Andrew is currently professor of saxophone
at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Increasingly recognized across the U.S. and abroad for
his versatility and high level of artistry, Andrew regularly performs with the Philadelphia Orchestra and has
appeared with the orchestra at a number of festivals, as well as at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center
and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, working with, among others, music director Yannick Nézet-
An Aspen Music Festival alumnus and frequent performer at the Festival, Andrew has performed with the
Aspen Chamber Symphony, Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra, Aspen Wind Ensemble, and the Opera Theatre
Program, working with well-known conductors such as David Zinman, Leonard Slatkin, and Robert Spano.
Andrew also frequently performs with the Colorado Symphony in Denver with conductors including Marin
Alsop, Jeffrey Kahane, and Larry Rachleff.
So, let me begin by asking Andrew the first question out of the box. Why Bach’s Cello Suites? What
initially led you to believe they would make suitable candidates for saxophone arrangements?
There is a history of classical saxophonists experimenting with playing Bach’s Cello Suites. Many years
ago, my saxophone professor at the University of Michigan, Donald Sinta, first introduced to me the
possibility of performing Bach’s First Cello Suite on saxophone. Don also had a video tape in his studio of
Pablo Casals performing and teaching the suites, which I watched. The French classical saxophonist in
Lyon, Jean Marie Londeix, published an edition of Bach’s First Cello Suite for saxophone in 1963. In
addition to the suites, other saxophone transcriptions of Bach’s music were in the literature.
In general, the musical affect of the Baroque period resonates with me. I find it to be especially powerful,
poignant, characteristically rhythmic, melodic, and dynamic. The fact that it is so improvisational, and that
so much of the music-making and interpretation is flexible and spontaneous and can be shaped by the
performer, is appealing. I was very moved and influenced about six years ago before starting the Cello
Suites project by the two Glenn Gould recordings of the Goldberg Variations. Then, when I started
listening to different cellists performing the suites, in addition to Casals, I favored Anner Bylsma’s playing
and Rostropovich’s, ultimately settling on Rostropovich as my primary influence. The Cello Suites
represent a major benchmark for cellists and other instrumentalists for study and performance. I wanted to
do something that hadn’t been done before, and also to choose a project that had the potential for wide
accessibility and recognition. One of my goals has been to bring the classical saxophone to a more
Some of the challenges in performing live and recording the suites were daunting. But, with each new
challenge I was able to negotiate a solution and received positive feedback from audiences and peers which
spurred me on. Recently, David Kim, the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, listened to my
recording and commented on how much he enjoyed listening to it and how beautiful the music sounds.
I understand that you studied these works at length and in depth, and that you came up with your own
performing and printed edition. How did you overcome the obstacle of the extensive double-stopping in the
original cello scores, and beyond that, what other technical challenges did you face in making these
I dealt with the polyphony in several ways. Most common was to roll the double stops and chords, which is
actually how many of them are played on the cello. In some instances, I was able to create a similar
musical/harmonic effect through the use of overtones. The saxophone can sound more than one note
simultaneously by overblowing the fundamental tone and manipulating the resultant sequence of
harmonics. In some of the movements, where there are so many double-stops that rolling them all doesn’t
work, I reworked or recomposed them as melodies with definite rhythms to maintain the structure of the
movement. Probably the greatest challenge is the breathing. It is necessary to pause to take breaths where
the cello is not hindered by the breathing aspect. In the end, I think having to breathe makes the suites more
human in a way; it defines phrases more clearly, and shapes the music in a fresh way.
Rostropovich phrases according to breathing as well. The melodicism and vocal nature of Bach’s music
(including the suites) also makes it easy in most cases to find places to breathe. There are, however, some
places where it is difficult to make the phrase on a single breath, particularly in the Third Suite on the
baritone saxophone, which requires the most air. The endurance is also very tough, as the full suites range
from between 16 and 33 minutes, with no breaks or periods of rest for the instrumentalist. It is truly an
athletic endeavor to perform a suite on saxophone.
You use four different instruments in your arrangements and for your recording—a soprano sax in the
Suites 4 and 6, a low A alto sax in the Suites 1 and 2, a tenor sax in the Suite No. 5, and a baritone sax in
the Suite No. 3. What were the considerations, both technical and musical, that led you to choose the
instrument you did for each of the suites?
There are only a couple of published transcriptions of the cello suites for saxophone. As I am aware, the
suites are transposed in order to match the range of the saxophone. After working with the music, initially I
decided that the suites sound the best in the keys that Bach chose, so my editions and recordings leave the
suites in their original keys. The decision as to which horn to use was based on matching the character of
each suite and range considerations.
The first issue with range is that the cello’s lowest note is a concert C, whereas the various saxophones,
with the exception of the baritone, commonly only go to a low D♭. The baritone does go to the low C. So,
the works that I play on the E♭ saxophones (alto and baritone), when transposed to the saxophone, do
utilize the low C, a few times in the First and Second Suites, and a great deal in the Third Suite.
The Third Suite strikes me as very grand and majestic and a good match for the baritone saxophone, which
can also play the many low Cs with ease. For many listeners, the Third Suite in C Major is their favorite
from my recordings. The range of the baritone saxophone also matches the cello. I was having lunch with
the jazz saxophonist Dick Oatts and discussing this project and these issues, and Dick offered to lend me
his father’s low A (concert C) alto saxophone for Suites One and Two. This was a special alto saxophone
that the Selmer company made for a while that included the extended range (low C). I ended up liking the
sound of the horn and using it for the recordings of the First and Second Suites. These horns did not
become standard and are not used today, so my editions include options for performing Suites One and
Two without the extended range. In those few instances, the low C is either displaced to the octave or
reharmonized to a different note.
Another technical consideration was the upper end of the range. For example, the Sixth Suite in D Major
would have put too much into the altissimo, or very high range of the alto saxophone, and wouldn’t have
worked well, so I used the B♭ soprano saxophone. The Fifth Suite in C Minor is particularly dark and
intense, with speculation that it was written after the premature death of Bach’s first wife. The color of the
B♭ tenor saxophone matches the serious nature of the suite well.
Tell me about your work with the Philadelphia Orchestra and playing with the orchestra in general.
I first played with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival in Colorado five or
six years ago. It went really well and I fit in well with its sound and musicality. I played again in a
subsequent summer in Vail and spoke at length with Ricardo Morales, the principal clarinetist, and others
about performing with them more frequently and in the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. I have close family
in Philadelphia, so it’s easy for me to travel and stay there. Since then, I have performed many concerts
with the orchestra in Philadelphia and Saratoga, New York, among other places, including 20 concerts this
year. Highlights include playing the Berg Violin Concerto this year with Gil Shaham, and the soprano
saxophone solo in Ravel’s Boléro this summer in Saratoga in a concert which included Yo-Yo Ma.
In May, I performed with the orchestra and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin for the large production
of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, which was very moving. This work is rarely performed, in part because of
how many people are involved and the logistics. Playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra is certainly one of
the high points in my career. I learn every time I am with the orchestra. The commitment to excellence and
level of music making collectively, and from each individual, is extremely high. Most notable is how well
the musicians listen, blend, and communicate with each other musically, which ultimately makes for the
most powerful experience for the performer and the audience. The orchestra is also one of the nicest groups
of people I’ve had the opportunity to work with, which also shows up in the music-making. Being able to
participate in that longstanding tradition and the artistic community in Philadelphia is very special for me.
You’ve expressed a strong desire to promote the classical saxophone within the mainstream classical
community, as well as the community at large. What sort of community outreach projects and activities are
you engaged in to further that goal?
The classical saxophone is well represented in higher education and the academic community. The current
level of musicianship and activity within that community is impressive. A great deal of new music has been
written for the instrument in the last 40 to 50 years. The genre of saxophone quartet has been particularly
successful. The major American chamber music competitions, such as Fischoff and Coleman, are
frequently won by and often award prizes to saxophone quartets. At the same time, I am amazed at how
few people in general are aware of classical saxophone and how beautiful it is. The instrument got off to a
late start (circa 1840) and the level of playing took a while to develop.
Prior to recording the Cello Suites I made a conscious effort to perform them as much as I could in order to
get to know the music, and to follow through on my mission of bringing the classical saxophone to a wider
audience. Locations included an adult day care center for Alzheimer’s patients, an agricultural products
company office, and a Presbyterian church, in addition to more traditional recital and concert venues.
A current project I’m very excited about has to do with a student saxophone quartet I put together and am
working with at the University of Northern Colorado. The group consists of four guys who are of Mexican
descent. In addition to the standard saxophone quartet repertoire, we are also arranging and performing
more traditional Mexican music, including singing and the use of guitar. The idea came about to provide
music for one of our signature university concerts that features the whole school of music. The theme this
year was world music. My idea was to recognize the cultural background of these students in order to
inspire them and take the group outside of the university in order to inspire others, including Hispanic
youth in the community to go to college and pursue their dreams. Ultimately, my plan is to empower the
group to be professional and perform gigs and concerts. The city we live in has a large Hispanic population.
We have already performed for a Mexican studies class at the university and will be performing for a
bilingual college fair at a local school and in other K-12 schools.
I work with another saxophone quartet at the university that is very active in seeking out non-traditional
performance venues in the community. They have performed classical saxophone music in town squares,
farmer’s markets, brew pubs, etc.
My previous question is a natural segue to this next one, which I think you’re in a unique position to
answer because of your extensive teaching experience both here and abroad. Coming of age in the 1950s
and 1960s, I grew up at a time when music classes were part of the public school curriculum. Kids were
exposed, however superficially, to classical music, and many, if not most, however rudimentarily, learned
to play an instrument. That served a dual purpose. One, it passed on from one generation to the next at least
some degree of cultural awareness that music history did not start with The Beatles; and two, it provided a
continuous supply of musically motivated high school graduates to the higher halls of learning as they
entered our colleges and universities. Today, with public school music classes pretty much nonexistent,
kids grow up having never heard a note of classical music, unless it has been purloined for a movie
soundtrack or TV commercial, and unsurprisingly, they are acculturated to believe that rap is great art.
Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now and get to my question. What are your thoughts about the state of music
education in the U.S. today, and how would you contrast it with the state of music education in South
Korea and China, where I understand you spent some time teaching and performing? Tell me more about
your experience abroad.
These are tough questions to answer in brief. I would agree that general education in classical music in the
K-12 schools in the U.S. is mostly nonexistent. How much this has changed I am not sure. I believe at the
high school level that there used to be music appreciation classes that served to introduce the general
student population to art music. I believe there is a music theory AP test that is offered at the high school
level, and a few high schools may offer this class. At the college level it is common for schools of music to
offer music appreciation courses and music history courses as electives to non-music majors. These are
usually well attended.
It is quite eye-opening in Asia to witness the elevated status and importance given to education in general
and the respect that is afforded to teachers and professors. It seems obvious to me how empowering and
absolutely important education is to human beings and societies; yet in the U.S., as of late, we have this
seemingly “anti-education” sentiment among the population. As someone who has been working in
education my whole career and sees its challenges and benefits first-hand every day, this makes no sense to
me and is very troubling. Teachers are working with children every day to mentor them to become
productive and fulfilled human beings. Teachers deal with an incredible range of issues beyond
academics—issues that students often hide from their parents and peers. At the college level today, students
are really struggling with their work ethic, focus, identity, social skills, morals, mental illness, physical
health, and the list goes on. It is an incredibly demanding, and often exhausting, job and responsibility to
work with young people, yet a critical one; and I think we need to get back to recognizing that and
supporting it. OK, there was my soapbox talk.
Elementary and instrumental music education in American public schools has always been subject to
economic conditions in terms of its prevalence. In South Korea, instrumental music education is not part of
the K-12 schools. A student needs to seek out instruction elsewhere. This is difficult because kids in South
Korea go to school pretty much year round and all day. After school, during the academic year most
students attend “hagwons.” These are schools for “after school.” This starts at a young age. The major
music conservatories in Korea do have excellent instrumentalists; but overall, South Korea’s instrumental
music has not been a part of educating the larger population.
In China, instrumental music education has also taken place as an extracurricular activity, outside of the
cursory education. However, unlike in South Korea, instrumental music in China is very popular and
experiencing tremendous growth, with the saxophone being very popular among youth and the adult
audience. Each major city in China has a college music conservatory and there are many saxophone
students. The conservatory in Wuhan has over 100 saxophonists. This past summer I took my saxophone
quartet on a tour of China. The group is called the Global Saxophone Quartet. We performed to packed and
sold-out houses in Beijing, Tianjin, and Wuhan, in part because we played saxophone. Further evidence of
this growth in China is that we are planning to hold a saxophone quartet camp here at the University of
Northern Colorado next summer, consisting of students from China, to help develop the music education of
Chinese students. A big concern in China is still the lack of outside resources getting into the country.
Juilliard also recently developed a master’s degree program at the Tianjin Conservatory in that major
Chinese port city. Students can now get a master’s degree from Juilliard without leaving China.
What is very interesting about Korean culture is that there is a shared musical culture of traditional songs
that everyone seems to know. These are taught in the schools. This is also true for Mexico. It is a great
cultural trait and multi-generational. Grandparents, parents, and children all know and enjoy, appreciate,
and sing the same folk songs, something our more diverse American culture does not do to that extent.
These songs import positive meaning and teach healthy concepts for living, solving problems,
understanding life, etc. In Asia, the respect for one’s elders and educators can be traced to Confucianism,
which is a very different cultural outlook from ours in the U.S.
What has your experience been teaching at the university level? I know that by the time I started college, I
already knew most of the mainstream classical repertoire as a result of playing an instrument (violin) and
through listening to as much music as I could on record and over a local classical music radio station. What
is the “musical knowledge quotient” of the students who come to you at the University of Northern
Colorado? Do you find there’s a lot of remedial work to be done just to catch them up?
Excellent question. This will vary according to the demographic of the student population at the various
music schools. The University of Northern Colorado services a range of students from the most talented to
students who are less developed but show great potential. In general, I’d have to say the “musical
knowledge quotient” is not what one would like to see. Believe it or not, I attribute a large part of this to the
movement away from LP records and CDs. It used to be that if you were serious about playing or listening
to music, you spent a lot of time in the record stores going through the stacks and reading about each
recording, or doing the same at home after you purchased the recording. Liner notes are an excellent source
for this general musical knowledge. Today, students mostly download an mp3 file (which, as we know, is
also compressed and of poorer sound quality) and listen to it without exploring who the other musicians are
on the recording or reading the liner notes for other important information and detail. So, yes, we are
charged with filling in the gaps where the outside musical culture has fallen short with changes in
technology and distribution, among other things.
Traditionally, I think, the saxophone is more closely associated with jazz than it is with classical music,
though certainly there have been a number of concertos written for it, as well as prominent parts in
orchestral works. I know that you’re no stranger to the jazz world, and you’ve said that it’s a mission of
yours to turn young people on to classical music through a medium they more commonly identify with. So,
do you use your jazz experience when working with students as a way of “crossing them over,” so to speak,
into the classical realm?
I would say that part of what I do has to do with turning young people on to classical music; most of my
students already are to a point. That mission was centered on the New Bach Rock CD project more
specifically, in which I produced and essentially electrified classical favorites to make them more
accessible to a younger audience. I don’t use my jazz background for this purpose; I treat both jazz and
classical as equal art forms. I do, however, impress upon my more jazz-focused students the benefits and
opportunities of experience and ability in the classical genre, and vice-versa. Having the understanding and
facility in music to be able to compose and improvise used to be much more a part of being a classical
Related to my previous question, I understand you have a new CD out titled New Bach Rock. I’m sorry I
haven’t heard it, but can I assume from the title that it fits in with your effort to bring young people to
classical music by demonstrating how the “old” relates to the “new,” and to provide an example of the
technical discipline and musical inspiration that are common to both?
Most definitely. It is surprising how many professional musicians were first exposed to the classical music
genre through more commercial/radio versions of classical music, which led them to the original scores and
recordings. Honestly, for me it was the disco version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. After hearing that on
the radio, picking up the 45, and browsing one of the record stores in the local mall, I bought the LP of the
full Beethoven’s Fifth and couldn’t stop listening to it. I remember my grandparents complaining because I
kept playing the record over and over again. For jazz, it was my father taking me to see local jazz concerts
in the Detroit area and hearing Spyro Gyra and Grover Washington on the jazz radio stations. This led me
initially to Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, and Phil Woods.
What other recording projects, performing activities, and musical collaborations are you currently involved
I recently recorded a CD with a pianist, Anne Breeden, who comes from a very musical family. Her father
and mother were members of the San Francisco Symphony and her grandfather, Leon Breeden, developed
the well-known jazz program at the University of North Texas, of which I’m an alumnus. Our CD is solely
music for soprano saxophone and piano, combining both original music for saxophone and transcriptions.
This CD is also intended to reach and affect a more mainstream audience, with pieces by Ravel, J. S. Bach,
Villa-Lobos, Rodney Rogers, and Francis Poulenc. The soprano saxophone with piano is an extraordinarily
beautiful combination. Hopefully that recording will be released in the first part of next year.
With Anne Breeden, I am part of a new trio that includes the fantastic string bassist Susan Cahill, who is a
member of the Colorado Symphony in Denver and plays a lot of chamber music. We first got together to
perform on a series called Denver Eclectic Concerts. I arrange a wide spectrum of music for the group,
crossing over into jazz and improvisation as well, which Susan has a great interest in. We have also secured
funding to record a CD.
I am excited about composing original music for a jazz project and have ideas I am fleshing out with more
music by J. S. Bach.
Finally, let me ask you about a business venture you’re involved in. I understand you have your own
company, Dahlke Mouthpieces, which sells your personally designed, professional saxophone
mouthpieces. To a non-saxophone player like me, a saxophone mouthpiece would have little purpose other
than as an infant’s pacifier, so explain please, if you would, what makes your mouthpieces different and
special from others in common use.
The mouthpiece is a critical component of the instrument and has everything to do with the timbre and
response of the sound. One could compare it to the head joint on a flute, or a bassoon bocal, for example.
There have traditionally been two chamber designs (shape of the inside of the mouthpiece before reaching
the bore of the mouthpiece) for classical saxophone mouthpieces: square and round. Each type of chamber
supports certain qualities. Square chambers allow for more flexibility of timbre, or the ability to manipulate
the color of the sound more easily. Round chambers tend to provide more stability, more consistent
intonation, and a homogenous scale.
My goal with the first mouthpiece design (Virtuoso Series RS) was to create a mouthpiece that offered all
of these qualities, combining the best attributes of both square and round chambers. The RS stands for
rounded square. After much work and testing we came up with a chamber that ended up being similar to an
A-frame with rounded corners. I am very happy with this innovative new mouthpiece, which is being used
by some excellent saxophonists.
The mouthpiece is also constructed from a uniquely rich material created by Behn Mouthpieces. Bradford
Behn of Behn Mouthpieces is my business partner and an established, world-class clarinet mouthpiece
maker. Currently, my mouthpieces are the only saxophone mouthpieces in the world made from this
material, which is similar to the high quality rod rubber that was used to make mouthpieces in the 1920s
and 30s. These older mouthpieces from that time are very highly sought after because of the material. Also
in production from Dahlke Mouthpieces is a round chamber alto saxophone mouthpiece, and a jazz alto
saxophone mouthpiece which I have been developing with the jazz icon Charles McPherson.
BACH Solo Cello Suites Nos. 6, 2, 3 (arr. for saxophones by A. Dahlke) • Andrew Dahlke (sax) •
DAHLMUS 10001 (75:03)
BACH Solo Cello Suites Nos. 1, 5, 4 (arr. for saxophones by A. Dahlke) • Andrew Dahlke (sax) •
DAHLMUS 10002 (63:20)
Every once in a while we need to be jostled out of our comfort zone, and these arrangements of Bach’s
Solo Cello Suites for saxophone surely gave me a jolt. Much as I adore the sound of the saxophone, in all
honesty, I can’t say I’d have come on my own to these recordings by Andrew Dahlke without a little
prodding by our fearless leader in Tenafly, New Jersey. I have him to thank for convincing me to give
Dahlke’s Bach a listen.
I don’t honestly know what Bach would say to the question posed about these arrangements in the article
title. The saxophone had not even been invented in his lifetime, and he might likely have been just as
puzzled by the definitional incongruity of a woodwind instrument made out of metal as he would have been
intrigued by any such instrument having all those keys. But clearly, the transcribing of pieces for
instruments other than those for which they were originally written was not a novel concept to Bach, and,
in the end, I think he would have approved of and enjoyed hearing his Cello Suites in these saxophone
Obviously, as Dahlke himself concedes, adjustments and compromises were necessary to realize on various
saxophones music that was conceived for a string instrument. I say “string instrument” rather than cello
because speculation is strong that Bach did not compose every single one of these suites with the same
instrument in mind. It is now widely believed and generally accepted that the Sixth Suite was intended for a
five-stringed violoncello piccolo, with its fifth string tuned to E, a perfect fifth above the A-string. It has
also been suggested, though without much supporting evidence, that the Sixth Suite may have been written
for a cello da spalla, an instrument played on the shoulder like a viola, or even a viola pomposa, a viola
with a fifth string tuned to E above its top A-string.
These considerations, especially of overall range and comfort of tessitura, would have to figure in any
transferring of the music from one medium to another. That Andrew Dahlke has done the work of an expert
craftsman in tailoring Bach’s Cello Suites to soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones is evident in
every movement of each of these works. But his accomplishment goes beyond the mechanics of craft. He
brings to the suites playing of artful technique, great beauty of tone, and exceptional feeling for the style
and essence of this music. The result is a deeply communicative and satisfying listening experience, which
I can only urge you, as I was urged, to hear for yourself in these extraordinary performances of Bach’s
Cello Suites arranged for saxophone. Jerry Dubins
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:4 (Mar/Apr 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.