Bach and ch in general

One of my first piano learner’s books had a piece called Air from Bach, which I first pronounced as /bætʃ/ (batch). When one of my older sisters told me it was /bak/ (bark) (non-rhotic in Australia), I didn’t believe her until someone else (maybe our piano teacher or grandmother, assured me that it was. Except it’s not. The sound at the end is /x/, a voiceless velar fricative, the sound at the end of Scottish loch, or /χ/ a voiceless uvular fricative. Most English speakers don’t bother, either with Bach or loch or any other relevant word, but I vaguely remember hearing a monologue by Garrison Keillor on how he first started in radio. He volunteered for a student radio program (?to impress a girl), and when he needed to study, he’d put on the complete and uninterrupted recording of the Mass in B minor by Johann Sebastian Bacchh (in the days of LP records?). I can’t find that online. If anyone can help me, I’d be grateful. 

I was reminded of this by the username of my chief commenter of recent times, Batchman. While ch in English can be /k/ (architect), /tʃ/ (bachelor), /ʃ/ (champagne) or /x/ (loch), tch can only be /tʃ/ (unless is is split across two syllables, as in chitchat (which might end up as chi-chat in rapid speech)). Basically, words with /k/ are Greek, words with /tʃ/ are Germanic and words with /ʃ/ are French.

Some years ago I had a student from Greece whose name appeared on the roll as Harris. Some time later, hearing him introduce himself, I realised that is was actually Χάρις, usually spelled Charis (grace, kindness, life). I don’t know whether he spells it as Harris, or the receptionist heard and wrote it down that way (but surely it’s written in his passport). Also, I later found that Bach in Korean is spelled 바흐 (ba-heu), possibly because 박 (bak) is a very common surname in Korea, usually spelled Park, but also because some German words entered Korean during the Japanese occupation, for example 아르바이트 (a-reu-ba-i-teu) from arbeit, work, meaning a part-time job in Korean. Note the separate syllable 르. 

For some time in Australia, bach (pronounced batch) was used to mean ‘to live as a bachelor’, possibly because one’s mother, girlfriend or wife was absent for some reason. Wikitionary includes this, but marks it (US). In New Zealand, a bach (pronounced batch) is a small, usually basic, usually seaside holiday house, but I’m not aware that it’s used as a verb. 

Batch also appears in the name of Benedict Cumberbatch, and in that sense is related to the German bach, meaning brook or stream. Brook is not related to bach, but beach is. 

The Air from Bach was the first eight bars of the chorale best known in English as Jesu, joy of man’s desiring, which Bach didn’t write; Johann Schop did, which I didn’t know until just then. (I like to attribute whenever possible.)


14 thoughts on “Bach and ch in general

  1. Especially interesting observation because “Batchman” is actually a variant on my true surname, which is spelled with a “ch”, similarly to “Bach” and of German/Jewish origin. While most people pronounce it with a “k” sound, most of the confusion is over the quality of the “a” in the first syllable. My family pronounces it as an English short “a” as in “hat”, but most others assume a non-English “a” as in “father.”

    The German sound itself (there are actually two similar sounds in German, somewhat like the Scottish ones you describe) is comfortable to Americans who are either Jewish, New Yorkers, or both, most commonly in interjections like “Yecch” or this one:

    And how do you pronounce “ugh”? I grew up with the “gh” pronounced as /x/, but others seem to say “ug” as in this, with which you are no doubt familiar:

    It should be possible to find a word in which “tch” is pronounced /tx/, most likely of Hebrew origin, but I can’t think of one. The closest that comes to mind is Simchat Torah, but that’s “mch” and not “tch.” And some English words with “tch” in them derive from French (e.g. “catch”), from post-Norman times.

    Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring may be one of those pieces where the arrangement is more notable than the actual melody, like Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.”

    And Paul Simon may have lifted “American Tune” from Bach, but Bach took it from Hans Leo Hassler.

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    • The surname Bachman(n) was at the back of my might, but I decided to keep it short.
      Because ugh, ergh, yech etc are such spur-of-the-moment utterances, I can’t quite figure how I pronounce them, and saying them deliberately sounds artificial. I suspect I pronounce them all with /k/ rather than /x/.
      Bittersweet Melody is another song which springs to mind for its arrangement.
      I think I have encountered Hassler’s name in his own right, but certainly most hymn books have O sacred head, sore wounded (in whatever translation) and most of those credit Hassler harmonised Bach.
      Simon does just enough different with the melody to obscure it. I remember watching the concert in Central Park with a group of Lutheran seminarians. I picked the tune after about 4 bars, but at the end of the verse one of them said ‘I know this tune – what is it?’.


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  3. Regarding my actual name, close but no cigar, or should I say close but no pretzel? The Bach portion is right.

    Oddly, Paul Simon, when interviewed by Dick Cavett, talked about how that particular Bach/Hassler melody was in the back of his mind when he wrote …

    Bridge Over Troubled Water

    !!! … this was before he split from Garfunkel, so American Tune didn’t exist yet.

    I don’t know “Bittersweet Melody”, and when I googled it, Google returned links to “Bittersweet Symphony” (or “Bitter Sweet Symphony”), which I am not familiar with either. I’ll give it a listen and check it out.


  4. Do you mean this one?

    By “the arrangement is more famous than the melody” I mean that if you asked a random person on the street how the piece goes, they would respond vocally with a characteristic part of the song that is not the melody. This one (“Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve) would seem to qualify.
    Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same” would be another one.

    The Google Q/A suggests that the Verve arrangement is lifted from the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.” My favorite Stones steal is Neil Young’s “Borrowed Tune”, where he even admits in the lyrics that “I’m singing this borrowed tune / I stole from the Rolling Stones” (“Lady Jane”, to be specific).

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    • Perhaps a better example would have been Andrew Oldham’s arrangement of ‘The Last Time’, in which the Rolling Stones’ tune is almost unrecognisable. Richard Ashcroft then used Oldham’s arrangement and made a new melody under it.
      I can’t spot any resemblance between the passion chorale and Bridge over troubled water.


      • Nor could most people spot any resemblance, probably. The connection between the chorale and BoTW is a three-note descending fragment of melody. Here’s the interview so you can watch/listen for yourself:


  5. From what you said, I thought that the connection would have at the words ‘I’m sailing right’ v ‘O sacred head’. Listening to his explanation once hasn’t made me much the wiser. I’ll try again.


    • I believe that Simon was referring to the melody under “See how they shine” (using the third verse to illustrate, as you did). But the intervallic leap and whole-tone descent at “I’m sailing right behind” is similar to the opening of the Hassler melody, though it’s a leap of a sixth rather than a fourth. So there could be influence there as well.


  6. He’s using a different version of the chorale than I am most familiar with. I know ‘With crown of bitter thorns’ as B / C-C-ba-B / A. He sings it as B/C-C-b_cd-B/A (which I know). But ‘When tears are in your eyes’ transposed to the same key is B / C-B-A-db /. The resemblance is slight. Among other things, the chorale is in a minor key and the relevant notes are right at the beginning, and the song is in a major key and the relevant notes are tucked away in a later phrase. If he wants to say that his phrase ‘come from a Bach piece’, he can. I wouldn’t.


    • I assumed Simon was referring to the opening phrase of the chorale tune, E A G F A D E, where the descending portion of the melody inspired him to write the three-note descending phrases in BoTW. But it could also have been that second phrase which you referred to, being part of the overall tragic feel of the original melody. (Transforming grief into compassion?)


  7. I was struck by his comment ‘I assumed a person that I wasn’t’ when he was writing his songs. Some of his songs are known to have a autobiographical element eg Kathy’s Song ‘To England where my heart lies’. To what extent do we expect the songwriter and the persona of the song to overlap eg Billy Joel singing about a piano bar or being in love with an uptown girl v Freddie Mercury singing about putting a gun against someone’s head and pulling the trigger?


  8. Many songwriters are known to have written some of their most intriguing lyrics based on past personal experiences. Some do this unabashedly, some covertly. Others, like Randy Newman, are well known for writing from the standpoint of (hopefully) fictitious shady characters. Dylan has done a bit of both. I find it a bit disappointing to learn that a song I’d admired for its story line turns out not to have been an artistic construct but a relating of actual events. That doesn’t always work well, especially if the writer omits critical details, which can result in the song being excessively cryptic or just confusing. On the other hand, being too detailed and specific limits the degree to which the listener can relate (John Lennon being perhaps the most egregious example).


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