Skip to content

Saturday morning quotes 5.2: Bach on lute or guitar

May 30, 2015

Today’s post summarizes a few thoughts and reactions after spending two days auditing Nigel North’s masterclasses for guitarists interested in Bach’s music for lute.  Nigel has for many years expressed strong reservations as to whether Bach’s music works at all for the 18th-century baroque lute, given the constraints of its odd tuning of d-minor.  But as pure music, Bach’s so-called lute works are worth the effort to study and play, whether on the unruly lute or the more convenient modern guitar.

Bach’s writing for unaccompanied instruments possesses a unique strength of character, and is of uniform compositional integrity as pure music independent of the medium of performance.  Known to have deliberately composed in isolation and apart from the mechanical confines of an instrument, Bach transmitted his music directly from his imagination to the written notes scribbled on the page without consideration of the constraints of instrumental technique. But C. P. E. Bach wrote that his father fully understood the resources of  any particular instrument – and a lute was listed among his household possessions in a inventory upon the great composer’s death. Bach simply had the very highest standards, and expected no less than the very best of anyone who would perform his music.

“…Bach, you see, was music’s greatest non-conformist, and one of the supreme examples of that independence of the artistic conscience that stands quite outside the collective historical process.”

– Glenn Gould

“I was obliged to work hard. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed just as well.”

– Johann Sebastian Bach, from The New Bach Reader: A Life of J. S. Bach in Documents and Letters, Ed. by Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolff, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998.

The Bach-Gesellschaft published the known collected works of Bach beginning in 1851, with a goal of presenting authoritative editions produced by the best scholars of the time.  A volume of miscellaneous pieces for keyboard, edited by Alfred Dörffel and published in 1897, included the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-flat major, BWV 998, Suite in E minor, BWV 996, and the Suite in C minor, BWV 997 (Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe, Band 45.1, Leipzig, Breitkopf und Härtel, 1897).  As scholarship evolved, the so-called lute works were assembled into a separate category and published as the Werke für Lauteninstrumente in the updated in The Neue Bach-Ausgabe, Series V, Volume 10 edited by Thomas Kohlhase, 1982.

As it turns out, the guitar, with its single strings and more convenient tuning, may be a better instrument for Bach’s “lute” music than the lute. Bach’s so-called lute works have been fodder for transcription and interpretation on a variety of instruments, the most common example being the modern guitar. It just may be possible that the 19th-century editors of Bach’s music were thinking of the lute-guitar when they described the pieces as meant for the lute. Hermann Hauser’s (1882 – 1952), early work produced examples of the lute-shaped Wandervögellaute, instruments that were tuned like a modern guitar.  Hauser went on to build fine examples of Spanish guitars and became well-known as a luthier commissioned to build instruments for famous guitarist, Andres Segovia (1893 – 1987), who was instrumental in transcribing Bach’s music for the guitar.

“Instead of labouring over perpetuating the idea that the so-called lute pieces of Bach are proper lute pieces I prefer to take the works for unaccompanied Violin or Cello and make them into new works for lute, keeping (as much as possible) to the original text, musical intention, phrasing and articulation, yet transforming them in a way particular to the lute so that they are satisfying to play and to hear.”

– Nigel North, from notes to Bach on the Lute, Linn Records

Nigel North makes his point with much eloquence in his series of recordings, Bach on the Lute Volumes 1 & 2 Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin BWV 1001-1006 (Linn Records CKD 013 and 029, 1994) and Volumes 3 & 4 Suites for solo cello BWV 1007-1012 (Linn Records CKD 049 and CKD 055, 1996). North gives us very beautiful renditions of the music and one is filled with admiration for every glorious detail.

There is ongoing speculation as to whether Bach played the lute at all.  Unfortunately, it must remain speculative.  But given Bach’s reputation for his skill on other stringed instruments, one can assume that if wished to play the lute, he did so.  Whether you choose to play the music on lute or guitar, you can find various editions of Bach’s so-called music for lute, including prints from the old Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe and facsimiles of some of the originals, online.

  1. geoffgaherty permalink

    I always had the impression that Bach’s lute music was actually intended to be played on the “lute harpsichord,” an instrument that he apparently did own. This was a keyboard instrument, strung and set up to sound like a lute. I’ve also heard that he was a great admirer of Weiss’ lute compositions, and that they inspired his works for the lute harpsichord. I had never realized that they were so hard to play on the baroque lute. If Nigel can’t play them, they must be formidable. I’ll have to get some of his recordings of the violin and cello solos.

    A few years ago I played continuo in a baroque ensemble using my Renaissance lute. I was quite surprised one time when I found that the bass part of a Purcell song lay perfectly on my lute, and sounded quite wonderful and quite idiomatic.

    • Yes, some of the pieces are definitely better suited to the keyboard, although the tessitura lies uncharacteristically low. Gustav Leonhardt transcribed some of the lute suites for keyboard and made a convincing recording several years ago. The difficult e-minor suite, BWV 996, is ascribed “Für dans Lautenwerk” and Leonhardt’s performance can be heard here.

  2. Ron and Donna, I can’t tell you how liberating it was for me after playing the Bach lute suites and violin/cello suites on first guitar, then lute, to finally play the first two cello suites on the tenor banjo, an instrument with the same tuning as the cello, albeit an octave higher. Suddenly Bach’s writing fell “under my fingers”. I could sense the man sitting with an instrument to hand, working within the confines, while exploiting the natural rich resources of the instrument. It was a revelation to discover that his music was so physically related to the tuning, not abstract, “pure” music. Okay, it was a banjo, not a “proper” baroque instrument, but it revealed much to me about Bach the practical musician. Highly recommended! And I also think it sounds wonderful on the banjo.

    I’m not sure if hyperlinks are allowed in these comments, but I’ll try. Have a listen:

    • Like many others, I became interested in the lute after learning a few Bach pieces, which I played on my 1943 Gretsch archtop. Old friend Cyd Smith, who studied guitar with Michael Lorimer, clued me in that there was slightly easier music to read, and loaned me her copy of the Milan pavans and fantasias. I was hooked and have neglected my fiddle and banjo playing ever since.

      I certainly agree that the cello suites, and also the sonatas and partitas for violin solo, are indeed idiomatic for an instrument tuned in fifths, although the cello suites are certainly moreso. I used to play through the violin music on mandolin in order to limber up when I played in a bluegrass band. The third partita, sans le grand chaconne, is actually quite playable and satisfying.

      My point is not to say that Bach’s music is unplayable and exists only as pure music, possibly with the exception of Die Kunst der Fuge and maybe some bits of the Solo p[our une] flûte traversière par J. S. Bach BWV 1013, for which I wrote an accompaniment as a composition exercise when I was at university. He certainly knew how to fit the music to the instrument, but I think in some cases his demands were a bit extraordinary. I would have to say this is the case for BWV 996, with all that rummaging around in the basses.

      The banjo is what it is – still a banjo – but you make some wonderful music with it.

  3. Éric Bellocq permalink

    I go in the same direction than Rob and disagree totally with this supposed “purity” of Bach. He was drinking a lot of beer, musicologists says !

    You can also learn more from them :
    about St John Passion, St Mathiew 1rst version and TraueurOde, all with lute(s) ?
    about BWV 1025, adding a violin part to Weiss solo Sonata S-C 47.
    about BWV 995, autograph manuscript written «Pour la Luth», with a personal dedication to Mr Schuster (Leipzig book seller and potential publisher)
    about Weiss coming from Dresden to spend a few weeks in Leipzig Bach home together with Kropfgans and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach ?
    about this mention in 1761 Breitkopf catalogue:
    “Bach, J.S. Direttore della Musica in Lipsia, III Partite à Liuto solo. Raccolta I. 2 thl.”
    2 thl. means 2 thalers which was very expensive score compare to the average price.

    List goes on…

    Are all this abstract things with no link to reality of the time ?

    That we are missing connection with the reality of OUR time is something very different.
    What about just accepting there is still unanswered questions instead of promoting illusions ?

    Meilleures pensées,
    Éric Bellocq

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: