Saturday morning quotes 5.2: Bach on lute or guitar
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.