Stanley Yates - Recordings


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Bach's Unaccompanied String Music: A New (Historical) Approach to Stylistic and Idiomatic Transcription for the Guitar

by Stanley Yates

© 1998 by Stanley Yates.
Extracts of music and text reproduced with permission of Mel Bay Publications Inc.

Part 1 - Musical Structure

Introduction. 1. Musical Structure of the Unaccompanied String Works. 1.1 The Rhetorical Style. 
1.2 Implied Polyphony. 1.3 Multi-Stopped Chords. 1.4 Polyphonic Integrity.


The unaccompanied string music of J. S. Bach has been subjected to an almost continuous series of transcriptions - a process initiated by Bach himself and taken up almost immediately by lutenists and keyboard players contemporary to him.[note 1] Further adaptions in the nineteenth century included those by Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelsohn, both of whom provided piano accompaniments to the violin works. Johannes Brahms' well-known version of the D-minor Violin Chaconne for piano left-hand alone was followed by an even better-known version by Ferruccio Busoni, who encased Bach's original within layers of pianistic texture. Early in the present century Leopald Godowsky produced his keyboard edition of the Cello Suites, "very freely transcribed." More recently, numerous arrangements have appeared for virtually every instrument, even for full orchestra.

Beyond affirming the longevity of Bach's music, these adaptions suggest that a degree of alteration is necessary in order to fully realize this music on a harmonic instrument. However, recent arrangements of this literature for the guitar - which may well be more numerous than those for any other instrument - have tended toward unaltered renditions, respectful of the note-content of Bach's originals. Undoubtedly, both approaches derive their inspiration from Bach himself - one in emulating his arrangements, the other in respecting his originals. In arranging after Bach's models, we assume the model is an appropriate one; in making pristine editions, on the other hand, we suggest that in its original form the music is indelible. With this dichotomy in mind, this article explores the arrangement process from the following perspectives: the musical structure and rhetorical nature of Bach's unaccompanied, single-line textures; the arrangement process used by Bach himself and that used by his contemporaries; and the idiom of the modern guitar.

1. Musical Structure of the Unaccompanied String Works

1.1 The Rhetorical Style

Modeled upon Greco-Roman principles of oratory and rhetoric, the Baroque compositional process consisted of the expressive elaboration of an underlying contrapuntal structure. Comprising the invention of an idea (the inventio), the realization of its basic form and contrapuntal framework (the dispositio), the elaboration of this contrapuntal skeleton with rhetorical figuration (the decoratio), and the final presentation of the completed composition in performance (the pronunciato), the rhetorical process lies at the heart of an understanding of the style.

The birth of the expressive rhetorical style, the seconda prattica, was rooted in Italian monody: an expressive solo voice, simply accompanied. Standing in stark contrast to the elaborate multi-voice polyphony of the Renaissance (the prima prattica), the goal of the monodists was to produce the most expressive musical rendition of a literary text as possible. Furthermore, this was felt to be attainable only through the solo voice which, provided unobtrusive harmonic accompaniment only, aimed to express the emotional content of every expressive word being sung.[note 2] Thus was born a vocabulary of improvised ornamentation and expressive rhetorical figuration which later composers would notate in full.

The influence of the multi-voice polyphony of the Renaissance (the prima prattica) did persist however, and a confluence of the two practices led to an entirely new style of vocal writing. It’s essence lies in the dual function of the melodic leap, which now acts not only as a expressive rhetorical gesture, but also allows a single voice part to be constructed so as to give the impression of the entrance of a "second" voice in dialog with the "first." Adopted by Italian string players, the style led to an instrumental idiom - the sonate a due (the "solo sonata"); an expressive solo instrument, simply accompanied.[note 3] The idiom found its highest expression some eighty years later in the "unaccompanied" string music of J. S. Bach; the single line now implying not only the dialog texture of the Italian sonate a due, but the supporting continuo part as well.


1.2 Implied Polyphony

The appellation "unaccompanied," when applied to Bach’s solo string music, therefore, is something of a misnomer. Rather, these works are self-accompanied, the accompaniment being embedded in a single "melodic" line along with the "solo" part proper. Bach implies this polyphonic texture in three ways: through arpeggiation, through melodic leaps, and through multi-stopped chords.

Most obviously, the impression of a free-voiced polyphony is often provided through the quasi stile brisé arpeggiation of the notated single line (figure 1):

Figure 1. Prelude, Cello Suite 3(bwv 1009), mm. 37-9.


In most instances, however, the implied polyphony is more subtle than the systematic arpeggiation shown above. The "melodic" line in the following example outlines, in addition to the "continuo" pitch a, two (or more) levels of polyphony within the "solo" line (figure 2):

Figure 2. Prelude, Cello Suite 2 (bwv 1008), mm. 30-2.


It is the job of the arranger to determine which leaps are rhetorical (melodically expressive), which leaps imply polyphony (or some kind of dialog), and which leaps literally represent the lower voice. In the example just given, the middle staff perhaps represents the best notational solution - the supporting lower part is independently marked, while the implied polyphony and rhetoric of the "solo" line is left to the interpretation and fingering of the performer (or the editor).

1.3 Multi-Stopped Chords

A multi-stopped chord is, of course, a literal polyphonic event rather than an implied one, and is treated as such in the unaccompanied string works. In the works for violin, prolonged passages of double, triple and even quadruple-stopped chords not only are common, but routinely accommodate highly consistent voice-leading. The following passage, for example, is only a small portion of a prolonged multi-stopped passage of some thirty-two measures duration (figure 3):

Figure 3. Fuga, G-minor Violin Sonata (bwv 1001), mm. 27-32.


On the relatively few occasions that faulty voice-leading is encountered in the violin works, it is usually the result of a technical compromise in a passage of quadruple-stopped chords. In the following passage, for example, the inner voices are exchanged due to fingering limitations of the instrument, resulting in a faulty resolution of the penultimate 4/3 harmony (not to mention a quite unusual voicing) (figure 4):

Figure 4. Sarabande, B-minor Violin Partita (bwv 1002), mm. 11-2.


The treatment of multi-stop chords in the unaccompanied cello works is considerably less consistent, due to a less facile technical idiom. Quadruple-stopped chords almost always result in faulty voice-leading and triple-stops often lack satisfactory resolutions as well. Even some double-stopped passages are problematic, as in the following example (figure 5):

Figure 5. Sarabande, Cello Suite 2 (bwv 1008), mm. 21-8.


Such multi-stopped verticalizations, containing unresolved and even doubled tendency-tones, are found throughout the cello works. Representing a compromise between sonority on the one hand and an implied polyphony on the other, clearly these situations result from the technical idiosyncrasies of the cello. Indeed, in the following example the low c on the downbeat of measure 15 cannot be resolved downwards in register, since it is already the lowest note possible on the cello (figure 6):

Figure 6. Sarabande, Cello Suite 2 (bwv 1008), mm. 21-28


At times Bach's desire for an expressive sonority overrides considerations of harmonic function. For example, the ubiquitous cadential 4/2 harmony, a dramatic structural marker found often in the preludes (where it is often marked with a fermata). In the prelude to the G-major Cello Suite, however, this dissonant harmony cannot be resolved in register because, again, the lowest note of the chord is the lowest note note possible on the cello. In this case, Bach simply proceeds as though the harmony had not even occurred (figure 7):

Figure 7. Prelude, Cello Suite 1 (bwv 1007), mm. 19-24.


1.4 Polyphonic Integrity

Despite compromises of the type noted above, the multi-voice textures projected in Bach's unaccompanied cello lines are genuine contrapuntal structures, and accommodate a high degree of polyphonic integrity. In figure 8, I have re-notated the opening measures of the Allemande from the C-minor Cello Suite (bwv 1011), according to the following scheme (incidentally, Bach's solution can be seen in figure 10):

a) the durations and stemmings of the cello original [note 4]
b) rhythmic reduction to the eighth-note level with ornamental and passing tones removed
c) indication of the harmonic structure and further clarification of voice-leading through verticalization
d) indication of pitches essential to the harmonic and contrapuntal structure but not present in the original
e) realization with reconstructed polyphony, assimilated into a "solo" line with continuo-style accompaniment.

Figure 8. Allemande, Cello Suite 5 (bwv 1011), mm. 1-5.


As can be seen, Bach's original line demonstrates a high degree of polyphonic integrity. It does not, however, present a high degree of textural integrity when transferred to an instrument capable of actually realizing, rather than implying, a consistent polyphonic structure. Transfer to a harmonic instrument such as the guitar, then, is not simply a matter of re-stemming the original. Such a process addresses neither the inherent voice-leading inconsistencies of the original nor the idiomatic characteristics of the receiving instrument. Taken to a conclusion, such pitch-faithful arrangement succeeds only in superimposing the limitations or weaknesses of one instrument onto another, without substituting for this deficiency with expressive means idiomatic to the receiving instrument. The likely result is an arrangement expressively inferior to the original.

An appropriate approach to arranging this music for the guitar, therefore, comprises the reconstruction of the polyphony in a contrapuntally and harmonically-consistent form, the reconstruction of the texture of the solo sonata (an expressive solo line supported by a slower-moving, yet rhythmic, "continuo" line), and the realization of these goals in an expressive form idiomatic to the guitar.

Part 2

Notes for Part 1

1. Of the six Partiten and Sonaten for unaccompanied violin (bwv 1001-6) and the six Suitten for unaccompanied cello (bwv 1007-12), Bach made alternate versions of the following: 1) the Suite for Cello in c-minor (bwv 1011) was set in g-minor for the lute (bwv 995); 2) the Partita for Violin in E-major (bwv 1006) was also set for lute (bwv 1006a); 3) the Fuga from the G-Minor Violin Sonata (bwv 1001) exists in versions for lute (bwv 1000) and organ (bwv 539); 4) the A-minor Violin Sonata (bwv 1003) was arranged as the Clavier Sonata in d-minor (bwv 964); 5) the Adagio from the C-major Violin Sonata (bwv 1005) was given a clavier setting in G-major (bwv 1005); 6) the Preludio from the Violin Partita in E-major (bwv 1006) was used as an orchestral Sinfonia in two cantatas: Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (bwv 29) and Herr Gott Beherrsher aller Dinge (bwv 120a). Amongst Bach's contemporaries, the lutenist Johann Christian Weyrauch made a French lute intabulation of the G-minor Violin Fugue, and several anonymous intabulators produced lute versions of the C-minor Cello Suite and E-major Violin Partitia. [Return to Text]

2. A detailed description of the style is found in the preface to Giulio Caccini's Le nuove musiche (c.1602). Modern edition in Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era, xxvii (1978). [Return to Text]

3. The technique is encountered in the early seventeenth-century vocal concerti and instrumental canzone of Ludovico Viadanna, where a pseudo-polyphony is projected by one or more self-imitating voice parts and, in a more developed form, in the later seventeenth-century Corelli-type sonate a due, in which the solo violin simulates the trio texture of the sonate a tre through the use of multi-stops, arpeggios and disjunct scale motion. [Return to Text]

4. The autograph, by Anna Magdelena Bach, employs a scordatura notation in which the highest string of the cello is notated with respect to finger placement rather than to sounding pitch. To facilitate comparison with Bach's version for the lute, the version given here has been transposed to a-minor (the key most commonly used for performance of this work on the guitar) and adjusted to take account of the scordatura. A written a will now be the lowest sounding note on the cello. [Return to Text]