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 2 - Historical Context

2. Historical Context of the Arranging Process. 2.1 Bach's Lute and Keyboard Arrangements. 2.2 Other Period Arrangements


2. Historical Context of the Arranging Process

2.1 Bach's Lute and Keyboard Arrangements

Despite presenting considerable technical difficulty in their execution, Bach’s lute arrangements of the unaccompanied string music are well aligned with Baroque lute texture and playing technique - an ornate and fast-moving upper part, executed with the fingers, supported by an articulate and slower-moving lower part executed with the thumb. Beyond addressing inconsistencies in voice-leading, Bach’s arrangement process for the lute is one of textural clarification and enhancement of the lower voice. In his arrangement of the C-minor Cello Suite, for example, the opening of the Gigue is transformed in the lute version by a simple imitative treatment, while the second Gavotte is given a lower part which provides a richness of harmony barely hinted at in the original (figure 9):

Figure 9. G-minor Lute Suite (bwv 995): a) Gigue, mm. 1-8; b) Gavotte II en Rondo, mm. 12-6 .


However, there are also a number of places in this suite where the treatment does not seem entirely satisfactory, as can be seen by examining figure 10:

Figure 10. Allemande, Cello Suite 5 (bwv 1011), mm. 1-18: a) cello original; b) lute version.


Although the doubled leading-tone in measure 8 has been removed, and measures 11-13 and 15 now resolve in register, surprisingly Bach also retains the original octave-displaced resolution in this measure that, even though somewhat disguised by the trill, does not produce a strong effect. Elsewhere, the low e on the third beat of measure 4 would perhaps be improved by a g-sharp, the bass motions in measures 13-14 and 15-17 do not connect in register, and the unprepared bare 6/4 sonority at the end of measure 2 (created through literal imitation of the upper line) is weak (d would perhaps be better). The overall impression provided by the lute version, then, is perhaps one of expediency, coupled with a desire not to overburden the textural capabilities of the instrument.

In his arrangement of the A-minor Violin Sonata (bwv 1003) for clavier (bwv 964) Bach goes considerably further in providing an idiomatically appropriate arrangement. In addition to providing melodic, harmonic and textural clarification, ornamental elaboration, and voice-defining re-stemming, the familiar and more accommodating medium leads to a wholly-consistent keyboard texture. In fact, the transcription is so convincing that even though the violin original is ever-present no hint is given to suggest that the music could ever have been conceived for any instrument other than clavier. The passage cited in figure 11 exemplifies the consistency of part-writing and texture that is maintained throughout the entire sonata: [note 1]

Figure 11. Adagio, Clavier Sonata in D-minor, bwv 964, mm. 1-3.


Since the original version for unaccompanied violin is reasonably complete in both texture and voice leading (in contrast to the cello music), translation to a harmonic instrument is relatively unproblematic. Bach’s additions in the clavier version may therefore be regarded as a means to an appropriate idiomatic texture, rather than as a solution to a polyphonically compromised original.

2.2 Other Period Arrangements

Period arrangements made by lutenists and five-course guitarists confirm the overall idiomatic approach that characterizes Bach’s arrangements, although in this case reduction rather than addition to the musical texture is the norm. For example, the simplification of chords and the displacement of basses (and even the occasional upper note) are representative of idiomatic technical changes made by Baroque lutenists in their intabulations of Bach’s lute music (figure 12): [note 2]

Figure 12. Fuga del Signore Bach (bwv 1000). French lute intabulation by Johann Christian Weyrauch, mm. 13-14 and 42.


More extreme reduction characterizes the five-course guitar intabulations of, for example, Robert de Visée’s versions of orchestral overtures by Lully, or Santiago de Murcia’s guitar arrangements of Corelli violin sonatas. Indeed, changes relating to idiomatic and personal style are evident even in the adoptions that five-course guitarists made of each others music (figure 13):

Figure 13. Santiago de Murcia (1732), Tocate di Coreli, mm. 1-3.


Clearly, in their own arrangements Baroque musicians rarely, if ever, relied upon transcription in the absolute sense (a note-for-note translation). Rather, an idiom-driven and, in some cases, very free arrangement process was the norm; a practical, utilitarian approach, undertaken not so much with a quasi-religious respect for the intentions of the original composer but for an unrestricted and functional adaptation of the music, and for the idiom itself.

Part 3

Notes for Part 2

1. In the examples cited here, the clavier version of the sonata (bwv 964) has been transposed from d-minor to a-minor, allowing for easy comparison with the violin original. [Return to Text]

2. A facsimile reproduction of the anonymous French lute intabulation of the g-minor suite bwv 995, G mol Pieces pour le lut par Sre J. S. Bach, along with a facsimile reproduction and modern transcription of Johann Christian Weyrauch’s French lute intabulation of the g-minor violin fugue bwv 1000/1, Fuga del Signore Bach, may be found in Frank Koonce, The Solo Lute Works of Johann Sebastian Bach (San Diego: Kjos Music Company, 1989), pp. 118-121. A transcription into modern notation of the former is contained in J. S. Bach: Opere Complete Per Liuto, ed. Paolo Cherici (Milan: Suvini Zerboni, 1980), pp. 12-32. [Return to Text]