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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 3 - Idiom and Style (1)

3. Idiomatic and Stylistic Transcription for the Modern Guitar. 3.1 Historical Models and Idiomatic Textures. 3.2 Additions to the Lower Voice. 3.3 Dividing Long Notes. 3.4 Imitation. 3.5 Octave Transposition. 3.6 Dance Type. 3.7 Key Choice.

3. Idiomatic and Stylistic Transcription for the Modern Guitar

3.1 Historical Models and Idiomatic Texture

While it can be illuminating to examine historical arrangement processes and performance practices, particularly those involving instruments closely related to the modern guitar, we should also bear in mind that despite certain similarities of timbre or playing technique there are also essential differences between the modern guitar and its predecessors, not to mention between Baroque musicians and modern ones, that color the adoption of historical models. The Baroque lute, with its array of diatonically-tuned open bass strings among its upwards of ten courses, is well-suited to its characteristic texture - an ornate and fast-moving upper part supported by a well-defined and slower-moving bass. Similarly, the characteristic texture of much of the five-course guitar repertoire is a reflection of idiomatic character of the instrument. Effectively negating the concept of pitch-differentiated register, the re-entrant and octave tunings employed in much of the five-course guitar repertory result in the "bass" sounding in the same pitch register as the upper parts, differentiated "voice-parts" being achieved through contrasts in timbre rather than in register (a note played on a lower course with the thumb has a timbre distinct from that of the same pitch played with a finger on an upper course).

Despite extreme differences in tessitura, the five-course guitar and the Baroque lute do share some idiomatic common ground: stile brisé fingerings (idiomatic fingering in which a free-voiced contrapuntal texture is created through arpeggiation and scale motion based around expedient chord "shapes") and short passages of campanela texture (the sonorous, bell-like overlapping of scale tones created through the optimal use of open strings and the fingering of successive scale tones on adjacent strings). Indeed, the "timbral counterpoint," outlined above in relation to the five-course guitar, is a natural consequence of these idiomatic fingering systems. The modern guitar has the ability to utilize these techniques and textures also, but with less facility than the instruments upon which the techniques originated; the modern guitar does not have a set of free diatonically-tuned basses, nor does it have octave-stringing or re-entrant tuning. While we may freely adopt historical performance techniques, if we are to use the full idiomatic potential of the modern instrument we cannot rely solely upon them. In determining an appropriate baroque texture for the modern guitar we must ultimately turn to the music itself, and to the idiomatic characteristics of the modern instrument.

The guitar has received a large number of contemporary transcriptions and performances of Bach's unaccompanied string literature, probably more than any other instrument. Of this repertoire, the violin works are readily accommodated, the notated tessitura is similar, and almost all multi-stops can be comfortably reproduced and sustained. Indeed, in some ways the music is more technically feasible on the guitar than it is on the violin. However, the most important reason for the success of this music when played on the guitar is the polyphonic and textural completeness of the original - very little needs to be changed or added. Clearly, and for the reasons already discussed, this is not the case with the cello works, and unaltered renditions of this music on the guitar are likely to produce disappointing results. In order to produce a effective transfer to the modern guitar a degree of alteration must be made to the cello originals. These changes involve not only the addition of notes needed to complete the polyphony and texture, but also the alteration of notes that although sonorous on the cello compromise voice-leading when heard on a harmonic instrument. Once the essential polyphony has been reconstructed, it may form the basis for an idiomatic arrangement.

Since a procedure for arriving at the polyphonic background of a piece has been given already (a player versed in continuo playing may well deduce this background in many stages less than those outlined earlier), a general account of idiomatic and stylistic changes appropriate to the modern guitar follows. [note 1]

3.2 Additions to the Lower Voice

In order to construct a consistent bass part, in register, it is necessary to add notes to the original. Often, however, a pitch needed to complete the lower voice may be sounding elsewhere in the texture. To allow for a strong contrapuntal structure in such cases it is sometimes necessary to change the note where it appears elsewhere in the texture (especially if the note is a tendency tone or a modal scale-degree) (figure 14).

Figure 14. Courante, Cello Suite 4 (bwv 1010), mm. 22-23.


The harmonic rhythm of the music (the rate of harmonic change) is another consideration in deciding upon places where basses may appropriately be added. Inextricably related to tempo and meter, harmonic change is also a function of dance type. Allemandes, for instance, often have only two harmonic changes per measure (because they tend to be slow); faster-sounding courantes and minuets, on the other hand, may have only a single harmonic change. Similarly, the second-beat metric stress of most sarabandes, and some minuets (effectively two beats per measure, the first short and the second long) is often a product of harmonic rhythm. These important metric patterns may be reinforced in the arrangement through the appropriate positioning of basses (figure 15).

Figure 15. Sarabande, Cello Suite 1 (bwv 1007), mm. 1-6.


An increase in harmonic rhythm is typical at cadential points, contributing to a rise in tension before the final resolution. Commonly, dances in triple meter employ hemiola rhythm to facilitate the approach to a cadence, marking a temporary metric acceleration from one compound beat of 3/4 time to three beats of 3/2 time (an acceleration of 3:2). Again, in such places, added basses may be appropriately added (figure 8).

Figure 16. Menuet II, Cello Suite 2 (bwv 1008), mm. 19-24.


Completion of the polyphony may sometimes result in addition to the upper register of the texture (figure 17), as may other additions and adjustments intended to facilitate a more detailed contrapuntal or harmonic texture (figure 18):

Figure 17. Sarabande, Cello Suite 1 (bwv 1007), mm. 10-12.


Figure 18. Allemande, Cello Suite 2 (bwv 1008), mm. 6-9.


3.3 Dividing Long Notes

Long notes may be easily sustained or even swelled on a bowed instrument, but die away quickly on plucked instruments and thus lose much of their expression. In order to maintain expressive intensity and momentum on the guitar it is often appropriate to break or divide such notes, or to add rhythmic interest in another voice (figure 19):

Figure 19. Bourrée II, Cello Suite 3 (bwv 1009), mm. 18-19.


Extended passages of multi-stopped chords, sonorous and expressive on the cello or violin, are effective when arpeggiated on the guitar (figure 20):

Figure 20. Prelude, Cello Suite 2 (bwv 1008), mm. 59-63.


3.4 Imitation

Although the bulk of the unaccompanied string music is not set in an imitative contrapuntal style, the intervallic structure of a passage may nevertheless lend itself to imitative texture (figure 21 and also figure 19, above).

Figure 21. Sarabande, Cello Suite 3 (bwv 1009), mm. 13-16.


Bach’s keyboard gigues are often imitative pieces, and short imitative openings, restricted to the first few measures of each binary half of a gigue, are also found amongst the tablatures for five-course guitar and for lute. [note 2] This type of suggested imitative opening is often possible in the cello gigues, especially when the imitation responds to the rhythmic motive rather than literally to the intervallic one (figure 22):

Figure 22. Gigue, Cello Suite 5 (bwv 1011), mm. 1-4 and 25-29.


The fugata subject of the Prelude to the c-minor Cello Suite itself implies a two-voice "double subject" (becoming almost identical to the subject of the fugata found in the Prelude to the "Lute" Suite in e-minor, bwv 996) (figure 23):

Figure 23. Prelude, Cello Suite 5 (bwv 1011), mm. 28-35.


3.5 Octave Transposition

Occasional octave transpositions may be necessary, especially in cadential passages (figure 24), but also simply to allow a passage to sit more comfortably on the guitar (figure 25):

Figure 24. Courante, Cello Suite 6 (bwv 1012), mm. 26-28.


Figure 25. Gigue, Cello Suite 6 (bwv 1012), mm. 57-61.


Pedal points of varying lengths are both implied and presented explicitly throughout Bach’s unaccompanied string music, particularly in the preludes. Due to differences in tuning, however, an open-string pedal-point idiomatic to the violin or cello may not be possible on the guitar. This situation (which traditionally seems to have virtually dictated key choice in arranging for the guitar) is alleviated when we realize that the octave in which a pedal tone sounds does not alter its structural function - that of harmonic prolongation (usually of dominant harmony). It is therefore possible to invert a pedal point for idiomatic reasons without any loss of harmonic function, and often to greater musical effect (figure 26).

Figure 26. Prelude, Cello Suite 1 (bwv 1007), mm. 30-32.


3.6 Dance Type

Alterations made to the originals may also reflect the stylistic and expressive character (or affekt) of the music. For example, rich harmonic realizations (containing sevenths, and other dissonances) may generally be reserved for the more musically substantial and expressive movements (usually the allemandes and sarabandes), while the galanterie (minuets, bourrées and gavottes) may be harmonized in a simpler and more direct manner, reflecting their galant character. The courantes and preludes, almost all of which are set in Italian rather than French style (with the exception of the c-minor cello suite), are also better suited to a somewhat simpler harmonic treatment. Often characterized by idiomatic display, rather than strong metric patterns or predictable harmonic schemes, the preludes often lend themselves to idiomatic texture on the guitar - campanela fingering, for example.

3.7 Key Choice

From a practical standpoint the choice of an appropriate key for guitar transcription is determined by tessitura - that is, the range in which the highest and lowest notes of a piece may be comfortably accommodated on the guitar. In the violin works the tessitura is such that the original keys work well on the guitar, with an upward transposition of a major second being a possible (though probably unnecessary) alternative. The cello works, on the other hand, employ a range of only approximately two and a half octaves, from C two octaves below middle-C to G or A above middle-C (the Sixth Suite employs a five-string accordatura, which extends the range of the instrument by the interval of a fifth). Since a usable two and a half-octave tessitura may be generated on the guitar starting on any pitch between D (with scordatura) and A, several transpositions for each suite appear possible. In practice, however, it is necessary for pitches to be available below the lowest-sounding note of the cello. This reduces the number of available keys on the guitar to those found at a fourth or fifth above those for cello. Ignoring "hostile" keys, the more likely transpositions for each suite are as follows:




Suite I      


C-major or D-major

Suite II


g-minor or a-minor

Suite III


G-major or A-major

Suite IV


G-major or A-major

Suite V


g-minor or a-minor

Suite VI  


D-major or E-major (orig. accordatura)

Of these, the slightly lower transpositions at a fourth usually provide greater opportunity for chordal-based fingerings in brisé style, although this is in contrast with the keys traditionally chosen. Moving through the suites however, (which, technically, musically and texturally, are set in progressive order) the open-string tonic and dominant basses resulting from transposition at a fifth (or even a sixth) are of greater technical expediency. My preferences for the six suites are C-major, a-minor, G-major, A-major, g-minor, and D-major, respectively.

Part 4

Notes for Part 3

1. The music examples that follow are presented in treble clef, and in keys appropriate for guitar performance, rather than in the original keys. [Return to Text]

2. This type of suggested imitative opening (one restricted to the first few measures of each half of the binary form) is a common feature of five-course guitar tablatures, and is found, for example, in de Viseé (Suite in d-minor, 1686), Corbetta (Suite in g-minor, 1671), Roncalli (Suites in F-major and C-major, 1692), Murcia (various, 1732), and others. [Return to Text]