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 4 - Idiom and Style (2)

3.8 Ornamentation. 3.9 Left-Hand Fingering. 3.10 Left-hand Slurs. 3.11 Notation and Rests. In Conclusion.

3.8 Ornamentation

Another important factor in adapting Baroque music to the modern guitar is the ability of the transcription to support idiomatic and stylistic ornamentation, especially at cadences, but also elsewhere. Owing to the multi-functional role of ornamentation - as cadential structural marker, thematic motif, expressive rhetorical gesture, variation, virtuosic filigree, etc. - it is important that the arrangement be not so over-filled with added notes as to compromise the execution and addition of embellishments. A distinction should be made between the "essential" and the "improvisatory;" ornaments considered essential to the arrangement (cadential trills, for example) should be indicated in the score, supplementing the ornamentation indicated in the originals when needed, while improvisatory ornamentation may be left to the prerogative of the performer.

Since information regarding the performance of standard ornamentation in French-style is readily available, and generally well-known, it may be appropriate to provide an example here of the Italian-style passaggi that, although less systematically documented, undoubtedly are appropriate to the music under discussion (see figure 27).

Figure 27. Italian-style ornamentation: Allemande, Cello Suite 1 (bwv 1007), mm. 1-6.


3.9 Left-Hand Fingering

The choice of left-hand fingering is determined by melodic and harmonic context, and the compromise between musical effect, instrumental sonority, and technical expediency. Melodic fingerings, which move strictly from note-to-note without allowing any overlapping of notes within the line, stand in contrast to harmonic fingerings which allow for the overlapping of notes belonging to the same harmony, even though the notation may not indicate it. The deciding factor in choosing one system over the other is decided by musical context and instrumental sonority. The degree to which either system may be employed consistently is further restrained by the physical limits of the instrument and by the facility of the player, noting that results in performance will likely reflect the intentions of the player as much as the implications of the fingerings themselves.

As we have seen, harmonic (stile brisé) fingering is idiomatic to both the lute and the five-course guitar, as well as some keyboard instruments, and is one system upon which an idiomatic arrangement for the modern guitar may be based. With the technical purpose of idiomatic expediency, and the musical one of projecting of a free-voiced polyphony, this style of fingering is achieved by forming fingerings harmonically, allowing notes to ring into one another to create a sonorous and ambient harmonic "background" - similar to the effect of the sustaining pedal on a modern piano (although it is not possible to deal with every harmonic tone of the texture according to this idealistic scheme). Importantly, this system does not preclude the projection of independent voice-parts - bass movement may still be independently voiced beneath a layer of harmonic brisé texture. In the following example, open noteheads would ring through, while filled noteheads receive their written durations (figure 28):

Figure 28. Allemande, Cello Suite 1 (bwv 1007), mm. 1-4.


In passages of explicit dialog texture, melodic fingerings provide an appropriate means of projecting the independence and motivic shape of the voice parts (figure 29):

Figure 29. Gigue, Cello Suite 5 (bwv 1011), mm. 53-57.


Combining both melodic and harmonic brisé fingerings to produce a striking and sonorous effect, overlapping campanela fingering is a stylistic and idiomatic technique on both the Baroque lute and the five-course guitar. Ornamental in function, the technique produces a highly expressive sonority, as well as off-setting the predictability of a consistently articulated line. Subtly used, allowing successive notes to merge only momentarily, overlapping fingerings produce a seamless, expressive legato, in the manner of the harpsichordist’s over-legato (figure 30):

Figure 30. Prelude, Cello Suite 2 (bwv 1008), mm. 1-4


3.10 Left-Hand Slurs

Left-hand slurs are appropriate to this music, and may be categorized in three ways: technical, textural, and phraseological. Technical slurs are used simply to aid the right hand in the execution of fast passage-work; textural slurs relieve the monotony of constantly-articulated equal-note passages, particularly when it may not be possible to provide enough variety of touch with the right-hand alone; and phraseological slurs are defined according to their musical effect. It is worth noting that, regardless of the motivation for their use, all slurs have a musical, or phraseological, consequence - generally that of connecting or grouping notes together, stressing the first note of the group.

Slurs found in Baroque lute and five-course guitar tablatures are generally of the technical and textural type. An important stylistic characteristic lies in their placement - they are invariably placed for convenience rather than for motivic consistency or relationship. The slurs notated in the lute version of the fugue in g-minor (bwv 1000), for example, are all of the descending type, and are almost always positioned so as to "pull-off" to an open string. Textural slurs may therefore be regarded as ornamental (and are included in this context in ornamentation tables for the lute and five-course guitar), contributing to the constant variation that appears at the surface level of much Baroque music.

3.11 Notation and Rests

Musical notation is a deceptively complex subject - an inevitable result of a need for both precision and simplicity. Beyond the general lack of notated dynamic and rhythmic nuance, notational ambiguities in Bach’s string and lute music concern duration (and, therefore, articulation) and, particularly, the interpretation of notated rests.

The notation employed for the unaccompanied cello music consists of a single-line with occasional multi-stops, and very few rests - a reflection of the idiomatic sustaining character of the cello and a musical texture in which the upper voice predominates. Bach’s notation for clavier, on the other hand, provides very precise voice-leading information through careful stemming, notes tied over the barline, and carefully-placed rests - again, a reflection of the articulate and facile idiom of the clavier and an elaborate, idiomatic musical texture. The notation employed by Bach in his arrangement of the c-minor lute suite (an autograph) contains hardly any such ties over the barline; it does, however, include an almost overwhelming number of rests (figure 31):

Figure 31. G-minor Lute Suite (bwv 995): a)  Presto, mm. 48-54; b) Sarabande, mm. 1-4.


To what extent does Bach's notation represent the articulation and textural idiom of the lute? Bach did not attempt an elaborate textural or contrapuntal realization in his arrangements for the lute (as compared to the clavier arrangement) but adopted a relatively simple idiomatic texture comprising a slow-moving, yet articulate, lower voice supporting a polyphonically-incomplete and faster-moving single line above it. In general, the consistency and regularity of placement of rests supports a literal interpretation of their duration, especially in the lower voice (though we seldom hear them performed that way), but also in the upper voice (where they often clarify motivic figuration).

An appropriate notational texture for guitar transcription comprises, therefore, a reconstructed polyphony assimilated into a single written upper voice with a slower continuo-style bass and an occasional free-entering third voice. Rests may be consistently employed in the upper voice to clarify phrasing and figuration, noting that a period of actual silence is not necessarily intended. In the lower voice, rests indicate a degree of articulative silence that contributes to the projection of a continuo-style accompaniment, the larger musical structure and the expression of a dance-like affekt.

In Conclusion

In this article, we have examined three essential aspects of the arranging process: 1) An examination the musical structure of Bach's "unaccompanied" lines reveals Bach's polyphonic and textural intentions, and the extent to which his chosen instrumental medium permitted him to realize them; we discover the essence of what we are attempting to realize in our arrangements. 2) Consideration of instrumental idiom allows us to assess the natural strengths and weaknesses of the original instrumentation and of the modern guitar, and helps us to speculate as to how Bach might have realized his intentions on the modern guitar. 3) Through an examination of historical style and informed performance practice, we may discover not only a powerful means of expressing the music, but also a stylistic means of arranging it. Ultimately, we create a modern baroque style for the transcription and performance of this music on the modern guitar.