, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Final page of BWV 996

Final page of BWV 996

Bach wrote effectively for the lute as a color instrument in several choral works. The bass aria Betrachte, meine Seel’ with lute, violas d’amore and continuo occurs at a crucial moment in the St. John Passion (BWV 245). In an early version of the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244b), the aria Komm, süßes Kreuz includes a wonderfully written lute part. In the Trauerode Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl (BWV 198), a funeral cantata for Christiane Eberhardine, Electress of Saxony, Bach wrote for two lutes. He capitalized on a historic archetype whenever he needed an evocation of the angelic, but his writing style in these cases – more like his cello writing – does not come even close to resembling what is claimed to have written by him for the lute.

Just because Bach may have written “pour la Luth” at the top of the page of the compositions known as the “Lute Suites” (BWV 995 and 996), we need not conclude that he had done it with any conviction. If Bach set out to write real lute music, and not keyboard music with annotation, he surely would have done better than the Suite in G minor (BWV 995). BWV 995 may be a stab at arranging an earlier work for the lute, but it is not lute music.

Bach arranged his own violin-to-harpsichord concerti, and he arranged portions of the violin Sonata in A minor (BWV 1003), in addition to the violin Partita in E Major (BWV 1006), for keyboard, perhaps specifically for a five-octave clavichord (a personal theory). Bach’s habit of borrowing from himself has led writers to making a case that Bach may have written various pieces for the lute in thin-textured style at relatively low pitch and, surrounded by capable exponents of the instrument, expected them to make the lute transcription. Two lutenists in his circle, Johann Christian Weyrauch and Adam Falckenhagen, arranged pieces in his stead, so the proposition that he expected others to make the proper adjustments to his compositions seems reasonable.

The problem with this train of thought is that it underestimates Bach’s professional capacity. Both lute and guitar require careful arrangement of the notes. The would-be lute composer must learn to flatter the instrument in just the right way. The style of lute music developed over hundreds of years; it was in its twilight during Bach’s lifetime. As he demonstrated with his use of the lute in liturgical works and the funerary cantata, for Bach, the lute was a special-effect instrument, not central to his style of composition. He had little motivation to dabble in such a circumscribed medium.

If Bach had really wished to write convincing lute music, as he demonstrated with his ensemble parts, he was more than able to do it. The speculation that he would leave his arranging to others seems far-fetched. Nevertheless, countless recordings for both guitar and lute have proposed relaxed editorial responsibility on Bach’s behalf.

Looking at the images of the music now, and comparing them with modern transcriptions of lute music of the period, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could ever have suggested that the “Lute Suites” may be lute music by Bach. In appearance on the page, everything about them, the notation itself, the use of the pen and the beaming, stem directions, the arrangement of clefs and the voice leading – it looks and feels like keyboard music.

Clive TitmussClassical Guitar Canada