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Bach, J.S.: Suite BWV 1006a for Baroque Lute

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Suite (BWV 1006a) for Baroque Lute by Johann Sebastian Bach.

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22/07/2020
Peter M.

J S Bach, Complete works for lute, Vol. 4 Suite BWV 1006a (Hopkinson Smith) Bach's Lute works, many of which have not survived in Bach's own hand (raising for some issues about their provenance), are a good example of what Sir Humphrey in 'Yes Minister' once described as the law of inverse relevance. It is unlikely that there will ever be total agreement on the question of which instrument or instruments Bach had in mind when he produced these pieces. Nonetheless, with one possible exception (the prelude in C minor, BWV 999) they are ill suited as written for the 13 course Baroque lute of Bach's time tuned in D minor as played by the greatest lutenist of the day Silvius Leopold Weiss. Some of the pieces are either completely impossible to play (or so hard as to be next to impossible), in some places they extend beyond the Lute's range and capabilities and the musical textures elsewhere are very obviously of the keyboard and not the lute variety. None of which is to say that they can't be played on the lute in their entirety if they are transposed into other keys and simplifications are made. They can also be performed in their original keys if you are prepared to retune the instrument albeit in ways that no one in the eighteenth century would have recognized. It has been argued that some of these pieces may have been written with the archlute in mind or a Baroque lute with additional courses, that Bach wrote in notation as he didn't understand lute tabulature and that he didn't really understand the lute either and expected the performer to make all necessary adjustments. However, these are difficult arguments to run in the absence of evidence and sit uncomfortably with Bach's status as one of the truly great composers with an extensive and diverse output across the musical spectrum. He certainly knew something of the lute and its repertoire as he and Weiss met on at least one occasion and he knew other lutenists. Bach also arranged one of Weiss's sonatas for harpsichord and violin (described by one Bach scholar before the attribution to Weiss in 1993 as one of Bach's 'less distinguished works') and wrote parts for the baroque lute in several of his choral works. Interestingly, and perhaps revealingly, the writing of the latter bears little comparison to that of the so called lute works. The weight of opinion seems to be that Bach's lute works for the most part were prepared for the Lautenwerck - a keyboard instrument that was intended to imitate the sound of the lute. Bach owned two such instruments during his lifetime. Alternatively, they may have been written for a purpose which continues to remain a mystery and is yet to be discovered. At the end of the day however Bach's lute works in any shape or form are unquestionably very fine music and a most welcome addition to the repertoire of the instrument. They are very difficult technically but rewarding to play. BWV 1006a is an arrangement of the partita for solo violin in E major (BWV 1006) and is justifiably famous for its majestic opening prelude before settling down to a series of stately dance movements which some critics consider to be something of an anticlimax given what has gone before. The second movement is a loure which has been known to send students scurrying off in the direction of the books (or these days more likely Spotify or YouTube) to find out what a 'loure' is and whether it is fast or slow. The prelude was presumably a favorite of Bach' as he subsequently arranged it to produce sinfonias for two of his cantatas (BWV 29 and BWV 120a). Rachmaninov transcribed several of the movements of the suite for solo piano and recorded the prelude in 1935. In its original key of E major this work is completely impossible to play on the baroque lute as it makes extensive use of bariolage and requires an open E string which the lute does not possess. Hopkinson Smith elects to transpose the suite into F major which is the approach adopted by most lutenists. The suite can also be played in D major (the key chosen by Bach himself when he rearranged the prelude for two of his cantatas) although personally I have only seen one published version on this basis. As one would expect, Hopkinson Smith has produced a scholarly and practical edition which can be thoroughly recommended. The page layout is very clear and helpfully includes where appropriate both left and right hand fingering. Two of the movements (the Prelude and the Gavotte en Rondeau) have awkward page turns but the alternative solution is not immediately obvious. In his introductory remarks Hopkinson Smith offers a welcome simplification to one measure of the Gigue. The Prelude, which is the most difficult movement technically, has a number of tight corners which can similarly be navigated in different ways depending on various considerations including not least the size of the instrument being played. Some research on the internet will reveal the possibilities. There are those who would argue

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