Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Allemande from the Suite in e-minor, BWV 996
by Johannes Tonio Kreusch
The following workshop article, based on the „Allemande“ from the Suite in e-minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, offers
ideas and suggestions for the creative process of transcribing works for the guitar.
Study of the Original Manuscripts
The study of a composer’s original manuscripts is invaluable in creating a well-grounded transcription. Through studying
these sources one engages the composer in a dialog which opens unexpected horizons and new areas of contemplation. It is
also possible to develop a clear sense of the original sound of different styles of music. Having made an intensive study
and investigation of the work to be transcribed, one can begin looking for creative approaches to sound and interpretation,
and play the piece of music in an effective and correct way on the new instrument.
There is unfortunately no extant manuscript from Bach himself for the Suite in E-minor BWV 996. The following transcription consults mainly the manuscript from Bach’s cousin Johann Gottfried Walther, (1684-1748) but also takes into account two other sources; one being a manuscript of unknown origin from the second half of the XVIII century, the second being the edition by Hans Bischoff from the year 1888 which is based on the lost manuscript written by Bach’s student Heinrich Nikolaus Gerber (1702-1778). These manuscripts provide interesting clues when transcribing the suite. Especially in the Sarabande and Courante, having compared all the existing sources, one can find interesting differences between them.
It is not absolutely certain which instrument the Suite BWV 996 was written for. On the title of the manuscript by Johann Gottfried Walther one finds the mention of „aufs Lauten-Werck“ (meaning „for lute-harpsichord“) One would conclude that the piece was written for a lute-harpsichord, an unusual keyboard instrument from the early XVIII century whose gut strings sounded very similar to those of the lute. This instrument had the same tonal range as the lute and the 2 lower octaves also had double strings.
Bach’s student Johann Friedrich Agricola claims to have seen one of these instruments at Bach’s house in Leipzig, constructed by Bach himself. At the time of Bach’s death at his estate there is an account of two lautenwerk(e) being present there. It would nevertheless be naïve to assume that this suite was definitely conceived for a lute-harpsichord. Further investigations concluded that the inscription on the Walther manuscript was written much later by a third party.
Bach had a direct relationship with the lute. He knew famous lutenists like Sylvius Leopold Weiss and Johann Kropfgans, and also owned a lute himself. It is questionable whether Bach himself mastered the art of the lute playing because the original lute pieces he composed show many non-idiomatic technical difficulties. But it is of course possible that Bach wrote for the lute having never played it. He might have invented the lute-harpsichord in order to be able to write for the lute without playing it and to be able play the music on the lute-harpsichord to hear how it sounded. In any case, the „new Bach edition“ counts the Suite BWV 996 as a piece that Bach originally intended for lute.
Exploiting the Sound and Playing Possibilities of the Respective Instruments
The differences in the texts of old manuscripts and the arguments surrounding these questions (for example if the piece was conceived for a keyboard instrument or a lute), imply that by transcribing a piece after a detailed source investigation one should search for all the creative possibilities, therefore developing the musical intentions of the composer on the specific instrument. For this reason one should never play the music in a rigid manner, but rather take into account the sound and the technical and expressive possibilities of the instrument in order to produce a good transcription. Bach himself provided us with great examples, like the Fifth Cello Suite which he transcribed for lute (BWV995). In this transcription he exploited the different possibilities of the lute by adding voices or filling-in chords.
In the following segment, I’ll make some suggestions for transcribing the „Allemande“ from the Suite BWV 996 on the guitar.
The allemande is a calm courtly dance with an upbeat meter. The allemande developed out of the pavana which used to comprise the beginning of a suite. Bach would place a prelude before the allemande and so called his suites „Suites avec preludes“ (Suites with preludes). Allemande means „German dance“. The famous English composer from the Renaissance Thomas Morley describes the allemande in the following lines: „fitly representing the nature of the people, whose name it carrieth, so that no extraordinaire motions are used in the dauncing of it.
To make this a calm and flowing musical motion, I suggest incorporating a technique used by the lutenists known as campanella. The Italian word campanella means „small bell“ and indicates that melodies should be played over different strings. In the very first measure one can create the illusion of bells pealing by allowing the notes to sound one against the other over different strings on the descending notes. In this way we obtain a beautiful legato sound with upper harmonics. In campanella technique, one should take care of the dissonances by muting the strings in question and preventing false harmonies from sounding. An exception could be, for example, the transition from measure 1 to 2. With the help of a „pivot-barré“ on the fourth fret one can obtain an interesting dissonance by allowing the E and the D# to vibrate. Pivot means „rotation point“ and indicates that a small bar should be placed with the first finger on the D, G and B strings, but leaving the E-string open to vibrate freely.
Harmonic Technique to Lengthen Notes
Another way to expand the sound spectrum of the guitar in the transcription framework is by incorporating harmonics. In the second measure the plucked B quaver (8th) note is tied to a semiquaver (16th) note that should sound for the indicated value. This is, however, not possible on the guitar. For this reason one can play the B note on the sixth string as a harmonic on the seventh fret, and the note can in this way sound longer. Further examples like this can be found in measures 9, 10 and 17.
The Arpeggio as a Possibility to Realize Harmonic Connections Through Overtones
As described above, one can understand that transcribing music from one instrument to another should always be done with regard to sound-specific considerations. Therefore, it is important to always be aware of the specific sonic possibilities of the original instrument, and to try to realize these same sound possibilities on the transcribed or target instrument. The ascending 16th group in bar 1 (E-G-B-E) in the bass line should be played as an arpeggio in which each note should ring, which is not possible on the guitar. One can emulate the sound of this arpeggio if each note is released after plucking it, so by plucking the e´ (which should be held) the open strings begin to vibrate and the overtones imitate an E-minor chord.
As shown in the execution example, a similar technique can be used for the very last chord. At that point, Bach composed a perfect cadenced ending chord, which means that the E should be played in the upper and lower voice. As in the example above, this chord is impossible to be play on the guitar (if we don´t want to loose the G# in the bass). If one arpeggiated the chord as shown in the example, possibly combining it with a mordent and a repeated plucking of the lower E-string, it would underscore the cadencial ending effect intended by Bach.
A mordent is represented as a crossed wave and describes the change between the main tone and the semitone below (for the finishing chord, the turn: E-D#-E).“Mordre“ in French means „to bite“ which is what the mordent in a musical sense causes through its dissonant downward movement.
Trills and Ornamentations Across the Strings
Just as on a harpsichord, where one needs two keys in order to execute an ornament like a trill, in addition to the usual way with slurs, one can play trills or other ornaments across two strings on the guitar. As you can see in the music example, the trill in bar 7 works perfectly on two strings.
In this case it would be recommended to use the scheme a-i-m-p for the plucking hand. The bass tone (F#) should be plucked with the thumb and after completing the trill, the ring finger should damp the C# in order to avoid dissonances. In addition to the written ornamentations it is also possible to invent your own ornaments. The study of different manuscripts and sources reveals ornamentation changes from one manuscript to another and that at times even copyists inserted their own ornaments. The above mentioned trill technique on two strings could also be used in measure 6 where the E on the second beat could be ornamented with a trill (F#-E-F#).
Ornaments and Improvisation
As we’ve seen, in Baroque compositions one can find possibilities for creative approaches and improvisation through ornamentation, the basso continuo technique, instrumental accompaniment, etc.
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach wrote about his father’s improvisations at the organ and mentions that they would often be even more majestic, solemn, devout and sublime than his written compositions. We might apply this statement from the Baroque era to today’s Western „art music“ in that improvisation is still given little importance, yet it has been a very important tool for artistic expression in different epochs. In addition to sight reading, a Baroque musician would also have to prove his improvisation skills. Given this history it is amazing that improvisation is today so neglected in Western classical music, as well as in the interpretation of historic music for example from the Baroque or Renaissance periods.
If one wishes to incorporate improvisatory moments for example through the addition of new ornaments to a piece, then one should follow the advice of Johann Joachim Quantz, the flute teacher to Frederic the Great. In one of the most important books about interpretation of the music of the time Quantz wrote: „With the small ornaments one has to think like spices on food… not too little and not to much and never chance a passion into an other.“ Ones own ornamentation should be carefully selected if it is to be included in the Allemande in question. The important thing is not how much one can say, but what one says; and according to Thomas Morley the Allemande should not have any „extraordinary motions.“
You can download the Allemande from the suite in e-minor as PDF by clicking
h e r e .
The complete edition of the Suite in e-minor BWV 996, in the transcritpion by Johannes Tonio Kreusch, as well as his recordings
can be ordererd at info(at)johannestoniokreusch.com .