Lute music was an important and prominent part of musical life in 18th century Germany yet, strangely, Bach wrote so little for the instrument. He knew several lutenists and heard them play; his friend Johann Christian Weyrauch was an amateur lutenist who lived in Leipzig; the lutenist and composer Adam Falkenhagen was also there; the greatest lutenist of the time, Sylvius Leopold Weiss was employed in nearby Dresden. We know that Bach visited his son Wilhem Freidmann in Dresden and went to a performance of Hasse's Opera Cleofide in which Weiss played. Weiss and Bach met at least once in an often cited occasion in around 1739, and probably at other times too.
When Bach wrote for the lute he did not write new works especially for the instrument but reworked compositions of his that already existed in other forms. The lute suite in G minor BWV 995 is his transcription of his own 5th Suite for solo cello in C minor BWV 1011 (See Bach on the Lute CD, Vol. 4); the Partita in E major BWV 1006a (an autograph copy thought to be for the lute but without any indication of instrumentation) is a transcription from the last of the Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo (see Bach on the Lute CD, Vol. 2). The other pieces by Bach normally associated with the lute are more linked with Bach's fascination with the gut strung keyboard instrument the Lautenwerk or Lute-harpsichord on which one could play with keyboard technique and facility but produce a sound that resembled a lute.
The works written for this instrument are the Suite in E minor BWV 996, the Suite in C minor BWV 997 and the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro (BWV 998). In another category, the Fugue in G minor BWV 1000 is a version, in lute tablature, of the fugue from the first Sonata in the set of Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the Sonata in G minor BWV 1001. This Fugue arrangement has remained in the catalogue of Bach's works but is, in fact, a lute transcription made by Weyrauch. We will never know if this was a secret of Weyraugh's of if Bach ever heard it. Of all these doubtful lute pieces the G minor Fugue BWV 1000/1001 and the G minor Suite BWV 995/1011 feel natural and satisfying to me to play on the lute; the others feel less like real lute pieces and are more awkward to play, even though I adore them as music. Instead of labouring over perpetuating the idea that the so-called lute pieces of Bach are proper lute pieces I prefer to take the works for unaccompanied Violin or Cello and make them into new works for lute, keeping (as much as possible) to the original text, musical intention, phrasing and articulation, yet transforming them in a way particular to the lute so that they are satisfying to play and to hear. This is my intention with the works recorded in this series Bach on the Lute.
The Sonatas and Partitas For Solo Violin (BWV 1001-1006)
These wonderful masterpieces of music need no introduction. In the violinist's repertoire they are without parallel for their quality, depth of musical expression and for their technical difficulties! They were probably composed whilst Bach was in Cöthen. The autograph manuscript has a title page which reads:
Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato.
Libro Primo da Joh.Seb.Bach. A[nn]o 1720.
In transcribing these Sonatas and Partitas for the lute I have found it interesting to consider the artistic connection between three musicians - Bach, Weiss and Pisendel. Johann Georg Pisendel was the violinist who is thought to have inspired these violin compositions and we know that he met Bach in Weimar as early as 1709. Pisendel was employed at the court in Dresden from 1712 - 1755 and became the leader of the famous court orchestra there in 1728. Weiss was also employed at the Dresden court (from 1719 - 1750) and both he and Pisendel would have played in the orchestra together and collaborated on many musical projects. In fact Weiss and Pisendel had rather similar careers. Not only were they amongst the most highly esteemed musicians at the court of Dresden but both spent some time in Italy in the early part of their musical lives and the influence of Italian music is clearly heard in their own compositions. Pisendel studies with Vivaldi in Venice in 1716 and Weiss spent several years in Rome. Pisendel also studied in Rome in 1717 and must have met Weiss there before they both eventually returned to the court of Dresden.
In viewing the violin Sonatas and Partitas as a set, I find that I am most aware of the Italian influence in the music which is reinforced through the link with Pisendel and his Italian training; as though Bach was aware of this when writing the set of pieces. All three Sonatas follow a similar Italian based format of a slow introductory movement (some with much written out ornamentation in Italian style) - a central fugue - a slow cantabile movement - concluding with a lighter more playful fast movement. Within this structure it is amazing how each Sonata is so very different. The strongest impression that the Sonatas have on me is how Bach dares to write larger and more extended fugues through the course of the three Sonatas. The final C major fugue (BWV 1005) is one of the longest that Bach wrote (around 10 minutes) and is written in a deeply satisfying da capo form which was to become more familiar in his late compositions.
The three Partitas are even more diverse in their form and content. The 1st Partita BWV 1002 (originally in B minor) has four dance-originated movements, each with a ‘double' or variation, but to me it also crosses the boundary into being at the same time like an Italianate four movement sonata. The 2nd Partita BWV 1004 (in D minor) is a monumental work, often described as being two pieces in one. Four basic dance movements followed by a Chaconne which, on its own, is longer than the first four dances. The 3rd Partita BWV 1006 (originally in E major) is for me the brightest of the pieces. It is the only place in the whole set which has real French dance movements - the Loure, Gavotte and Minuets in particular.
Suites for Solo Cello (BWV 1007 - 1012)
With these suites we have a direct link with the lute through Bach's Suite for lute in G minor, BWV 995 which is his own reworking of the 5th Cello Suite, BWV 1011. This has been the main inspiration for me to transcribe all six cello suites for Volumes 3 and 4 of Bach on the Lute. Compared with the violin Sonatas and Partitas where we have an autograph, transcribing the cello suites for lute posed some different questions and also gave many other possibilities. We have four surviving sources of the cello suites, but none from Bach himself. The version in the hand of Anna Magdalena Bach is the one often used by cellists as the principal text, although her articulations and bowings are often unclear and ambiguous; the manuscript by Bach's pupil Kellner is, for me, very interesting with many little differences of text and articulations and some extra tempo indications, and I often found myself preferring Kellner's taste; the other two sources were copied sometime after 1750 and in that respect seemed not so important for my work on the lute. All four sources are probably copied from the one original which we unfortunately lack.
Unlike the violin works, the cello suites have a uniformity of structure; all have a ‘classic' Bach suite of a Prelude plus 5 dances, with Menuets, Bourees and Gavottes equally represented. However, within this similarity of dance movements each suite is absolutely unique. As a set, I find that the suites grow from a naive simplicity in the 1st suite to a deeper and more emotional intensity in the 2nd, bright and optimistic in the 3rd, expansive and warm in the 4th, tragic and dramatic in the 5th and finally jubilant in the D major tonality of the 6th suite. One personal delight is the chance to play a Sarabande in each suite; Bach's sarabandes remain my ‘Desert Island Disc' music.