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I get a lot of students who are interested in playing the music of J. S. Bach on the guitar, so I thought I would write a few words about how to go about doing this. It is not surprising that guitar players are attracted to Bach’s music, considering how well it works on the instrument. Bach is very difficult to play well on the guitar (or on any instrument for that matter). I’m guessing that you already knew this. Most guitarists bite off more than they can chew and tackle pieces far beyond their capabilities when it comes to Bach. His music is so good that it inspires this sort of thing.

Here are a few things that you should know about Bach’s music before attempting to learn any of it:

Baroque forms and Terminology:
It is important to understand the terminology in use when describing the music that Bach wrote. He lived in the Baroque era and used the Baroque forms quite a bit. The Baroque Dance suite was one of Bach’s favorites. This is a collection of dances grouped together in a larger piece called a suite. By Bach’s time, some composers (including Bach) were writing suites that were more musically complex and no longer used as dance accompaniment but retained the form of the dance suite. The rhythms and names of the original dances were retained for the individual movements. You’ve seen the names of these dances: Bouree, Minuet, gigue, courante, Allemande, Sarabande, Loure, Gavotte, etc.

The intention would be that the whole suite would be performed in one sitting. The pieces within the suite relate to each other in terms of key and overall melodic and harmonic language and feel. Most of these suites are in the neighborhood of 20 minutes or longer if played in their entirety. The guitar community has a long standing practice of playing individual movements from suites by themselves.

Bach wrote thousands of pieces of music. Many of them used similar names, for example: Bach may have written more than a hundred “Bourees” in his lifetime. It won’t do to say I’m playing a Bach Bouree, since there are a lot of them, we need a way to indicate the specific Bouree we are talking about. Typically this is done two ways : by naming the larger work that piece comes from; Bouree from the First Lute Suite in Em and/or by using the Bach cataloging number other wise known as BWV number: Bouree from the First Lute Suite in Em - BWV 996.

Transcriptions: Bach never wrote any music for the guitar. Everything we play is transcribed from other instruments. Most of the Bach we hear on guitar is taken from the following sources: Cello Suites (6), Violin Sonatas (4) and the Chaconne, Lute Suites (4), keyboard works and the odd cantata.

The implications of playing transcriptions are pretty significant: Most transcribers make decisions about what notes to leave out, range, key signatures and in the case of the cello suites, which notes to add. Different transcribers will make different choices and editions of the same piece can differ from each other quite a bit.

By examining the original source from which the guitar music is transcribed, the guitarist can see what decisions were made in the act of transcribing the particular edition. This can help in determining the quality of the transcription.

It makes sense to get an edition that is edited by someone who knows what they are doing. There are a lot of very poor Bach editions floating around out there. The beginner has no way of knowing which editions are good and which ones are junk, so I find students bringing in all sorts of “interesting” stuff. The unfortunate thing about these editions is that no matter how well they are performed, they don’t sound as good as the well done editions and many are barely playable. Because the music is so hard, students won’t know how good the edition is until a fair amount of time has been invested in learning the piece.

List of good Transcribers: Here is a list (partial) of quality transcriptions of Bach’s music:

Solo Lute Works – Frank Koonce
Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites - Peter Yates
Transcriber/editors of Quality (partial)

The special case of the Cello Suites: The six cellos suites present a special situation for guitar players because they are written as unaccompanied melodies pretty much without harmony and bass notes. When played as written, while the melodies are great, the music sounds “thin” on the guitar because the instrument lacks the thick sound of the cello. In an effort to take advantage of the guitar’s full possibilities, arrangers will often add bass notes to the cello suites to “fill out” the sound. This practice can range from just putting in “obvious” notes to developing full blown bass parts. The problem of course is that Bach didn’t write these lines, they were written by the arranger. The quality of these arrangements rests on the skill of the arranger to capture the intent of Bach when the notes are added to music. The bottom line is that guitarists will find wildly differing versions of the cello suites floating about, depending on the choices made by the arranger.

The ultimate goal: Most advanced players write their own transcriptions of Bach for their performances. This takes years of training and a keen sense of the theoretical implications of the music as well a strong background in Bach’s style and the harmonic/technical and possibilities/limitations of the guitar.

For performers who are starting out:
I recommend tracking down some quality arrangements of the pieces you’re interested in performing and comparing them to the original score written for the original instrument. Find several recordings of the pieces both on guitar and the original instrument. From these resources you can develop a sense of how the piece should sound and make choices about which edition is best to meet these ends.





© Copyright 2012 by Guy Cantwell
All RIghts Reserved



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