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8.555369 - BACH, J.S.: Guitar Transcriptions
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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Guitar Transcriptions

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 at Eisenach, where his father was employed as a town musician and as a member of the court orchestra, the youngest of six children of a family that was part of an extended musical dynasty. After the death of his parents, he moved at the age of ten to Ohrdruf, to the house of his eldest brother, Johann Christoph, organist there at the Michaeliskirche. His schooling in Ohrdruf continued until 1700, when he moved to the Michaelisschule at Lüneburg some two hundred miles away. Two years later he began his professional career with employment at the court in Weimar, followed very shortly by appointment as organist at Arnstadt, where his family had connections. In 1707 some dissatisfaction with the conditions and musical possibilities at Arnstadt led him to enter the necessary test for appointment as organist at Mühlhausen, where he married his first wife, his second cousin Maria Barbara. The following year he was appointed court organist at Weimar, where, as in 1703, he also served as a violinist or viola player in the court orchestra. In 1714 he was appointed Konzertmeister, but his relationship with his employer, Duke Wilhelm Ernst, was uneasy, partly through his collaboration in the musical activities of the co-regent of Weimar, Duke Ernst August. In 1716 Bach was passed over for the position of Kapellmeister, which he might have expected on the death of the existing incumbent, and this led him to look elsewhere. His association with Duke Ernst August provided a way out, when employment as Court Kapellmeister to the Duke’s new brother-in-law, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen was offered on relatively generous terms. Duke Wilhelm Ernst was unwilling to release him from his duties at Weimar, showing his displeasure finally by imprisoning Bach for a month, before dismissing him from his service.

The court at Cöthen offered all that Bach could have wished. Prince Leopold was young and an enthusiastic musical amateur and the Pietist persuasions of the court meant that there was no call for church music. Instead Bach could devote himself primarily to secular music for the court orchestra and its members in a fruitful series of concertos, sonatas and suites. The period was a happy one for Bach, marred only by the sudden death of his wife in 1720, while he was at Carlsbad in the company of the Prince. The following year he married again. His new wife, Anna Magdalena, was the youngest daughter of the court trumpeter at Weissenfels and employed as a court singer at Cöthen. Prince Leopold’s marriage in the same year to a woman whom Bach described as ‘amusica’, however, made life at court much less satisfactory. In December 1722 Bach applied for the position of Cantor in Leipzig, where he moved the following spring, exchanging his position at a princely court for the duties of organist and choirmaster, soon to be varied by additional work with another collegium musicum, the ensemble established by Telemann at Leipzig University. Bach remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life, at first providing the church cantatas necessary for his primary employment, then re-arranging earlier concertos for the collegium musicum and consolidating the very considerable body of work that he had already written.

Bach wrote and transcribed works for lute, drawing in part on works he had written for unaccompanied violin and unaccompanied cello. Various transcriptions of these and other works have been for the guitar, an instrument well suited to handling the contrapuntal textures of diverse instrumental compositions. The present transcriptions start with a version of the Partita in A minor, BWV 1013, for unaccompanied flute, written in the early 1720s or earlier, and belonging clearly to the period Bach spent at Cöthen. It has been suggested that in its form for solo flute it may, in fact, be a transcription, in part at least, of movements written for violin or other instruments. The guitar is able to add discreet implementation of the implied harmonies. The traditional French dance suite opening of an Allemande is followed by a Corrente, a slow Sarabande and a rapid final English Bourrée.

The two Preludes that follow are transcribed from keyboard works. The Prelude in E major, BWV 854, is from the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, compiled in 1722 at Cöthen and making some use of earlier preludes written for the use and instruction of Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. It is coupled here with a transcription and transposition of the Prelude in C major, BWV 939, the first of a set of five such works, again written at Cöthen.

The Capriccio sopra la lontananza de il fratro dilettisimo (Capriccio on the Departure of his Most Beloved Brother) is an early work for keyboard, with a programme that finds friends trying to persuade the intending traveller from his journey, lamenting his decision to leave, then hearing the post-horn and the final fugue on its sound. The title of this work has usually been amended to include the words del suo fratello rather than the less specific de il fratro. If it was written for the departure of Bach’s elder brother Johann Jakob, three years his senior, then it might be dated to 1704, when Johann Jakob joined the army of Charles XII of Sweden as an oboist. The absence of overt military references in the programmatic music has been one factor in persuading a recent scholar to place the work in 1702, marking, perhaps, a parting with Bach’s friend Georg Erdmann, his school-fellow in Lüneburg, music to mark the end of their school-days. The Adagiosissimo is a mock-lament that is, nevertheless, moving enough, an arioso with its own figured accompaniment.

Bach himself was a distinguished and frequent transcriber of his own compositions and those of others. For the harpsichord he arranged sixteen concertos drawn from various sources during his years in Weimar. One of the best known of these is his transcription of an oboe concerto by the Venetian composer Alessandro Marcello as the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. This and the six Vivaldi concertos transcribed show Bach’s interest in the Venetian solo concerto of the period, an interest later demonstrated in the concertos he would write at Cöthen. The quicker outer movements of the concerto frame a moving aria in the slow movement, precursors of the movements Bach wrote for his own violin concertos.

The first of the three unaccompanied sonatas for solo violin, the Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001, here transposed and transcribed, was the partial source of transcriptions by Bach himself. The Sonata belongs to the period at Cöthen, but during his earlier years in Leipzig Bach arranged the second movement fugue for lute, having already used the same movement for an organ work. The three sonatas represent the formal church sonata form, with a slow first movement, a fugal second movement, a slow third movement, here in the form of a Siciliana, and a rapid final movement.

Keith Anderson

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