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8.572740 - BACH, J.S.: Guitar Transcriptions - Cello Suite No. 4 / Violin Partita No. 2 / Chorale Preludes (Devine)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Guitar Transcriptions


The tradition of performing JS Bach’s music on the guitar goes back to the nineteenth century transcriptions by Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909). From the early days of his long career Andrés Segovia (1909–1987) relished Tárrega’s arrangements while at the same time choosing further Bach pieces to play in recitals, including the famous Chaconne.

Subsequent generations of guitarists extended their horizons even wider. Thus performers of the middle and late twentieth century brought into recitals the so-called lute suites as well as guitar versions of violin and cello suites, lute-harpsichord compositions, keyboard partitas, and so on. The result is a veritable cornucopia to be interpreted by plucked strings and nowadays the music of JS Bach is an integral part of every dedicated guitarist’s programme.

JS Bach’s ‘Eighteen’ Chorale Preludes are contained in a manuscript collection prepared in Leipzig in the 1740s covering the organ chorales BWV 651–668. Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland (Come now, Saviour of the Heathen), BWV 659, is believed to have been first performed in the Weimar court chapel on Advent Sunday, 2 December 1714. The text is taken from Luther’s Advent hymn. Though Bach made several settings of this chorale, the organ version, BWV 659, from which the arrangement is taken, begins with a three-part contrapuntal accompaniment where the glorious melody is introduced in the fourth bar. In expressing the essence of the chorale in terms of plucked strings, such a transcription brings new perspectives to bear on the interpretation, lending a special poignancy to one of Bach’s most well-known works.

The Six Suites for Violoncello Solo, BWV 1007–1012, were composed during Bach’s time as Kapellmeister at Cöthen between 1717 and 1723. These suites were neglected for many decades after Bach’s death until the great cellist, Pablo Casals, re-discovered them. He described in his autobiography how from these suites ‘a whole radiance of space and poetry pours forth’ and how they are ‘the essence of Bach and Bach is the essence of music’.

In terms of the guitar, it was the composer and editor, John W. Duarte (1919–2004), who in the late 1950s first became interested in arranging the Cello Suites for performance by the young John Williams. Previously Andrés Segovia had transcribed only a few individual movements such as the Prelude from the first Cello Suite, BWV 1007. Since then many guitarists have been fascinated by these compositions and performed them in recitals.

Suite No. 4 begins with an extended Prelude, a remarkable exploration of style brisé or ‘broken chords’, akin to the textures of baroque lute preludes. But after bar 49 the even flow of chordal patterns is interrupted several times by rapid scale passages, the latter ending the movement in a brilliant cascade. The Allemande, with its subtle combinations of semiquavers and quavers, is one of the most complex treatments of this form within the Cello Suites, the mixture of note values being continued immediately after in the sophisticated intricacies of the Courante. In the latter the unexpected introduction of triplets alongside quaver values and semiquavers gives this dance vivid rhythmic dynamism and a degree of unpredictability in its characteristic patterns. The chordal nature of the Sarabande is well suited to the guitar, and the aria-like qualities of this particular piece have been compared to those written in the galant style by the great baroque lutenist, Sylvius Leopold Weiss. Its elegant dignity contrasts keenly with the skittish Bourrée I where upbeat semiquaver runs provide a rhythmic impetus unique of its kind. Bourrée II reverts to the peasant simplicity of the dance, this movement being notably brief before the return of its companion. The final vivacity of the Gigue, in twelveeight time, is rendered in ebullient triplets possessing an element of humour as well as an implicit reminder of the intricate footwork if such a piece were ever to be danced to.

Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (I cry to thee, Lord Jesus Christ), BWV 639, is from the Orgel-Büchlein (Little Book for Organ), BWV 599–644, a collection of 46 organ chorales. This theme was also set in 1732 (BWV 177) as a cantata for the fourth Sunday after Trinity. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring was the title given to a popular transcription for piano solo by the English pianist, Myra Hess (1890–1965), published in 1926, of the chorale that ends each part of Cantata BWV 147 ‘Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben’ (Heart and Mouth and Deeds and Life). The original scoring of the work was for voices with trumpet, oboes, strings, and continuo. One of the first guitar transcriptions of the piece was by the American musician, Rick Foster, made popular by Christopher Parkening, a Segovia protégé, who included Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring on a long-playing record dedicated to the music of JS Bach released in 1971. Rick Foster commented at the time: ‘Of course, in any effort to arrange music which was originally intended for an entire choir with accompaniment, enormous technical problems are inevitable, but the rewards of overcoming them are worth all the effort. The fullness achieved on the guitar is quite amazing and comes as close, I believe, as any solo instrument can come to reproducing the spirit and beauty of the piece.’

The Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, follows the traditional grouping of dance movements, concluding with a Chaconne. The five dances are linked harmonically in that each begins with a progression of harmonies whose basses consist of the notes D – C sharp – D – B flat – A, emphasising the essential cohesion of the suite.

The Allemande serves the purpose of a prelude, introducing us to the mood of the suite through what the Dutch violinist, Jaap Schröder, has described as ‘linear polyphony’ involving harmonies implied through a succession of broken chords. Within the flow of semiquavers are a number of rhythmic shifts including dotted quavers, triplets and little bursts of demisemiquavers. The second movement, Courante, fast in comparison to the Allemande’s slow pace, is an ebullient work, flowing with energy communicated through triplets and vivacious dotted rhythms. On the guitar this movement achieves a lute-like delicacy of precise articulation and hints of gaiety, a mixture of hopping and running between the syncopated dotted notes and the free current of the quaver passages. The dignified dance of the Sarabande is subject here to an intricate web of note values and melodic inspiration, reinforced by embellishment. The atmosphere of the piece is profoundly serious, expressing the emotional heart of the four primary dance forms preceding the Chaconne. With no intervening Bourrée or Minuet, the transition to the stately but lively Gigue almost takes the listener by surprise. But this Gigue, in twelve-eight time, a rhythmic amalgamation of opening triplets and fluent semiquavers, is neither boisterous nor especially close to the dance. Rather it is a brilliant instrumental vehicle for a display of gentle virtuosity in its structural role as a mediator between the four dances of the suite and the mighty Chaconne finale.

Among Bach’s suites the Chaconne is the longest individual movement, creating an effect of monumental proportions. The hugely acclaimed Chaconne in D minor, a combination of a long chain of intricate variations of great intensity and variety, has fascinated the world’s leading instrumentalists since the early nineteeth century, among them many who were not violinists. Thus there have been a number of distinguished arrangements over the years including those for piano, orchestra, and guitar, the most significant original performance for the latter being a feature of Segovia’s epic Paris recital in 1935. Many of Bach’s predecessors, such as Buxtehude, Muffat, Schenk, and Biber, wrote excellent Chaconnes (or Ciacconas). As the Bach scholar, David Ledbetter observed: ‘Virtually every detail of [Bach’s] Ciaccona has antecedents in the rich brew of overlapping traditions that constituted Bach’s musical environment. His contribution was to bring them together into an all-encompassing unity that undergirded a new, large-scale expressive power.’

Finally the aria Bist du bei mir, BWV 508, from the Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach, is presented in an arrangement for solo guitar. Formerly attributed to JS Bach, it is now thought that this aria was first heard in Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel’s opera Diomedes, oder die triumphierende Unschuld (Diomedes, or the Triumph of Innocence), performed in Bayreuth on 16 November 1718. The opening words of the song are as follows: ‘If you are with me, then I will go with joy to my death and my rest’.

Graham Wade

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