The instrument now known as the baroque lute was commonplace in Bach’s Germany. Owing to the fact that most lutes were cheaper and more portable than keyboard instruments, its popularity had remained intact for the centuries in which it had been the ideal means of accompaniment for amateur singers. The instrument, while retaining the shape and timbre of its earlier forbearers during what was perhaps the height of its popularity in the 17th and early 18th centuries, had evolved substantially to reach the form it took on in Bach’s day. Before the middle of the 17th century lutes across Europe, while differing in other aspects such as the number of strings, were tuned in similar ways. This method of tuning-- 4ths around a central major third-- was described as early as 1483 in Johannes Tinctoris’s De inventione et usu musicae. Throughout the course of the 1600s, however, the need for an extended bass register prompted the addition of lower strings to the lute. There were so many strings that in fact a player’s fretting hand could not claim them all, and so the free-floating strings, under which there was no fingerboard, were most often tuned in a descending diatonicism that was adjustable based on the key of pieces. It was these additional basses which probably led to the elimination of the 4ths-around-a-3rd tuning, which was replaced in time by an open d minor tuning above the lower, diatonically descending bass strings (this tuning was by no means, however, universally accepted and the traditional tuning of 4ths was maintained throughout Europe and most notably in Spain in the form of the vihuela and baroque guitar, which later would pass on their open-inconsonant genes to the modern guitar).
Berlioz’s famous words stating that only those who play the guitar well can compose for it are doubly true for the baroque lute, which by this time had developed several tablature notational systems which varied from region to region. These tablature systems are one of the reasons why solo lute music continued to be written mainly by esteemed lute players of the day, and also a reason why the lute music of J.S. Bach stands out as an anomaly.
While direct evidence connecting Bach and the lute can be at times painfully lacking, there is much to be inferred about his interest in the instrument through the composer’s actions and belongings. For instance, in his estate at the time of his death, the notoriously frugal Bach owned two lute-harpsichords in addition to a lute valued at around three times that of his famed Stainer violin. He furthermore wrote melodic material designated for the instrument in the Trauerode, BWV 198 and in an aria from the St. John’s Passion, BWV 245. There is another connection, however, that cannot be overlooked--the visit by “two famous lutenists” to Bach’s home in Leipzig, for four weeks, late in the summer of 1739. The names of these lutenists were Johann Kropfgans and Sylvius Leopold Weiss, and it is likely they played a crucial role in Bach’s solo lute output.
“Two famous lutenists”
Sylvius Leopold Weiss, born in Wroclaw, modern-day Poland, was a near-exact contemporary of Bach, living from 1686 to 1750. His life also shares many similarities with that of Bach’s. Weiss, part of another musical family, was trained on the lute by his father--his early skill must have been remarkable, as there are records of him, at age 7, performing for the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. Weiss spent 1710-1714 in Italy, while under the employ of Polish Prince Alexander Sobiesky. Here he most certainly was able to meet both Allesandro and Domenico Scarlatti, as they were employed by Sobiesky’s mother in Rome at the time. Given the time period and the musical affluence of his employers, it is possible that Weiss also met with Corelli and Handel during his stay in what is now Italy’s capital city.
Upon the death of his employer and patron in 1714, Weiss returned north and by 1717 was listed as a chapel member of the Saxon Court in Dresden. He was, one year later, formally appointed “with a high salary” and by 1744 was the highest paid member of the city’s famous musical court (though this nearly was not the case-- Weiss’s career would have ended early if a French violinist by the name of Petit had succeeded in his goal of biting off Weiss’s right thumb during a tiff in 1722!). During his time in Dresden, we know he was employed not only as a solo lutenist but also played in continuo groups, as his handwritten notes appear on parts from J.A. Hasse, the opera composer whose works were featured regularly at the court from 1731-1749. It should not be forgotten that Weiss was himself a composer; his output of close to 80 complete lute partitas and some 600 individual movements places him as the most prolific for the instrument.
Weiss performed with some of his most famous contemporaries at Dresden, including Hasse’s wife Faustina Bordina and Johann Joachim Quantz. Furthermore, Sylvius encountered Telemann and Handel at the court when they visited to celebrate the wedding of Crown Prince Friedrich August of Saxony and Austrian Archduchess Maria Josepha. The musicians in the court at Dresden made up a varied and international group, which played a key factor in what Quantz called the “mixed or German style.”
During his travels, Weiss was known to have made a profound impression on the future Frederick the Great, for whose sister Wilhemine he provided lute lessons. Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach, who would go on to serve in Frederick the Great’s musical court, likely helped to further establish the relationship between his father and the great lutenist long before 1739.
It is during his employ in Dresden in which Weiss most surely met with J.S. Bach, who was well known there following his famous non-encounter with Louis Marchand (which occurred in 1717, Weiss’s first year of employ there). Dresden tops the list of places we know Bach visited most and is the site of several organ recitals as well as other performances. It was also during these trips that Bach was helping to secure his son Wilhelm Friedemann’s immediate installment as organist at the Lutheran court church of Dresden (the Sophienkirche) following the death of Christoph Pezold in 1733. As it was with Wilhelm Friedemann that Weiss traveled to visit J.S. Bach in 1739, we can be sure that the lute virtuoso and the son of the great composer formed a strong connection during the six years Friedemann had been working in Dresden up to that point.
There was a third member of the party who contributed to the “extra-special music” described by a Johann Elias Bach at the home of J.S. Bach that summer-- the lutenist Johann P Kropfgans (1708-1788). Kropfgans was, like his father before him, a student of S.L. Weiss, with whom he began studying with in 1735 upon his appointment to the private Kapelle of the Saxon chief minister, Count Heinrich von Brühl.
Weiss and Kropfgans were not the only important lutenists Bach was acquainted with. Among other connections we can include Rudolf Straube (1717-1780), who sang in the Thomasschule choir under J.S. Bach in the early 1730s before entering the University in Leipzig in 1740. Furthermore, there is Johann Christian Weyrauch, who studied with Bach and is in whose hand we have lute intabulations of the Suite, BWV 997 and the Fugue, BWV 1000a. There is also Weyrauch’s student who was perhaps the most highly regarded lutenist after Weiss, Adam Falckenhagen (1697-1754). Falckenhagen studied first under Weiss pupil Johann Jakob Graf in Merseburg (where J.S. Bach would, a decade later, take a young W.F. Bach to study violin under J.G. Graun). In 1719, Falckenhagen attended the University in Leipzig and by 1726 was studying with Weiss himself. He later would be employed by Duke Ernst August in Weimar from 1729-1732 and would end up at the court in Bayreuth, where Margrave Friedrich appointed him “Virtuosissimo on the lute and chamber music second to the Kapellmesiter Johann Pfeiffer.”
The Lautenwerck, or lute harpsichord, is the instrument which Bach most likely had in mind while composing many of his “lute” works. The instrument was a gut-strung harpsichord (a choir of metal strings were often added to these gut strings) which was intended to imitate the sound of the lute.
The music theorist Jakob Adlung, in a chapter on the lute harpsichord from his Musica Mechanica organoedi, described the instrument as “the most beautiful of all keyboard instruments after the organ...because it imitates the lute, not only in tone quality, but also in compass and delicacy.” Furthermore, Bach student (and copyist of another version of the Suite, BWV 997) Johann Friederich Agricola, described one of Bach’s lute-harpsichords:”
It had two courses of gut strings, and a so-called Little Octave of brass strings. In its normal setting-that is, when only one stop was drawn- it sounded more like a theorbo than a lute. But if one drew the lute-stop..such as is found on a harpsichord, together with the cornet stop, one could almost deceive even professional lutenists.” While the Lautenwerck could mimic very effectively the tone quality of a lute, it was unable to recreate its subtle control of dynamics or nuanced legato articulations.
Concerning the Intended Instrumentation of the “Solo Lute Works”
The debate continues over whether or not several of the solo lute works, despite their designation of being “pour la Luth”, are actually written for that instrument whose possibilities Bach may have had a weak grasp of. The compositional niche of the lute, like that of the guitar today, has been difficult to define for composers unaccustomed to the fretted instruments. Halfway between the lyricism of the violin and the cold polyphony of the harpsichord, able to do the work of both but never succeeding in being one or the other, the lute may have been an intimidating subject even for Bach. The problems that come along with these works can be summed up: “
The problem surrounding the music are mainly of four kinds: Autograph copies exist in staff notation only; no autograph tablatures are extant, and they probably never existed.When a work exists both in autograph staff notation and a tablature version made by a lutenist, there are many discrepancies between the two sources. None of the pieces in staff notation is playable on the standard Baroque lute without some transposition of the basses and changes in chord positions; some, however, sound well on the lute after a little judicious adaptation. Finally, some of the staff notation pieces-- notably BWV 996, 997, and 998-- are written with a strong keyboard texture, with equal writing in all voices, whereas lute music must, by the nature of the instrument and its technique, have a slow, simple bass part.”
The Suite, BWV 995, carries the title, “Piéces pour la luth/ á /Monsieur Shouster /par /J.S. Bach,” and we are told by the editors of the Neue Bach Ausgabe that the work “is assuredly a lute composition.” However, the work is unplayable on the thirteen-course lute and may have been intended for the lute-harpsichord. The composition, an arrangement of the fifth cello suite, dates from Bach’s first decade in Leipzig. There exists the possibility, as suggested first by Hans-Joachim Schulze in his essay “Monsieur Shouster” (the same Monsieur Schouster to whom the lute tablature of the Suite, BWV 995, is dedicated), that the Suite, BWV 995, is actually Adam Falckenhagen’s own arrangement of the Suite for Cello, BWV 1011, as technical signs such as ornaments in the tablature match those used exclusively by Falckenhagen elsewhere.
The manuscript in the hand of Johann Gottfried Walther of Suite, BWV 996, carries the title, “Praeludio- con la Suite/ da / Gio: Bast Bach/ auks Lautenwerck.” In all of Bach’s music, this inscription is the only one to refer to the lute-harpsichord. Additionally, the compositional style, especially in that of the Allemande and Gigue, points to the composition’s being played on a keyboard instrument and its range-- C to c”-- is that of the first lute-harpsichord, invented by Johann Christoph Fleischer, who introduced it in 1718. The manuscript dates to Bach’s Weimar period.
Of the three complete and two incomplete extant manuscripts in which the Suite, BWV 997 is found-- none of which are in Bach’s hand--only the one tablature arrangement by Johann Christian Weyrauch specifies its intention as a lute piece. The editors of the NBA, regarding the suite’s intended instrumentation, tell us, “
...the composition as a whole, however, which from the very beginning was in five movements, appears in consideration of the range and compositional structure of the Double [this is movement 5], to have been written for an instrument which on one hand is related to the sound of the lute, and on the other hand possesses the large range of keyboard instruments which became standard in the middle of the eighteenth century. The only instrument that could have fulfilled both conditions was the lute-harpsichord...it remains questionable whether instrumentation with the lute-harpsichord was intended from the beginning or whether the suite at first was to contain only four movements [the fourth movement is a Gigue, the stylized dance which ends all other lute suites], to which then, if even at the same period of time... a fifth movement was added, ad libitum so to speak, in case the piece was performed on the lute-harpsichord.”
The Suite, BWV 997 probably dates to at least around the composition of the St. Matthew Passion, as there are strong motivic relationships between the two works (especially in the Sarabande of the suite). However, the earliest copy of the suite, by Bach’s student Johann Friedrich Agricola, dates from 1738-41. Proof of the quickly turning world of opinion on the dating of this work is evident in Rosalyn Tureck, who as recently as in 1985 put the Suite’s composition much earlier, from the Cothen period in 1722. An argument against this suite’s performance on the lautenwerck derives, strangely enough, from the notoriously difficult fugue: “..the lay-out of the difficult fugue suggests that this movement at least could not have been intended for a keyboard instrument, unless the width of its octave was much smaller than we are used to.”
Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro, BWV 998 bears a title page in Bach’s hand stating “Prelude pour la Luth. ó Cémbal. Par J.S. Bach.” From the character of the composition, whose autograph manuscript is in keyboard notation, it is easy to see that if Bach did not write this piece for the lute, it is at least intended to be stylistically like a lute piece-- the blending of melody and arpeggio accompaniment in the Prelude points to this. Regarding the difficulty of this piece, Eugen Müller Dombois, in an essay on the work, states that, “...one gets the impression of the composer working for the lute-harpsichord and trying to imitate the lute, but reaching far beyond the lute’s limitations in order to make use of the lute-harpsichord’s advantages.” The uncertainty regarding this work’s instrumental designation is further illustrated by no less than Christoph Wolff, who at one point in his J.S. Bach: The Learned Musician writes, “..the Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro in E-flat for lute, BWV 998 (from the late 1730s).. “ only to later list it as a work for harpsichord! The key of E-flat major is particularly damaging to the case for this being a lute composition, as Bach simply could have changed it to accommodate the instrument, as he had done so often in the past for other instruments.
The piece titled “Prelude in C moll/ Pour la Lute. / di/ Johann Sebastian Bach.,” BWV 999 is playable as written on the baroque lute, though its style of arpeggiation is similar to that of other keyboard preludes written for Wilhelm Friedemann in the Klavierbüchen für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach or those found in the Well-Tempered Clavier. Taking these findings into consideration, the single extant manuscript, in the hand of organist Johann Peter Kellner, may date from the same time as those other compositions-- Bach’s Cöthen period.
The Fugue, BWV 1000a, while originally deriving from the G minor violin sonata, can also be found in arrangements for both lute and organ. The tablature manuscript for the lute arrangement (BWV 1000a), like that of Suite, BWV 997 is in the hand of lutenist Johann Christian Weyrauch.
The Suite, BWV 1006a is Bach’s arrangement of the whole of Partita III, BWV 1006 for solo violin. While the style of the Prelude (as opposed to the “Preludio” of the violin version), is incredibly well suited for the lute, its key is not. The campanella use of open strings as pedal tones in the opening movement of the suite is very idiomatic to modern performances on the guitar, but the key of this work points either to the use of a keyboard instrument or to the use of scordatura in the lute. This particular Prelude can be found, in another form, in the opening orchestral Sinfonia to the cantata “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir,” BWV 29, in which the organ plays a transposed version of the violin Preludio. While the title page asserts that the Suite is, “pour le Clavecin,” the editors of the Neue Bach Ausgabe believe that: “
Bach would have surely made many alterations in his arrangement of the violin partita if it were a keyboard piece. Also the thin and uneven texture of composition in the following movements and the lack of continuity in of the lower voice(s), that are there primarily for rhythmic and harmonic support, speak decidedly against instrumentation for keyboard. The cited characteristics, range, composition, figuration, clearly indicate a plucked instrument.”
The autograph manuscript contains watermarks which date the composition somewhere between 1735-1740, which could very well make this composition a product of the visit by the “two famous lutenists” during the summer of 1739.
The solo lute works of Johann Sebastian Bach, more than any of the other solo works for strings, provide us with an interesting insight into his development as a composer. Because they are not the fruits of any one period-- as the works for violin and cello are-- they allow us to move along with Bach as his perception of the lute changes. While several of the works were written to be played on an instrument that looked and functioned in completely different ways from the lute, it should be remembered that the works are nonetheless performed on the lute (or the guitar) today. This fact should not taken lightly: while the violin and cello solo works are undoubtedly very difficult, the works for lute, as Bach wrote them, are oftentimes impossible. They have long been, like the other solo works, a technical and musical tour de force for their practitioners and deserve, perhaps more than any other realm of Bach’s instrumental output, their rightful place alongside the works for violin and cello as masterpieces.
Adlung, Jakob. Musica mechanica organoedi, ii, ed. J.L. Albrecht (Berlin, 1768/R); ed. C. Mahrenholz (Kassel, 1931)
Cherici, Paolo. Opere complete per liuto, versione originale; J. S. Bach Review, Second Series, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Dec., 1981)
David, Hans T., Arthur Mendel, and Christoph Wolff. The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. New York: Norton, 2001.
Ferguson, Howard. “Bach’s Lautenwerck”. Music & Letters , Vol. 48, No. 3 (Jul., 1967). Oxford University Press.
Koonce, Frank. The Solo Lute Works of Johann Sebastian Bach. N.A. Kjos Music, 1989.
Radke, Hans and Tim Crawford. Falckenhagen, Adam. In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.
Smith, Douglas Alton. Sylvius Leopold Weiss. Early Music , Vol. 8, No. 1 (Jan., 1980) USA: Oxford University Press.
Tureck, Rosalyn. Lute Suites: Suite in C minor, BWV 997. G Schirmer, 1985.
Tyrell, John, and Stanley Sadie. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition. USA: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Wolff, Christoph. Bach: The Learned Musician. New York: Norton, 2001