The Transcription Process in the Music of Johann Sebastian Bach

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach has transcended the instruments for which it was composed. Bach’s organ works have been played by lutenists and guitarists; the violin partitas have been played on cello and even on woodwinds. Since different instruments offer different technical challenges and possibilities, transcriptions require adaptations to maintain coherence in the music, and this process affects both writer and performer. In the case of Bach’s suite BWV 1011 originally for cello, we find adaptations to lute and classical guitar. As part of the adaptation process, Bach has modified the piece in the lute score, and performers have reworked their own technique, adjusting it to the intent of a piece that has not been designed for their instrument.

To understand the adaptation process it is necessary to compare the instruments involved. The most notable difference between bowed string instruments, like the cello, and plucked string instruments, like the guitar or lute, is their control and scope of intensity levels. The guitar and lute are quite soft, whereas the cello can be much louder. This difference can be perceived clearly by comparing pizzicato notes with bowed notes on the same instrument, as pizzicato notes are much softer. In addition, bowing makes crescendos possible, whereas once a plectrum or finger has left a string nothing can increase its fading volume.

Another difference between the cello and the lute or guitar is their potential to play chords. Whereas cellists can play only two notes at the same time, guitarists and lutenists can play five, one for every finger of the right hand. However, the effect of simultaneous notes can be expanded by techniques on either instrument. Bowed string instruments can play broken chords of up to four notes by sounding the lowest pair of notes immediately followed by the highest pair. On plucked string instruments, performers can use the strumming technique, in which the right thumb can sweep all of the instrument’s strings and sound them in a fast cascade.

Other technical considerations are leaps, tuning, and timbre. Leaps are difficult on cello, as they require repositioning the bow by a broad movement of the right arm, whereas they are easily played on a lute or guitar, as the plucking technique allows the fingers to control the strings independently. On the other hand, because the guitar and lute have frets, lutenists and guitarists do not consider tuning an issue beyond performance preparation. However, for cellists, higher notes require greater accuracy in the left hand, and thus high passages become more dramatic, as they demand more of the performer. In addition, the cello has been designed to resonate on low notes; thus high notes sound harsher. Finally, the variety of achievable timbers in both groups of instruments is quite similar. By playing closer to the bridge, performers on a cello, guitar, or lute can generate a harsher tone, and conversely, it is possible to attain a sweeter texture by moving farther away from it.

Bach’s cello suite number five in C minor, composed approximately in 1720 and catalogued as BWV 1011, was re-arranged for lute by Bach himself between 1727 and 1731. The lute and guitar version, both catalogued as BWV 995, are in G minor and A minor respectively. The piece has seven movements: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte I, Gavotte II, and Gigue, and the Prelude can be taken as an example of the adaptation process. Structurally, this movement can be divided into two main sections, an adagio and a presto (or Trés Viste, as indicated on the score), and additionally, it is possible to subdivide the adagio into three parts according to the piece’s phrasing: measures 1 through 9, 9 through 15, and 15 through 27.

Since volume capacity and control are the most different musical aspects between the cello and both the lute and the guitar, the intense passages in the cello version will require the greatest attention in the adaptation process. During the first nine measures, Bach takes the listener through the chords I, V, and IV of the C minor key (cello key), concluding on the V chord. The first statement is quite intense, as it culminates on a G dominant seventh chord with a diminished ninth and the bass on C, a chord with many internal dissonances:

BWV 1011 Measure 1

Image: First measure of Bach’s BWV 1011

The second subsection begins with a restatement of the first motif in G minor, a fifth above the original key, thus bringing this dissonant chord back even more intensely. In measure 13, Bach introduces the D flat note, the diminished fifth of G minor, making the chord a G half-diminished. This D flat is sustained while a C dominant seventh chord with a flat ninth appears. This is certainly one of the most intense moments in the piece, as the D flat appearing for the first time in the music, acting first as a diminished fifth and then as a diminished ninth, is very dissonant:

BWV 1011 Measure 13

Image: Measure 13 of Bach’s BWV 1011

A cellist, having a greater dynamic range than a guitarist, can easily control the volume to increase the intensity of these passages, as Rostropovich, Yo-Yo-Ma, and Maisky do in their performances of Bach’s cello suites, from 1995, 1998, and 1999 respectively. Plucked string instruments, much more limited in volume, have to rely on interpretation and writing adjustments to deliver this effect. Bach, having considered the differences between both instruments for the adaptation to lute, added more notes into the C seventh chord with a flat ninth (transposed to G on the lute) to increase its sound: it has only three notes on the cello version and five notes in the lute version. This adjustment has remained in the guitar version as well, and as Frank Koonce’s guitar edition shows, not all chords have undergone this modification but mostly the ones in which intense dissonances are present.

BWV 1011 Measure 14 (cello version)

Image: measure 14 in BWV 1011

BWV 995 Measure 14 (guitar version)

Image: measure 14 in BWV 995

On the other hand, guitarist Jason Vieaux’s video performance on the website youtube shows him using the strumming technique to play this chord, the most intense moment in the piece. Not only does Vieaux set off the chord by playing it with a distinct articulation, but he also delays the execution of its highest note, adding tension to the music by postponing the melody’s appearance. Also, he gives the whole passage a harsher tone by playing closer to the bridge and using vibrato. All these technical adjustments compensate for the guitar’s lack of volume and its impossibility to swell notes.

These moments of intensity are balanced by a short sweet subsection starting on measure 15, going from F minor to B flat seventh and resolving on an E flat perfect major chord. Going back to C minor in measure 18, Bach brings the intensity back into the music by writing a high E flat, the highest note in the piece—a challenging and therefore naturally dramatic note. Furthermore, the fingering on the cello corresponds to a high F, as the piece uses scordatura, a tuning in which string 1 on the cello is tuned to G, one whole tone lower than normal. The intensity continues with a D seventh chord in first inversion and remains throughout a series of leaps, which on the cello require great effort in moving the bow at different angles.

BWV 1011 Measure 17

Image: Measure 17 of BWV 1011

In the excerpts where the intensity is due to the technical challenges offered by the cello, Vieaux uses considerable vibrato, especially on the piece’s highest note. Guitarists, playing on a fretted instrument, do not have to struggle at all to play high notes, yet additionally Vieaux delays it, as if it were difficult for him to play something that on the guitar is quite straightforward. In the next measure, he relies on the same effect to play the leaps, which on the guitar can be easily achieved—since each finger of the right hand is assigned to a different string, no effort is needed to play this passage.

The piece moves on to the second section, which is in a three-eighth metric form at a fast tempo. The motif for this section consists of three eighth notes ascending diatonically followed by four sixteenth notes and an eighth note.

BWV 1011 Measure 27

Image: Measure 27 of BWV 1011

We can subdivide the Trés Viste section by identifying six great dramatic cadences, on measures 79, 109, 137, 183, and 209. The first one comes after the motif has made several twists and turns, as it usually happens with Bach, arriving at a majestic closing in E flat major on measure 79. This majesty is interpreted by Yo-Yo-Ma, Rostropovich, and Maisky in almost the same way: the volume increases; the phrase is slightly delayed; and the chord is broken, allowing a small interval between its lower and higher pairs of notes.

In arranging the piece for lute, Bach considered the instrument’s great range and its potential for counterpoint to deliver the intensity: two measures before the appearance of the E flat major chord (B flat major for lute), the bass voice comes in, forming widely open chords with the soprano voice. Again, these resources compensate for the impossibility of the lute to play as loudly as a cello.

BWV 1011 Measure 77

Image: Measure 77 of Bach’s BWV 1011

BWV 995 Measure 77

Image: Measure 77 of Bach’s BWV 995

Similarly, the same effect anticipates the next big cadence in measure 109, where there is a hemiola. In this case, the bass repeating itself is particularly effective to this purpose, as it adds up to the tension:

BWV 1011 Measure 106

Image: Measure 106 of Bach’s BWV 1011

BWV 995 Measure 106

Image: Measure 106 of Bach’s BWV 995

This rearrangement recurs in measures 134 through 137.

BWV 1011 Measure 134

Image: Measure 134 of Bach’s BWV 1011

BWV 995 Measure 134

Image: Measure 134 of Bach’s BWV 995

The next noteworthy musical event, in measure 183, is a greatly deceptive cadence. Bach sets up the listener for a huge closure in C minor, avoiding it and resolving to A flat major. The tension begins building up in measure 166, where a one-measure motif repeats itself identically and goes through the implied chords D minor, E flat major, F minor, and D dominant seventh. By the end of this sequence the tension is great, as the chords increase in dissonance and the obsessive phrase becomes intolerable.

BWV 1011 Measure 166

Image: Measure 166 of Bach’s BWV 1011

Yet this tension is further maintained by a two-measure phrase that also repeats itself and is supported by a persistent G pedal (measure 171). Then the main motif of the piece is restated (measures 176 through 180), and the tension continues, leading to the deceptive cadence on measure 183.

Both means of recreating this tension on a plucked string instrument are used: rewriting and interpretation. Bach has taken care of the former by repeating the G pedal, in a similar way to the effect on measures 106 and 134. In the original, the cello does not need the repetition, as the instrument’s bow sustains the pedal, but since the lute’s sound fades shortly after it starts, the lute version certainly needs it.

BWV 1011 Measure 171

Image: Measure 171 of Bach’s BWV 1011

BWV 995 Measure 171

Image: Measure 171 of Bach’s BWV 995

Yet another of Bach’s rearrangements is the addition of three- and four-note chords on the main motif. Four-note chords are commonly used at slow tempos. However, within highly active melodies, they are the exception rather than the rule, as they add great intensity to the music, which becomes loaded with notes as much as it can be:

BWV 1011 Measure 176

Image: Measure 171 of Bach’s BWV 1011

BWV 995 Measure 176

Image: Measure 171 of Bach’s BWV 995

Contributing to the rearrangement, Vieaux recreates this effect in his interpretation, as he creates suspense by pausing in two moments: after the intolerably self-repeated one-measure sequence and during the motif with the four-note chords.

Finally, the big cadence leading to the coda, in measure 209, has also undergone a rearrangement analogous to the one in measure 171:

BWV 1011 Measure 209

Image: Measure 209 of Bach’s BWV 1011

BWV 995 Measure 209

Image: Measure 209 of Bach’s BWV 995

The BWV 1011 has been rearranged for lute and for guitar, yet the piece’s original intent has been preserved. Every instrument offers its possibilities and challenges, and over the course of time, developments in instruments’ designs make new musical devices available. Yet above all, recognizing the music’s meaning, as well as making decisions to deliver it, is a musician’s responsibility. The awareness of a work’s intent empowers music and realizes its full potential, and this is especially true in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music has often been described as infinity of passions. These emotions are dormant on Bach’s manuscripts, yet they are waiting to be unleashed by keen performers, performers who are able to see beyond written notes and chords.

  • Bach, Johann Sebastian. The Solo Lute Works: Edited for Guitar by Frank Koonce. c. 1727 – 1731. Ed. Koonce, Frank. 2nd Ed. Neil A. Kjos Music Company: San Diego, CA, 1989.
  • —. The Cello Suites. c. 1720. Ed. Werner, Icking. Werner Icking Music Archive: Siegburg, Germany, 1997.
  • Maisky, Mischa. “Prelude.” BWV 1011. Johann Sebastian Bach: 6 Cello Suites. Dg Imports, 2000.
  • Rostropovich, Mstislav. “Prelude.” BWV 1011. J. S. Bach: Cello Suites. EMI Classics, 1995.
  • Youtube user AzikaMarketing. “Jason Vieaux: Bach BWV 995 Prelude.” Youtube: Broadcast Yourself. 29 December 2008. 18 May 2010.
  • Yo-Yo-Ma. “Prelude.” BWV 1011. The Cello Suites Inspired by Bach, from the Six-Part Film Series. Sony, 1998.

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