Left-hand fingerings present the major obstacle when approaching the lute suite in question armed with a guitar bouzouki. The Dm-tuned Baroque lute (‘Dm’ refers to its tuning in a D minor chord with diatonic basses) has several more string courses, facilitating cross-string activity and necessitating fewer horizontal movements for the left hand than my four string courses. Parts of the prelude are close to unplayable on my 25.4"-scale instrument if the aesthetic is to be borrowed from, say, a quick and metronomic guitar version such as Fernandez’s lively 92 bpm. The means of escape from this challenge is probably to be found in Bach’s original title for this movement – Fantasia – which suggests letting the melodic material unfold less in a dance-conducive fashion and more as an improvised and rhetorically transcendent statement.


To find some way of maintaining intensity while slowing the tempo down, I found useful information in Jarl Strømdal’s suggestion to focus on the length of the bass notes to create rhythmic momentum in the opening measures. He tends to let the first bass note ring out, stopping it on the third beat. Hopkinson Smith (world-famous master and teacher of the lute, vihuela, and other period instruments), meanwhile, plays the bass note on the fourth beat very short, creating forward motion towards the next top-level phrase (notated in split systems to visualise the bass line better):

In this clip, I try to imitate these two interpretations:

Jonathan Leathwood discusses Sharon Isbin’s thoughts on the same subject: she avoids consciously stopping the bass notes in these measures, arguing that they ring on in our subconscious anyway, that they sound ‘abrupt and unconvincing’ on the guitar, and that letting them ring out creates texture that Bach ‘might well have enjoyed’.[1] Leathwood argues that the bass-note rests in Bach’s original notation are there for rhetorical reasons but he may be mistaken when he assigns the particular rhetoric to the lute rather than the harpsichord.


It is worth noting that Leathwood’s and Isbin’s discussion concerns the Prelude from the Suite in E Flat Minor, BWV 998, but I think their points are just as relevant here. This is the discussion as Leathwood represents it on the website of the European Guitar Teacher Association:


What is meant by ‘foundation’ here? Surely not harmonic foundation. After all, few would argue that just because a bass note is to be cut short, it thereby ceases to be understood – heard – as harmonic support for the upper line. On the contrary, it persists owing to what Kirkpatrick referred to as our ‘internal damper [sustaining] pedal’. In other words, the rests cannot undermine the contrapuntal framework, because the bass notes ring on in our imagination. Clearly Isbin is here thinking of the resonance of the instrument, rather than the grammar of the counterpoint.



Second, Isbin’s comment that the rests sound ‘abrupt’ and unconvincing on the guitar – they do indeed articulate the bass line very sharply – does not tally with her remarks about the unequal sustaining qualities of guitar and harpsichord. If the rests represent an effect native to the harpsichord, which has a greater sustaining power than the lute, then they will sound more abrupt on the harpsichord, not less.



Isbin’s last argument is surely the best – that when the bass notes are allowed to resonate on the guitar, then a texture is created that the harpsichord can hardly emulate, a texture which Bach might well have enjoyed. This joins with Isbin’s notion of ‘foundation’ in the service of a richness of sonority. Nevertheless, we should beware: if this richness is only pleasing, not necessary in any grammatical sense, we must ask whether it is relevant to this piece, or whether the notation is not pointing to some other sonority which we, the interpreters, must find. After all, the work is designated for lute first, harpsichord second: perhaps so too is Bach’s meticulous text, rests and all.[2]



For reasons that concern left-hand fingerings, my instrument suggests either stopping the bass notes on the second beat of each of these measures, creating yet another sense of forward motion, or letting it ring throughout each measure, as Isbin suggests.


The sequence along the cycle of fifths in measures 37–39, as well as in measures 26–29 (one fourth higher), is also in need of simplification if the flow is to be kept up without strain. Rather than playing Bach’s descending bassline, I am forced to simplify this passage into top-level melody plus bass notes on the first beat of each measure only (as opposed to on all four beats). I also tried to employ rhetorical guidelines suggested by Strømdal, thinking of three-note upbeats and emphasised, prolonged downbeats as belonging to the same utterance: ‘ta-ta-ta-TAM’. Here’s the process:

. . . followed by a composite performance of the same bars, trying to implement the various elements discussed until now. Here is a video reconstruction of the same process:

Abandoning the descending bass line under each harmonic level in this passage is physically necessary but a real loss to the rich texture of the music. Paul Elie, in comparing Glenn Gould’s and Albert Schweitzer’s interpretations of Bach’s music, points out that ‘Gould argued for the view of Bach’s music as a harmonic landscape, one defined by its “inner architecture”, against the “Schweitzer-induced” emphasis on the main line of melody’.[3] I will try to decide over time whether I can compensate for the loss of this bass line by focusing on the pulse intensification as well as the off-beat melodic emphasis, replacing one kind of forward motion (descending bass line on all four beats of the bar interacting with the top line) with another (focus on nuances in top line execution).

[1] Jonathan Leathwood, ‘Reading Bach’s Ideas, Part I’ (European Guitar Teacher’s Association, 2000) <> [accessed 11 February 2013].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Paul Elie, Reinventing Bach (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), p. 236.