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Suite in E minor, BWV 996 for solo guitar

September 25, 2016: Jason Vieaux, guitar

The ingenious and practical Bach, one of history’s most masterful recyclers, constantly took advantage of upcoming performances, employers’ needs, or teaching opportunities to recycle or adapt existing works. Thus differing versions survive of many works, and others carried his indication that they could be played on alternate instruments. In the case of his compositions for lute, he may have written them for lute virtuosos of his acquaintance—he was in contact with virtuosos S. L. Weiss and K Kropfans of Dresden and historian and player E. G Baron in Leipzig—or for his students, such as lute players/composers J. L. Krebs and R Straube. He was well aware, however, that lute pieces could easily be adapted to the keyboard—he indicated that his E-flat major Sonata, BWV 998, could be played on lute or harpsichord—and of the seven works that bear lute designations, more survive in keyboard than lute versions.

The Suite in E minor, BWV 996, is most likely the earliest of the pieces designated for lute—or possibly “Lautenwerk,” a mechanism to emulate the lute on a harpsichord—dating probably from sometime after 1712 when Bach was working in Weimar. It is entirely in keeping with Bach’s philosophy of transferability that this Suite and his other lute pieces should be played on guitar, as they typically are today.

Bach based his suites on a standard series of Baroque dance movements, which by his time were no longer meant for actual dancing—Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. All the movements employ binary form (two sections, each repeated). A variety of additional dance movements could be inserted between the Sarabande and Gigue, the typical place for any slightly more “modern” dance forms. He typically prefaced his suites with a prelude, or in this case, as in his “English” Suite No. 6 for keyboard, with a paired prelude and fugue. Here he labels the prelude “Passagio,” a designation for an improvisatory-sounding introduction, and the short but intense fugue, “Presto.”

Bach uses the French designations for the remainder of the Suite’s movements, and the serious but graceful Allemande and the elegant Courante show his best French style, much like his French Suites for keyboard. In the lovely, introspective Sarabande, Bach shows his penchant for mixing French and Italian styles, his Italianate sensibility appearing especially in his melodic ornaments. His “added” movement, a vivacious Bourrée that is perhaps the best-known movement of the suite, is striking for its constant long-short-short rhythmic pattern and propulsive bass line. The exuberant Gigue leaves its dance models far behind with a remarkable contrapuntal display embedded in its lively perpetual motion.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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