Lute Suite No.1

Johann Sebastian Bach

Lute Suite No.1 in E minor


About this work

Nobody knows exactly what instrument J. S. Bach had in mind when composing (and, in some cases, arranging) his many pieces now considered to be for lute; indeed, some of these works are all but unplayable on any known variety of Baroque lute, and it may well be that in these cases he was writing for a peculiar device known as the Lautenwerk--a kind of harpsichord mechanism designed to approximate the timbre of the lute. A surviving manuscript of the Lute Suite in E minor, BWV 996, Bach's earliest work for lute (probably composed in Weimar sometime between 1707 and 1717, perhaps earlier), actually bears the inscription "Aufs Lautenwerk," though the words appear to have been written by another hand. In the end, the question is probably moot: both Lautenwerk and Baroque lute are, sadly, all but extinct, and today one almost always hears the E minor Suite, like all Bach's "lute" works, played on guitar (we must remember that Bach himself was never possessed of the relatively modern notion of absolutely specific instrumentation--his own arrangements of solo violin and cello works for lute prove this, and he would almost certainly not object to hearing the works on another instrument).

The E minor Lute Suite is laid out in the traditional Froberger keyboard suite model, to whose four basic dance movements--allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue--Bach has added a florid Passaggio (a particular variety of prelude whose origins are to be found in the improvised introductions to Baroque organ toccatas) and a lively Bourrée.

The Passaggio is in fact a dual movement, beginning with a single-line melodic plunge that soon gives way to a more recitativo passage in which Bach sets isolated chords against more animated outbursts in the treble register. The second half of the prelude movement is a much more tightly-metered Presto built along miniature fugal lines.

The Allemande is of the traditional kind, steady in rhythm and serious in tone. In this movement, BWV 996's possible keyboard genesis can be seen and heard in the hand-against-hand style of the two voices. Of special beauty is the mix of minor and major scales at the final cadence of the dance's second half.

The Courante is a particularly graceful example of this triple-meter dance, its frequent lapses into hemiola serving as a vestigial reminder of the compact two against three rhythmic coloration that, three-quarters of a century before Bach's time, was so vital a part of courante style.

The zarabande, as a dance-genre, first came to Europe during the fifteenth century via the Spanish New World, and was originally a far raunchier (and faster) dance than those we know from the High Baroque literature. In the Sarabande of the E minor Lute Suite, we are given an example of the very slow, tender kind of sarabande that first began to pop up in France at the turn of the eighteenth century. The transparency of ornamentation in the second half is nothing short of heavenly.

Of completely different stock is the energetic Bourrée, with its (almost) unbending long/short-short rhythms and driving bass line.

The concluding Gigue is very nearly a perpetual motion--the sixteenth notes only falter at the two cadence areas. During the second half Bach indulges in some delightful imitation on the inverted form of the first half's melody.