THE EIGHT-STRINGED BACH
Raphaella Smits arranged Johann Sebastian Bach for eight-string guitar.
About the instrument
Eight-stringed guitar by Kolya Panhuyzen, made in 2006.
I was looking for a transparent sonority, which would make it possible
to support the performance with the teachings of rhetoric. In the end I would
like Bach to speak through the music without the domination of the performer
or the instrument.
The choice of wood like maple and Sitka spruce contributes to this,
and depends on the knowledge of old instruments made of these materials.
For further information, see: www.panhuyzen.de
The idea of performing Johann Sebastian Bach on the guitar is not
as incongruous as would appear at first sight. There are many examples
which show how Bach himself designed a single piece to be performed
in different arrangements – because, after all, the music is
more important than the instrument. A good transcription or a good
arrangement will not question
the instrument performing it. It is obvious that – starting
with a flute, lute or violin score – I have used the complete
range of my eight-stringed Kolya Panhuyzen guitar. The richness of
an instrument must serve the music totally without modifying what
should be at its heart.
Johann Sebastian Bach possessed a multitude of musical talents –
he was a violinist, a harpsichordist, an organist, a conductor and
a composer. Many of his successors consider him the greatest composer
of all time, the primus inter pares.
Bach put into his music the most profound thoughts and feelings with
a melodic and harmonic richness supported by a brilliant architecture. Much
more than his predecessors Bach mastered the art of creating a virtual
polyphony using broken chords and double stopping and by going from
one register to another, entirely without an accompanying bass.
Bach leaves no one unmoved. There is no question that this deeply
reflects the feelings of bereavement with which he had been confronted
so often in his life. Perhaps this also explains the recurrence of
death as a motif in Bach‘s works.
It was during his stay in Anhalt-Cöthen, where he had been appointed
„Court Kapellmeister and Director of the Prince‘s Chamber
Music“ by Prince Leopold, that Bach wrote the Partita for solo
flute as well as the Partitas and Sonatas for violin. Leaving Weimar
had meant a considerable improvement in his financial
and social standing.
On the artistic side it also marked a turning point. After 14 years
Mühlhausen and Weimar, during which he brought the art of the
organ to a previously unknown level of excellence, he had to be satisfied
with the small organ in the court chapel. Moreover, he found himself
in a reformed region, where there was no place for the up-to-date
practise of church music. The religious services were hardly ever
sung or accompanied by instruments. That is why Bach, for the time being, composed no more church cantatas,
concentrating on secular music for concerts and feasts.
In spite of everything Bach was extremely happy at Cöthen. He
enjoyed an excellent relationship with Prince Leopold, of 17 very competent musicians.
Bach was about thirty, had a happy marriage to his cousin Barbara
Bach and was the father of a small daughter and three sons.
During these five years, he devoted himself freely to the composition
of orchestral music (the Brandenburg Concertos, the two Violin Concertos
...), to chamber music (Sonatas and Partitas for flute, violin and
viola da gamba with basso continuo, Trio Sonatas ...), to New Year
Cantatas and collections for solo instruments (Orgelbüchlein,
six Sonatas and Partitas for violin, six Suites for violoncello, a
Partita for flute ...).
Bach wrote, probably in 1718 or a little later,
the Partita for solo flute (Solo for transverse flute, BWV 1013).
It has the usual sequence of dances. Although this work was written
for a monodic instrument, the harmonic complexity can be felt. The
Courante shows the influence of the Italian masters. Bach knew their
style, and even copied some of their works in order to study them.
After the Sarabande with its inventive rhythm, Bach ends the Partita
with the popular English Bourrée.
The Anhalt-Cöthen years, however, were not unalloyed happiness.
returned in June 1720 from Karlsbad, where the Prince and his court
had spent two months, he learnt that Barbara had died and had already
been buried. Her death affected Bach greatly, and it was from this
time that the second Partita for violin dates, which from its outset
displays a solemn and introverted atmosphere.
The Partita for violin in D minor (Second Partia
for solo violin without basso,
BWV 1004) is the second Partita from the Sei Solo - a Violino senza
Basso accompagnato. The autograph belonging to Johann Friedrich Bach
mentions the date 1720. It contains alternately three partitas and
The crowning of this work is unquestionably the Ciaconna, a sequence
of variations on a four-bar theme in the bass. The great harmonic
tension is maintained for 257 bars, about half the whole Partita.
Bach returns to this old form, and enriches it with the genius of
his own inventiveness. The opening of the Allemanda is identical with
the final chord of the Ciaconna, 30 minutes later, thus completing
the circle. This monumental piece, revered by Schumann, Brahms and
so many others, can also be considered as a Tombeau for the sudden death of his wife Barbara.
It is possible that the loss of Barbara reinforced the idea of a return
to the Lutheran Office. Perhaps Bach was also nostalgic for the organ
and liturgical music.
Bach married for a second time in 1721. Anna Magdalena Wilcke also
came from a family of musicians, and she was to become a faithful and zealous
collaborator with her husband. In addition to running the household, she also offered
her services as a singer and a copyist.
In the Spring of 1723, Bach moved with his family to Leipzig, a commercial
town with a university, expanding culturally. He succeeded Johann Kuhnau
as Cantor for the church of St. Thomas and as professor at the church
school. Bach was in fact the third choice for the post, Georg Philipp
Telemann and Johannes Graupner having declined the appointment before
him. His relations with the municipal administration were not of the best, but artistic possibilities
were tremendous. Bach truly carried the whole musical life of the
In Leipzig he wrote numerous cantatas, great oratorios, motets and
partitas. The best known works from this period are the Passions according to St.
Matthew and St. John, the Christmas Oratorio, the second part of the
Well-tempered Clavier, the B minor Mass, the Magnificat, the Goldberg
He also composed occasionally for the lute. Like the harpsichord,
the lute was very popular in this town, where Esaias Reusner had published
his Erfreuliche Lautenlust in 1687. Several lutenists lived there,
among them Straub and Krebs, two pupils of Bach. Other famous lutenists
like Falkenhagen, Kropffganz and above all Weiss often stopped off
at the Cantor‘s house during their travels.
In 1740, after Weiss had stayed in Leipzig for about two months, Bach
wrote the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro for lute (or harpsichord).
Prelude for Lute or Harpsichord, BWV 998. In
contrast to the pieces for solo violoncello, flute or violin –
a relatively unexplored genre – the suites for lute had their
roots in a very rich tradition.
The Prelude of this work recalls the „style brisé“,
which had been adopted by French lutenists in the seventeenth century.
The middle section consists of a four-part fugue, which is a da capo
fugue, a form which Bach used rarely (except in his late works). The Allegro has the character of an exuberant
Italian Corrente, with its long melodic lines and its insistent rhythms
in the bass.
At 64, Bach had become blind, but could still complete the Art of
Fugue by dictating it to his son-in-law. His death, from a stroke,
came a year later.
Jan Evenepoel, July 2008
Translation: Christopher Cartwright and Godwin Stewart
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