top of page
  • Writer's pictureJadran Duncumb

Drawing inspiration from Bach’s lute tablatures 1

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

Part 1: Xerox vs musician – do we really want to reproduce what is written on the page?

(Originally, this was meant as a supplement to the CD booklet that would go a bit more into the technical details of the Bach lute tablatures; how they differ from the manuscripts in normal notation, which interpretative clues they contain, the interpretative choices those clues led me to on the CD, and how they informed my decisions when making my own tablatures of the Fugue andDouble BWV 997, and of the Prelude BWV 999. It still is meant as a supplement (and not as an academic paper), but due to the rather large amount of time on my hands these weeks it is now in two parts. The second of these deals with the above, the first attempts to show the background for why I thought it more interesting to not follow Bach’s own autograph manuscripts. It may slightly overlap with the CD booklet in a couple of places, but if you prefer, just jump to the second and third part.)


Part 1: Xerox vs musician – do we really want to reproduce what is written on the page?

That the execution of a piece of music includes countless details not written within the score is hardly a controversial opinion. Yet there is a commonly held belief today in classical music that an interpretation will automatically be beautiful and effective if it is based on a thorough analysis of the score and renders the notes as faithfully as possible. The more complicated the music, the easier it is to apply this view and more satisfactory the result. By extension, the less complicated the music seems on the page, the less valued it often is. Bach’s works firmly belong in the first category of course, and so the approach above is particularly appealing when playing his pieces - unfortunately for the pieces themselves, I believe.

To me, an approach like this seems to confuse the role of the interpreter with that of the composer. Although unlike for the composer, this way conveniently excuses the interpreter from all creative responsibility while they painstakingly reinvent the wheel. What is physically written on the page is the only element of a performance that the interpreter has absolutely no control over so if one agrees with the claim in the first sentence (which almost everybody does), how can this approach be sufficient?

While they are detailed in the context of baroque music, Bach’s manuscripts seem increasingly vague when contrasted against progressively later repertoire, and the difference is particularly striking when you see the incredibly detailed music of some late 20th century composers. We barely ever find dynamic markings and those he uses are the most basic. There are very few dynamic markings, no descriptive words for tone colour, no crescendo markings, often no articulation markings, no metronome marks, often no other tempo markings - the list goes on and on. Those who trust nothing but the composer’s (or approved publisher’s) score, illogically and wrongly conclude that these details therefore were not important to the music and proceed to ignore them. The Historical Performance movement instead accepts that the score does not contain all the answers and looks for them in other sources and the clues the instruments themselves provide. For example: One can gain an accurate idea about how fast court dances were played from various 17th and 18th century sources that give pendulum markings for each dance[1]; or one can read descriptions of how small details such as specific intervals, melodic extracts and patterns, dynamic shapes, progressions, articulation, rhythm, agogics, and even key signatures could emote and provoke various emotions or affects in the listener, and how they might be played to achieve this. This fascinating study of the different devices composers and performers could employ in music was called Affektenlehre[2] (Doctrine of affections) and was very influential in the Baroque and Empfindsamer styles. Movements did not necessarily contain one character or mood but could switch from one to another even within short movements.

Music was intricately linked to speech and oration throughout the Baroque: Joachim Quantz, a composer/flutist/theoretician from the mid-18th century, likened the performer to an orator (as did many others). Both of them have the common aim “to master the hearts of their listeners, and arouse or quell their passions”. Long sequences of notes were viewed the same way as speech; successive notes of equal values were not supposed to be played the same way or have the same length - just like the syllables when we talk all have slightly varied durations. The more you want to exclaim or dramatise something, the more pronounced these differences become.

Without any doubt, musicians at the time did care about minute details and variations – they just did not write them in their scores. Whether a musician today should care about these is a subjective opinion, but if they choose not to, it would be incongruent if they at the same time should worry so much about exactly observing the score.

I think the wonderful thing about most classical music is that there can be (I have argued there should be, but again it is subjective) so many different variables and parameters within an interpretation and these are all interlinked. Every one of them influences and is influenced by others. The impact of a pause, a soft passage, or a loud exclamation is strongly affected by what came before and affects what is to come. A certain way of playing a phrase will change how you can play the next, but your tone-colour and articulation even on individual notes will also change the phrase. Your instrument, the strings, tremors in your fingers, the acoustic, your mood - everything will influence how you play even the tiniest details, and these all add up and change each other. Therefore, as you play, you have to constantly listen to, analyse, and adapt what you are doing. The score is a lot like an actor’s script; all the elements of the interpretation should be rooted there, but the branches and leaves of each performance will fork and grow slightly differently every time - even if the full-grown trees look similar.

All these possible variables and unknowns might well seem daunting – using them in an interpretation certainly add many extra layers of risk and difficulty as it is then impossible to plan and prepare every detail of the performance. I can understand the temptation to remove them with spurious arguments citing “faithfulness to the score”, the piece’s “architecture”, artistic modesty, pixelating the music into enormous building blocks and reducing it to “long lines” and “structure”. It is comforting to believe that you have an instruction manual that, if you follow all the steps, will guarantee the right outcome!

Yet the risk with overly relying on historical sources is that one merely breaks the music down into smaller building blocks – or more pixels; a longer and more detailed instruction manual that requires more groundwork (knowledge of the score AND historical sources), but an instruction manual, nevertheless. You could read about Affektenlehre and create a key that tells you what every interval, chord change etc. means in a piece and how to play them. However, a key by its nature de-contextualises, and every one of these details belong in a context. Blindly implementing the key will likely mean a performance that makes no sense at all. Regarding the pendulum markings, one could apply Quantz’s gavotte tempo of minim = 160 to a Bach gavotte, but in the context of the Gavotte en Rondeau from BWV 1006, or indeed the gavottes in BWV 995, the result is ridiculous. In the frame of a far simpler court dance (with actual dancers) these tempi make sense. Dancers work with gravity which forces certain speeds and timings on the music. Instrumental music is not constrained by these forces of nature. Thankfully, there was not an incessant clicking machine forcing its tempo on the musician in those times. Indeed, speeding up and slowing down with the intensity of the music was another expressive device as tempo was associated with the heartbeat. The more excited you are, the faster it beats!

So, after all this criticism of over-reliance on “instruction manuals”, why on earth have I decided to base my interpretation on something that might be likened to one, and write about it in more detail here?

Firstly (and of course I am nothing like alone in thinking or writing this), I am not arguing against analysing scores or using historical sources; only against using them as an excuse to remove risk and uncertainty. I was told during my lute studies that you ought to establish the parameters of the interpretation early, and that once you have, you cannot add or remove too many in the same piece or movement. If there is no hint of rubato, agogics, varied articulation, colours, ornamentation etc. at the start, they will likely sound out-of-place and mannered if you introduce them. Likewise, an interpretation full them will sound particularly boring the moment it runs out of ideas. I believe that the second option is more rewarding for both listener and performer - I am adamant in any case that it is much more difficult for the latter! These tablatures show that whoever made them also embraced an array of musical parameters at the expense of long lines and consistency, though I cannot comment on their motivation for doing so. I tried to follow their example in my recording and tablatures. Whether it was successful is up to you.

Secondly (again, I am not a pioneering thinker), neither an interpretation nor its preparation relies only on musical intuition - it is funny how those that claim otherwise are often the most dogmatic teachers. There is constant interplay between intuition, knowledge, and reason - both when one performs and when one practises. Each of these adapts to and drives the other. You react to what you hear or play intuitively, while your reason tries to understand what makes you react, why, and how to use it and improve on it. Your knowledge may tell you that sequences of consecutive semi-quavers were usually not played the same, but your intuition and reason will together discover how to incorporate it into your interpretation in a way that will affect you and hopefully the listener by extension. Knowledge gained from sources primarily raises questions as to how and where we can use it. If we buy into the enormous complexity of the different, interlocking parameters contained within both a composition and its interpretation, we must accept that we will rarely find concrete answers and solutions. However, posing the questions and finding clues constantly develops us as musicians. These lute tablatures certainly provide both clues and question marks.


[1] Pendulum lengths gave an accurate tempo indication.

[2] Nowadays, the difference is that we are studying these details to help us interpret the music from that time, while they were trying to analyse why and how elements in the music they were already playing and composing moved the listeners and how to use them more effectively.

Buy, download, stream here.

Buy, download, stream here.

270 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Smith Joel
Smith Joel
Mar 06

 Your blog is a true treasure trove of information. moto x3m

bottom of page