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  • Writer's pictureJadran Duncumb

Drawing inspiration from Bach’s lute tablatures 2

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

Part 2: The Bach lute tablatures – the anonymous Leipzig manuscript

A lute tablature is an instruction manual. While traditional musical notation shows pitches and note lengths that could in theory be played on any instrument, a lute tablature shows how to realise them on the specific lute used by whoever made the tablature (in this case, the 13-course baroque lute). This physical connection with the instrument is what sets tablature apart. While both normal notation and tablature use symbols to add interpretative indications, the specific solution chosen in a tablature gives many even without any specific symbols – and in some cases with far more precision. The closest comparison that I know of is the 20th century classical guitar score which arguably goes into even more detail. For example, Julian Bream’s editions of Britten, Tippett and Walton’s guitar music are incredibly comprehensive, specifying strings, fingerings and by extension tone colour and articulation. Whilst we cannot know if the tablatures’ authors worked as closely with the composer as Bream did, both the tablatures and Bream’s editions fascinatingly hint at the musicians’ process and priorities when adapting these composers’ manuscripts to suit their instrument and musical ideas. The two are not independent as musical ideas are often born from the instrument.

The sheer number of strings on a baroque lute and the complexity of their tuning make countless different ways of playing the same passage possible. The extra open basses (diapasons) on later baroque lutes provide even more possibilities. They free the left hand from having to always play the bass line (the right thumb can play it on an open string), meaning that it can stay higher up the fingerboard.

These basses are tuned in octaves and as a result, one also hears the octave above the fundament when they are plucked.[1]Lute composers took advantage of this characteristic frequently: they got round the diatonic tuning of the basses by regularly switching octaves in chromatic bass passages and made full use of the freed left hand in accompanied melodies in the higher register, utilising otherwise impossible fingerings for variation in articulation and colour. The authors of these tablatures use these diapasons a great deal - even in sections where Bach wrote the music an octave higher and where there was no technical reason to do so.

Suite in g minor BWV 995

Of the pieces on this recording, this is the only one where an autograph by Bach has survived; a rather messy copy from probably the late 1720s. It is one of two Bach autographs of solo music that explicitly mention the lute[2] – the other being the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV 998. Curiously, the piece goes down to a low G’ which is one note below the lowest string of the typical baroque lute in mid-18th century Germany. Baroque lutes with an extra string did exist but were rare. It has been posited that the intended instrument was an archlute, but this seems unlikely given the overwhelming dominance of the baroque lute and its tuning in the region at the time.

Octave transposition of basses

The anonymous tablature version from Leipzig is for a regular, d-minor tuned, 13-course baroque lute, in any case. Therefore, the first thing one notices is the transposition of that low G’ up an octave throughout the piece. Even so, it is only really missed in the opening section of the prelude for the drama and dark colour it creates. The tablature tackles this problem through added ornamentation and thickened-out chords that use all the strings. The added notes logically make the chords fuller, but they also make them ‘spicier’ as the octave stringing of the lute’s basses create narrow dissonant intervals. Apart from this, they also make it possible to play each string with more power and to employ a variety of different spreads using raking thumbs and forefingers. In the few other places in the suite where Bach uses the low G’, the lack of it in the tablature is more than made up for with the fluent and liberal use of these diapasons that would not be possible with 14 strings. It is also hidden by the colours achieved through typical lute appoggiaturas and mordents that clash with the octave of the ‘G’ fundament in the chord.

My instrument by Tony Johnson is based on a 13-course baroque lute by Unverdorben/Buchstetter stored in Fenton House, London. I requested a 14th course for my lute with this piece in mind but have never used it in performance, preferring to trade the resounding low G’ for the advantages the traditional tuning gives and which the tablature exploits in full. Of course, in a recording one can choose the best of both worlds and so I kept a G’ for the first section before tuning the string back to A’ for the rest of the suite. Reasoning that more definitely means more here, I also keep the changes in the manuscript which I think purely serve to render the music in a more beautiful, dramatic, and powerful way.

The octave transposition of the basses is used throughout the suite by the intabulator. Arguably the biggest change in the suite is in the fugato where a motif is repeated over a changing bass line. The intabulator has chosen to repeat it over the rising open basses of the lute – substantially changing the harmony from Bach’s surviving autograph and the cello version. The omission halfway through the section of one of the voices implies that this really was a purely technical change - even though the original is not impossible. In the end I decided to follow the tablature as the simplification also gives a sonority and fluency to one of the most dramatic sections of the piece.

Often however, the motive is not solving technical problems. In the fugato of the opening movement, whole runs are transposed down an octave for no obvious reason. One of these even jumps up an octave for the last two notes as it otherwise ventures too deep for the lute. Because the basses are open and can only be played by the thumb, these sections become much harder in the tablature than in the original. The jumping dotted rhythm of the Gigue is consistently played down the octave too, making it probably the hardest movement of the suite.

Why did the lutenist choose to do make Bach’s music even harder? The Gigue’s basses open the resonance of the instrument because they use the full tessitura of the lute, but also because they allow more varied and resonant fingerings in the upper voice. In the fugato, the dialogue between the short runs in the higher and lower register is more pronounced and more dramatic when the basses are played an octave lower (keep in mind that the original octave still sounds!). Even the transposition of the final two notes in the bass provide a short breath[3] and help change the colour as the dramatic mood shifts and the music leaps up into an extended passage in the top register. This virtuosic use of the basses is why I choose to perform this piece with thirteen strings. One could keep fourteen strings for the whole suite and still read from the tablature, but those diapason basses in the tablature would go from difficult to impossible.


An appoggiatura where the auxiliary note clashes against the ringing principal note is an idiomatic baroque lute ornament that uses the octave stringing of the lute and the small intervals between the open strings.[4] A kind of lute ‘port de voix’, it is just one of a variety of characteristic lute ornaments that this tablature employs and adds throughout the piece, setting it apart from the far more scarcely ornamented Bach manuscript. The variety of ornaments also sets it apart from the two tablatures by Weyrauch of BWV 997 & 1000. Although far from bare, the ornaments there are more like those of the great lutenist/composer Sylvius Weiss (1687-1750) and the earlier baroque lute composers. Whoever intabulated BWV 995 – an obviously brilliant lutenist – combines these earlier ornaments with extravagant and unprepared appoggiaturas typical of later lute music, often ignoring the few ornaments Bach himself wrote in the process. Therefore, the tablature is assumed to be from late in Bach’s life. However, given that lutenists like Johann Kropfgans and Adam Falckenhagen with more ‘modern’ writing styles than Weiss’s were professionally active already in the 30s, that is not certain.

An oft-used symbol is the diagonal line between voices in a chord. This was another particularly common ornament in the style brisé or ‘broken style’ pioneered by the French 17th century lutenists. These lines mean that the notes should not be played simultaneously. It is not the same as a simple spread chord for which there also is a symbol, but an indication for a freer and longer arpeggiation. Weiss interestingly does not use it often, preferring to spell out how a chord is arpeggiated. This also happens in the Bach on several occasions: For example, in the second bar of the Prelude, and in several places in the Courante and Gigue. Other times the performer is left to work this out themselves. As I have mentioned, there are many options. A typical technique is the use of the ‘rake’ where the right hand’s pointer rakes down towards the thumb. This is often used in together with the other fingers resulting in a chord that can break up and down simultaneously, but another solution could be a simple arpeggiation towards the top or towards the bass, or another combination!

Sometimes the context points to what might be intended: For example, the tablature in the Allemande consistently ignores Bach’s ties between the notes in the melody. Instead, it repeats the note with an added appoggiatura. This seems to completely change the character of the piece as there is almost never any emphasis or movement on the second crotchet of the bar in the original. (After all, that is why the Allemande’s time signature is the ‘cut C’ and not ‘C’ in both the tablature and the Bach manuscript: Each bar should feel in two even if the beats are quite far apart.) However, the addition of the ‘broken chord’ symbol seems to indicate that the second note in the tie is at the end of the arpeggiated chord (which then lasts a whole crotchet). This both tricks the listener into hearing a more sustained note while also providing direction. A different way of lengthening the note used in the tablature is the harpsichord-like, extended trill on the primary note. We see this in the opening of the Prelude and in the first section of the Allemande where it very effectively increases the tension and provides impetus to what could easily become static long notes.

The tablature of the Gavotte en Rondeau (Gavotte II) also consistently does away with tied notes, but unlike in the Allemande, the ornament – an appoggiatura - is placed on the first note and not the second. This appoggiatura marks the typical accentuated third beat of the opening of a gavotte dance. It also highlights the end of the one-bar phrase, turning it into a question before the flowing answer begins in the second half of the second bar. This solution is repeated every time this phrasing pattern appears in the movement.

The many appoggiaturas and the ports de voix over two strings (mentioned earlier) are typical of the French baroque lute repertoire. Especially the latter is an ornament directly derived from the lute’s characteristics that would not have been in Bach’s vocabulary when composing the piece.[5] Combined with the brisé style spreads, I think they perfectly complement his music - particularly in this suite which is the most overtly French of Bach’s ‘lute suites’ and heavily influenced by the French lutenists ‘broken style’. The beautifully elegant Courante and Gigue are nevertheless clumsily written for lute, but the intabulator’s use of all these different ornaments turn them into movements one could almost imagine were written in France a hundred years before. These idiomatic lute ornaments really claim the music for the instrument.

Nevertheless, I was surprised where I found some ornaments when I first played the tablature. For example, the opening theme of the fugato is immediately embellished. Ornamenting fugal themes does not chime well with their almost ‘untouchable’ status today nor with the common-held idea that we ought to play them the same way each time. Particularly difficult appoggiaturas are also added onto alternating semi-quavers in a run in the same movement. I have interpreted these as playful as they are introduced just once at the begging of a lighter section in B-flat major. The ornaments also indicate a slower tempo than the fast ones we often hear, and the gigue is also heavily embellished with turns and trills that are impossible at great speeds. (Of course, one does not need to look at the tablature to see the primary indication of the slower tempo in these movements; the time-signature of 3/8 (not 6/8) implies three beats in a bar.[6] Playing these movements faster doubles the length of the bars and slows the beat down in reality; a much quicker rendition of the fugato, counterintuitively perhaps, goes against the tres viste indication.)

Although less common, the completely unprepared appoggiaturas certainly stand out – sometimes even jumping up a diminished fifth to a totally foreign note. They are a typical feature of the music by the lutenists from the generation after Weiss, but they do chafe with Bach’s otherwise immaculate voice leading and the ornaments he writes in his other music. On the one hand, you could argue that both Bach and to a lesser extent Weiss were old-fashioned for their time and that, given that Bach himself could not play the instrument, these tablatures are perfect examples of the 18th-century performance practice of his lute music. On the other, the tablatures by Johann Christian Weyrauch who certainly knew Bach well are more sober in their application of these galant ornaments. I have tended to embrace them for their charm and inherent ‘lute-ness’ in this recording.

Many of the embellishments I have described above are added liberally throughout the tablature following a tradition where such ornaments were often left to the discretion of the lutenist playing. That of course applies today too. It would be silly to turn this performance copy of Bach’s suite into a new ‘urtext’. It is also very probably only the last of several tablatures of this suite that were made. Based on its clarity and elaborate script, it was possibly meant for publication.[7]

I have not played or followed every ornament exactly as prescribed, but I do find most of them beautiful and would never have thought of or dared to do many of them by myself. This eye-opening factor to us 21st-century musicians - educated in a world where the masters’ music should be handled with gloves - is one of the most fascinating aspects of the tablature to me. We can scoff at what we perceive as bad taste, but I think it is important to remember that this is obviously a thought-through adaption by a very skilled lutenist from Bach’s time. It is interesting to try to understand the intention even if we may later choose to do things differently. Who knows Bach’s musical language better after all; the 18th century lutenist, or us?


The consistent use of asymmetrical and inconsistent slurring in the tablature is another eye-opener. In fact, we do not have to look further than Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript of the same cello suite, any other lute music, or historical keyboard fingerings to see that this way of playing was the norm, but because we strive to preserve the perfection and symmetry in Bach’s music, so often even historically informed interpretations shy away from this. This way of playing was not only typical of the baroque; if we look at Mauro Giuliani’s guitar music from the early 19th-century, we can see exactly same use of slurring. Not every passage has to be split into equal parts.

There are so many beautiful examples here! It is the exception rather than the rule to pluck consecutive notes a step apart with the right hand, which of course fits perfectly with the idea that consecutive notes of the same length were not meant to be played the same way. The result is that the music speaks!

There are many places where the slurring is self-consciously used to achieve particular effects, or to create variation – especially in sequences and repeated melodic patterns. However, a lot of the time, the slurring naturally follows the tuning system of the lute. Where adjacent notes can be played on the same string in the same position, the slur will often be used. If not, we can suspect an ulterior motive. String crossings – often but not always to or from open strings – also achieve a slurring effect. This naturally results in in asymmetric articulation, micro-phrasing and agogics, given that the lute’s open strings are tuned in minor thirds, major thirds, and fourths.

Parts where fewer or no slurs are used are often louder and more dramatic parts of the phrase, or mark beginnings of new phrases. Phrasing lines are the only expressive marks that appear once or twice in Bach’s manuscript. A tablature has no way of marking these, but it does show how the lutenist realised them on the instrument. Notes under these lines are often slurred three or four at a time, but we can see how where one of these longer lines leads to a ‘question’ (or gets louder), the slurs become shorter and more frequent.

It is also interesting to see the right-hand fingering when it appears. For example, in the final passage under the long phrasing line at the end of the opening section of the Prelude, the thumb is consciously used to split a slur into two which would otherwise be in four. Indeed, as it is more powerful, the thumb is often used to bring out lines, even on the higher string.


[1] Lutes, unlike some theorboes, were always tuned with double strings. Unfortunately, some lutenists pretend otherwise, and in doing so, combine the disadvantages of the guitar with those of the lute while gaining none of the benefits particular to either of them. [2] Not the lautenwerk. Of the pieces associated with the lute, only a copy of BWV 996 mentions that instrument “aufs Lautenwerck”. [3] The thumb has to jump four strings! [4] One can easily play the same not e on different strings [5] I have argued in the CD booklet that he was not acquainted with the intricacies of the instrument. I believe this is evident from several features in his lute music. [6] Time signatures were the most important and very clear way of showing tempi throughout the baroque. [7] The Breitkopf & Härtel catalogue from 1769 contained various solo pieces by Bach for lute. Possibly this was one of them.


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