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Gino Foti - Deep Devotion: J. S. Bach on Bass Guitar

Gino Foti - Deep Devotion: J. S. Bach on Bass Guitar Track Listing
  • Prelude, Suite 1 in G Major for Solo Cello (arr. in D Maj), BWV 1007
  • "Little" Fugue in G minor, BWV 578
  • Allegro, Concerto in A minor, after Vivaldi (Op. 3 No. 8), BWV 593
  • Prelude 1 in C Major, with Charles Gounod's "Ave Maria", BWV 846
  • Fughetta, Prelude and Fughetta in G Major (arr. in C Maj), BWV 902
  • Gute Nacht o Wesen, Chorale Prelude, Motet 3 in E minor, BWV 227
  • Badinerie, Orchestral Suite in B minor, BWV 1067
  • Inventio 14 in Bb Major, Inventions and Sinfonias, BWV 785
  • Prelude 3 in C# Major, The Well-Tempered Clavier - Book I, BWV 848
  • Contrapunctus 4 a 4, The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080
  • Allegro, Sonata in C Major for Solo Flute, BWV 1033
  • Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Bass Aria, Mass in B minor, BWV 232
  • Inventio 8 in F Major, Inventions and Sinfonias, BWV 779
  • Gigue, Suite in C minor for Lute (arr. in A min), BWV 997
  • "Goldberg" Variatio 1, Aria with Divers Variations, BWV 988
  • Minuet in D minor, AMB 1725 Notebook, BWV Anh. 132
  • Fugue in G Major "à la Gigue", BWV 577
  • Laß mein Herz die Münze sein, Bass Aria, BWV 163
  • Minuet II, Suite 1 in G Major for Unaccompanied Violoncello, BWV 1007
  • Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
Credits

Gino Foti - Electric Bass Guitar


Overview

"This is what I have to say about Bach's life's work: listen, play, love, revere - and keep your trap shut." ~ Albert Einstein

Einstein was absolutely correct, since it is doubtful that other musical works have been as over-analyzed as those of Johann Sebastian Bach. Doctoral dissertations, and their non-academic equivalent, that take over an hour to read, have been written about compositions that are less than a few minutes long, with single measures subjected to microscopic scrutiny.

Unfortunately, I must also ignore Einstein's advice. As an unknown, independent musician with no marketing budget, who deliberately avoids social media, I require some web content and context to help attract suitable listeners, and introduce novices.

If you are already familiar with Bach's music, and/or are one of my peers, then you probably understand his immense influence on bass players, maybe even aware of the instruction that he gave to students how "figured bass is the most perfect foundation of music".

For the uninitiated, one of Bach's objectives was to construct musical settings that maximized effect through minimal means. His bass lines created intriguing melodies and harmonies of their own, while simultaneously intertwining with all the upper voices, in polyphonic textures known as counterpoint, culminating in a vast collection of sacred and secular "strange, new, expressive, and beautiful ideas", as former student Johann Friedrich Agricola and son Carl Philipp Emanuel remarked in his obituary.

Striving for independence of each individual voice within a coherent whole, he weaved horizontal and vertical harmonic fabric into sonic tapestries that connect with listeners and performers on emotional (sometimes visceral), intellectual, and even spiritual levels. More often than not, this elaborate process began with the bass - the "Goldberg Variations" providing just one excellent example. For chorale settings, C. P. E. Bach wrote about "the very unusual manner my father uses to set up harmony in these settings, the natural flow of the inner voices as well as the bass".

On the organ, besides his left hand, biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel stated that Bach "played a real bass melody with his feet, which was often of such a nature that many a performer would hardly have been able to produce it with their five fingers", and for unaccompanied string instruments, he used implied polyphony by outlining multiple voices within a single instrumental line. Seamlessly fragmenting, alternating, and balancing various elements and ideas, he leads the listener's ears into believing a bass line and melody are being played together, impressing even Ludwig van Beethoven to call them "the greatest example in any art form of a master's ability to move with freedom and assurance, even in chains."

J. S. Bach's concepts, principles, and structures have been a constant source of inspiration in the development of my own bass guitar arrangements, and I hope that this release helps to disseminate his original compositions to a new audience, especially other bassists.


Composition & Arrangement Notes

"And ye, ye strings of deep devotion,
To him a song of praise now offer
In which the heart and soul rejoice."
~ BWV 110

NB: The BWV - Bach Werke Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalog) - numbering system groups his works by genre, not chronological order. Compositions believed to be incomplete, or of doubtful authenticity at the time of cataloging, are listed in the Anhang (Anh.), or Appendix.

Click on the song titles to stream music samples.


Prelude, Suite 1 in G Major for Unaccompanied Violoncello (arr. in D Maj), BWV 1007

"Monophonic music wherein a man has created a dance of God." ~ Wilfrid Mellers

Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied violoncello were composed sometime during his tenure as Kapellmeister (Music Director) at the court of Cöthen (Köthen), between 1717 and 1723. Since no original manuscripts are available with performance markings, they present many problems for cellists (and other instrumentalists), opening up all thirty-six movements to interpretation and artistic license - which may be exactly what Bach wanted.

Two copies from that time period exist: one by his student and friend, Johann Peter Kellner (circa 1726), the other by Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena (circa 1729), who also copied several other famous works throughout their marriage. Of the two, the latter is presumed to be the most accurate, with the assumption that Bach either supervised her work, and/or dictated any revisions he may have made.

Each suite contains six movements: a prelude, followed by five binary-form Baroque stylized dances. Bach inserted galanteries - movements that were not part of traditional suites of his time - of moderate tempos, between the majestic fourth and lively sixth movements, creating a systematically conceived cycle, in the following order:

  • Prelude
  • Allemande: German-origin, moderate tempo in duple rhythm
  • Courante: French-origin, fast tempo with both duple and triple rhythms
  • Sarabande: Spanish-origin, slow tempo in triple time, usually with an accent on the second beat
  • Galanteries: Minuets (Suites 1 & 2), Bourrées (3 & 4), and Gavottes (5 & 6)
  • Gigue: Celtic-origin, fast tempo in triple time
Most likely, Bach did not play the instrument as we know it today, meaning a cello da gamba (played between the legs) with suggestions that he played either a violoncello da spalla (on the shoulder), or a viola da braccio (on the arm) since he was already proficient on the violin. Either way, these suites are remarkable given their technical difficulty, and what comes across as an intimate and profound knowledge of the cello, with its idiomatic writing and usage of its lower register - which obviously appeals to bass guitarists like myself.

Add to this, the newness of the cello at the time, the last suite being written for a five-stringed version, or a viola pomposa (wider than normal), the effect of implied three or four voice counterpoint and polyphony within single musical lines, as well as the cycle's architecture, and you have not only a masterpiece for the cello, but of the entire European classical repertoire.

The prelude of the first suite is the most recognizable movement of all thirty-six, and one of the most often performed solo cello works. Written in two distinctive sections, the first features a steady pulse of sixteenth-notes, with frequently alternating measures of arpeggios and melodic fragments utilizing chords and scales, transitioning between harmonies. Terraced dynamics are used for contrast within phrases, and the motion-filled journey comes to a halt on a fermata - which in the Baroque era often signified only the end of a phrase/section, and that a "breath" is to be taken.

The second section features a chromatic ascent, gradually building to an exquisite climax, concluding with an inversion of the opening. Scales are used more than arpeggios, and a pedal point is used in alternation with melodic lines. Harmonies are expressed with a triad first, and then with a scale. The harmonic structure implied throughout the prelude is that of a three-voice work.

Since this prelude has been performed many times by other bass players in its original key, I decided to transpose it to D Major, dropping my E string down a whole step, in the vein of classical guitarists. I should note that Bach himself transcribed at least one of these suites, with the third reborn as Suite No. 5 in C minor for Lute (BWV 995), with an autograph manuscript in existence.

I thought that by using the top three strings as drones and/or pedal points, taking advantage of their natural resonances like Bach did on the original, as well as adding some of my own ideas for harmonic interest, it would be a good method to convey the variety of emotions and moods of this composition, and allow me to write an arrangement that was different from others performed on a four-string bass guitar.


"Little" Fugue in G minor, BWV 578

"Bach is the supreme genius of music. This man, who knows everything and feels everything, cannot write one note, however unimportant it may appear, which is anything but transcendent. He has reached the heart of every noble thought, and has done it in the most perfect way." ~ Pablo Casals

The basic components and traditional techniques of fugues had been in place for well over a century before J. S. Bach, but his name is directly tied to the style as if he invented it, due to his numerous contributions and single-handed evolution of its forms and textures. A fugue is basically a polyphonic composition, or contrapuntal technique, with spaced entries of a principle theme, or subject, and melodic lines (countersubjects) imitating it, usually in three or more parts. Frequent techniques used on themes include: augmentation, diminution, inversion, invertible counterpoint, pedal point, retrograde, and stretto - overlapping instances of the fugue subject.

This is my second arrangement of this elegant piece, that like all the other early organ works I have chosen to perform on this release, has no autograph manuscript in existence. It may have been composed during the early years of his second period at the court in Weimar, circa 1709, but its origins could be from his tenure as organist for the Neue Kirche (Bonifatiuskirche) in Arnstadt, between 1703 and 1707.

His second oldest son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, wrote to his father's first biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel, in 1775: "Already in his youth, simple reflection enabled him to become a pure and strong master of the fugue." Johann Adam Reincken's works, a huge inspiration on young Sebastian, might have been the primary model for this fugue, which I recorded a few years ago for one of my world fusion albums. This is what I wrote at the time:

"I have listened to Johann Sebastian Bach's music since before I was born - literally - as I am certain that his works were played by my parents while I was in utero. When I decided to break a twenty year tradition and perform somebody else's music, there was only one obvious choice for me.

What wasn't obvious was which composition to choose among the hundreds I love. I narrowed a list of two dozen possibilities down to six, and finally decided on the Fugue in G minor, cataloged as BWV 578. This is one of his most recognizable tunes, usually referred to as the "Little" Fugue - because of its length, not because of its musical importance. It was also the most challenging one for me out of the six, since I would need to arrange and synchronize four bass guitars.

On the original score for organ, the pedal is honored as a full equal to the three manual voices, which arrive in descending order: soprano, alto, tenor - and finally - bass. (Given the tonal range of a standard four-string bass guitar, my voices are more like: countertenor, tenor, baritone & bass.)

This fugue features various melodic contours, harmonic character & structure changes, contrapuntal rhythms & melodies, dynamics, call and response sections, and syncopated rhythms - all brilliantly arranged in less than four minutes.

In hindsight, I probably should have chosen one of his less challenging compositions, or one that required fewer bass guitars, to achieve a better result. Although far from perfect, I think this track is a solid first effort, and worthy of addition to this album. At some point in the future, I intend to edit, remix with new panning schemes & reissue it, to give it the reverence it deserves."

Since then, I have used a different bass guitar to record with, and fixed a latency problem between my analog rig and digital recording equipment, which now allows me to play multi-bass arrangements even tighter than before. Also, while relearning this piece, I found better fretboard locations for some of the material in the upper voices, so a brand new arrangement/recording was the only option.

Given the above, I am extremely happy with this revision, as the tenor and bass/pedal parts are better represented in the mix, and it also helped me to discover some details of this work that I failed to hear the first time. One of the many facets of Bach's music is that even after repeated listening, you can always find something "new" to enjoy, either as a listener or a performer.

NB: The "list of two dozen possibilities" mentioned above comprises all twenty tracks of this release. I chose that number for conceptual reasons, since that is how many children Bach fathered, although sadly, only half lived past their childhood.


Allegro 1, Concerto in A minor, after Vivaldi (Op. 3 No. 8), BWV 593

" [...] there must be order, continuity, and proportion that must be brought to bear on ideas, and that to such an end, some kind of guide was necessary. The then newly published violin concertos of Vivaldi served him for such a guide. He heard them so often praised as excellent compositions that he conceived the happy idea of arranging them all for his clavier." ~ Johann Nikolaus Forkel

This is one of my favorite Bach transcriptions of Antonio Vivaldi's violin concertos from the L’Estro Armonico (Harmonic Inspiration) collection, published in 1711. His encounter with Vivaldi was courtesy of Prince Johann Ernst during Bach's time as Konzertmeister (Concertmaster) at the Weimar ducal court, sometime between 1713 and 1717. Johann Ernst was a gifted violinist and keyboard player, who owned an extensive library of contemporary instrumental music, and added to it during his frequent trips throughout Europe. Returning to Weimar in the summer of 1713 from Amsterdam, then a center of music publishing, he brought back editions of Vivaldi's concertos and sonatas, among several others.

Vivaldi's original composition, Op. 3, Concerto No. 8 in A minor (RV 522) is a double concerto that was arranged with the melody integrating the primary parts of both violins. The first allegro features a dynamic, energetic opening theme for the ripieno (accompanying instruments) followed by virtuosic episodes for the two soloists playing both separately, and in imitation. It showcases rich scoring and the ritornello (recurring passage) form of Italian concerto styles, typical of Archangelo Corelli and Giuseppi Torelli - both associated with the Bolognese school - blended with the lyricism and majestic themes of Venetian operas, like those of Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni.

Out of all the composers that inspired Bach during his Weimar tenure (and beyond), a strong argument can be made that none was more important than Vivaldi, evident from the body of works that were either directly influenced, or that he transcribed. Vivaldi's music provided Bach with new ideas in the ritornello form, harmonic progressions, and incisive themes & rhythms that were compelling alternatives to the German style he had followed in his early works. At that time, transcribing instrumental works by other composers was an important tool for self-education, but the possibility that they were written solely for the Prince's enjoyment and/or instruction also exists.

Bach arranged this concerto on organ for two manuals and pedal, assigning the tutti (all instruments together) sections to the Oberwerk (upper keyboard), and the solo violins to the Rückpositiv (chair organ), along the lines of his transcriptions of Johann Ernst's original works. Although he followed Vivaldi's work closely, he also personalized it by lightening the texture in some places while thickening it in others, embellishing the melodies, strengthening the harmony of the tutti sections by filling in the chords, and arranging a demanding pedal part - a feature of many Bach organ works.

I arranged this movement for two bass guitars, following Bach's transcription closely while adding some of my ideas along the way. I hope that through the panned mix, some interactions that are difficult to discern on the organ can be heard better, like Vivaldi's original work.

Since Bach and Vivaldi died on the same day, nine years apart, I purposely mastered this mixdown on July 28 as a tribute, and given that my father loved their music, and introduced both masters to me during early childhood, I dedicate this arrangement in loving memory of him.


Prelude 1 in C Major, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, with Charles Gounod’s "Ave Maria", BWV 846

"Bach is a colossus of Rhodes, beneath whom all musicians pass and will continue to pass. [...] If all the music written since Bach's time should be lost, it could be reconstructed on the foundation which Bach laid." ~ Charles Gounod

The Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria" is a singularity in musical history, with two great composers collaborating on a piece over 130 years apart. It consists of a melody by French Romantic composer Charles Gounod, layered over Bach's Prelude in C Major - one of his most beloved secular pieces. After Gounod added the sacred text, it became his most famous work, both during and after his lifetime, somewhat to his chagrin, as he did not deem it important enough to even mention it in his autobiography. In fact, it has been written that he referred to it as an espièglerie, or "impish prank".

In 1722, Bach published Book I of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier), a collection of twenty-four preludes and fugues, encompassing every major and minor key - then referred to simply as modes. He described it as: "Preludes and Fugues going through all the tones and semitones, both as regards the tertia major or Ut Re Mi and as concerns the tertia minor or Re Mi Fa. For the advantage and use of the musical youth desirous of learning, as well for the pastime of those already skilled in this study".

Several of the preludes, including this one, were revisions of works written for his oldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, in his Clavier-Büchlein, or Klavierbüchlein (Little Clavier Book) from a few years earlier. Within its simple construction of thirty-four bars of sixteenth-note arpeggios, followed by a C Major chord, an inventive harmony coupled with frequent dissonance is incorporated.

The version that Gounod would use has thirty-six measures, with the additional "Schwencke measure" named after Hamburg music director Christian Friedrich Gottlieb Schwencke, once a pupil of Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel. He produced a manuscript of the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, but it is not known if the extra measure, between numbers 22 & 23 of J. S. Bach's manuscript, was actually added by him, or already included in a third-party copy that Schwencke used as his source.

The "Schwencke measure" was a result of the original composition being able to be subdivided into groups of four measures, except for 21 through 23. Expanding this group to four smoothed the compression and irregularity, but does not necessarily improve Bach's harmonic progression.

Fast forward to 1840, where Gounod, a friend of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and his sister Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, is introduced to Bach's music by the pair. In his autobiography, he writes: "Thanks to her great gifts and wonderful memory, I made the acquaintance of various masterpieces of German music which I had never heard before, among them a number of the works of Sebastian Bach - sonatas, fugues, preludes, and concertos - and many of Mendelssohn's compositions, which were like a glimpse of a new world to me."

Over a decade later, while visiting his fiancée Anna Zimmermann, and her father Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann, also a pianist and composer, Gounod sat at the piano and played, or improvised, a beautiful melody over Bach’s prelude.

From here, the exact details and timeline are unelaborated, but obviously either Zimmerman or Gounod wrote down the melody on sheet music, and in 1852, a concert at Zimmerman's house was organized where it was performed - scored for piano, violin, and a small choir. An instrumental version was published in 1853 as the Méditation sur le Premier Prélude de Piano de Sebastian Bach (CG 89), or Meditation on the First Piano Prelude of Sebastian Bach.

The first text added by Gounod was the poem Vers écrits sur l'album d'une jeune dame (Lines written in a young lady's album), by Alphonse de Lamartine. According to legend, Gounod sent a copy of this hybrid work to one of his students, Rosalie Jousset, a married woman. Her mother-in-law, Aurélie Jousset, felt that this was very inappropriate, probably aware that de Lamartine had written the poem for a young woman he admired, and promptly returned the manuscript to Gounod, with the words of the Latin prayer written below de Lamartine's poetry. Evidently, Gounod took her suggestion to heart, and the first edition of the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria was published in 1859.

Given the possibility that Pierre Zimmermann also contributed some additional voicing to the "Méditation", and evidence pointing to the addition of the Ave Maria text not being Gounod's original idea, these may be some of the reasons why he never took this composition seriously.

Traditional Latin text:

Ave, Maria, grátia plena,
Dóminus tecum.
Benedícta tu in muliéribus,
et benedíctus fructus ventris tui,
Iesus.
Sancta María, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatóribus,
nunc et in hora mortis nostræ.
Amen.

Charles Gounod's text:

Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus, fructus ventris tui,
Jesus.
Sancta Maria, sancta Maria, Maria,
ora pro nobis, nobis peccatoribus
nunc et in hora, in hora mortis nostrae.
Amen! Amen!

Translation:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee,
blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God,
pray for us sinners, now, and at
the hour of our death.
Amen.

Bach's Prelude in C Major has been performed by many bass players of all levels, so there was no need for another version, which is why I preferred to arrange this collaborative work. With four bass guitars, I was able to split Bach's prelude - panned left and center-right - as in the original score, the two bass notes are sustained; and Gounod's instrumental version - panned left-center and right - to give all four parts equal weight, and differentiate it from the usual versions where the vocalist is featured, and the prelude is almost always watered down to "elevator music".

Since this has always been one of my mother's favorite sacred works, I dedicate this arrangement to her... even after she insisted that Luciano Pavarotti's version is much better!


Fughetta, Prelude and Fughetta in G Major (arr. in C Maj), BWV 902

"Play conscientiously the fugues of good masters, above all those of Sebastian Bach." ~ Robert Schumann

This work, a condensed fugue in 3/8 time signature, is better known in its incarnation as the Fugue in A♭ Major, of Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 886/2), which includes several reworkings and transpositions of previous preludes and fugues, with greater technical and structural difficulty than Book I.

It is one of many examples of Bach refining older material into new works that yielded improvements in a number of musical details, something that he did continuously, even on his deathbed, revising one of his chorale preludes for organ via dictation to (most likely) his student and son-in-law, Johann Christoph Altnickol.

I have always enjoyed the earlier version more, so that is what I arranged for three bass guitars. With only two, the chordal passages did not sound that good to me, as they were either heavily weighted on one side, due to my panning scheme, or not distinct enough to appreciate the harmonic progression. I did not see the point in performing a work by Bach where the listener cannot make out the individual lines, so there was no other option. Luckily, it was only a few hours of extra work, due to the brevity of the piece. I also transposed the key signature to C Major, so all the notes were within the range of my four-string.


Gute Nacht, o Wesen, Chorale Prelude, Jesu meine Freude, Motet 3 in E minor, BWV 227

"Now there is music from which a man can learn something" ~ Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (after listening to a Bach motet, in Leipzig)

This motet - which has several musical definitions, including a vocal composition in polyphonic style, based on a Biblical or similar prose text, in several sections - is the earliest, longest, and most ambitious of Bach’s six authenticated motets written for the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas's Church), in Leipzig, between 1723 and 1727. (NB: The remains of Johann Sebastian Bach have been entombed in the Thomaskirche since 1950 - exactly two centuries after his death.)

It is also the only one which combines a complete chorale with text from the Bible, as well as using five voices (SSATB) for the majority of the work. Evidence points to more motets having been written, and obviously lost, and there are some doubtful attributions among other surviving ones. It may have been written for the memorial service of Johanna Maria Käsin (Kees), wife of the Postmaster General, on July 18, 1723. Three of the choral movements are found as copies dating to 1735, but it is difficult to know if these were copied from an existing score, revisions, or if the entire work was completed at that time.

Comprised of eleven movements of varying textures, it takes its title, Jesu meine Freude (Jesus, my Joy) from the chorale by Johann Franck, on which the odd-numbered sections are set to, which incorporates a beautiful melody written in Dorian mode by Johann Crüger, in 1653. The even-numbered sections include passages from the Epistle to the Romans, specifically the eighth chapter, as both texts share common ground. The result is a work purposely arranged in axial symmetry, via a five-part fugue at its center, that is as eloquent and impressive in its architecture, as it is in its musical content.

Movements:

  • Jesu, meine Freude
  • Es ist nun nichts Verdammliches
  • Unter deinem Schirmen
  • Denn das Gesetz
  • Trotz dem alten Drachen
  • Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich
  • Weg mit allen Schätzen
  • So aber Christus in euch ist
  • Gute Nacht, o Wesen
  • So nun der Geist
  • Weicht, ihr Trauergeister
Gute Nacht Text:

Gute Nacht, o Wesen,
Das die Welt erlesen!
Mir gefällst du nicht.
Gute Nacht, ihr Sünden,
Bleibet weit dahinten,
Kommt nicht mehr ans Licht!
Gute Nacht, du Stolz und Pracht!
Dir sei ganz, du Lasterleben,
Gute Nacht gegeben!

Translation:

Good night, existence
that cherishes the world!
You do not please me.
Good night, sins,
stay far away,
never again come to light!
Good night, pride and glory!
To you utterly, life of corruption,
be good night given!

In this movement, written in A minor, the two soprano voices invert and cross in frequent double suspensions over a walking tenor line, creating a multiplex of striking dissonance, into which the cantus firmus (preexistent melody) given to the alto, and transposed down a fifth, unexpectedly and mystically floats in and out. The result is absolutely mesmerizing.

I specifically chose this ethereal piece since it was scored senza basso (without bass), as the absence of it is meant to symbolize detachment from our earth-bound nature, worldly existence, etc., a device used by Bach in other works. I wanted to challenge myself, and see if I could write an arrangement where its poignant and delicate nature could be translated as four bass voices.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of all modern popular music, Bach's works are like gold - highly malleable, always retaining their luster, as well as their value. You can change instrumentation, key signatures, tempos, and various other elements - to a reasonable extent, of course - and still end up with a wonderful arrangement.


Badinerie, Orchestral Suite (aka Flute Ouverture) in B minor, BWV 1067

"To be a good musician and not have the highest regard for the elder Bach is a contradiction in terms." ~ Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg

Bach's second orchestral suite is one of his most beloved instrumental works - scored for strings, continuo, and solo flute, in seven movements. Four orchestral suites have survived, with more probably composed, and lost forever. He preferred the term ouverture, in the tradition of his German contemporaries, who used it for orchestral works headed by a "French overture" - expanded upon, and standardized by Jean-Baptiste Lully (born Giovanni Battista Lulli), composer of instrumental music in King Louis XIV's court - followed by traditional dances, in this case: rondeau, sarabande, minuet, bourrée, polonaise, and badinerie.

To my ears, this suite is a blend of French dance movements and Italian concertos, a mix of traditional and modern (for that time) stylized dances - meaning that they were intended for listening pleasure, and not actual dancing. The sarabande and minuet sound like they were influenced more by Vivaldi, or even the Scarlattis: Alessandro & Domenico, than French music. Either way, this suite - in fact, all four - are excellent examples of what Bach could create when tasked with composing lighter and more festive music.

Performance material dates this suite to 1738 or 1739, coinciding with Bach's resumption of directorship of Leipzig's Collegium Musicum concerts in October 1739, after a two-year hiatus, but it may also contain some reworked movements from his Cöthen period.

The badinerie, which translates to "jesting" or "dalliance", is a showpiece for the flutist/flautist in the ensemble. A relatively rare character piece, since there is no particular dance rhythm associated with it, written in 2/4 time signature, and brief in its length, its vibrancy and fast pace always leaves you wanting to hear more.

Since this movement has been covered numerous times by myriad ensembles, even in various modern genres, and at the heart of it, the entire suite could be scored as an unaccompanied flute concerto, I chose to arrange a composite for one bass guitar by assimilating some of the accompaniment into the flute part. As difficult as it was to keep up with the virtuosic, perpetual motion themes, I also decided to perform it in two different octaves/registers, in keeping with the playful mood of this piece.


Inventio 14 in B♭ Major, Inventions and Sinfonias, BWV 785

"I think that if I were required to spend the rest of my life on a desert island, and to listen to or play the music of any one composer during all that time, that composer would almost certainly be Bach. I really can’t think of any other music which is so all-encompassing, which moves me so deeply and so consistently, and which, to use a rather imprecise word, is valuable beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful than that - its humanity." ~ Glenn Gould

The Inventions and Sinfonias, aka the Two and Three-Part Inventions, are two sets of fifteen short, contrapuntal compositions that began as instructive pieces for his oldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, in his Clavier-Büchlein, or Klavierbüchlein (Little Clavier Book) dated 1720, as Praeambula (Preambles) and Fantasias.

Bach re-organized the collection into an ascending scheme of eight major and seven minor key signatures, in 1723, to follow the structure of The Well-Tempered Clavier, published a year earlier. They became the first part of the curriculum for all his new keyboard students, followed by the Suites and Partitas, the "WTC", and studies of Albinoni figured bass - the latter with added improvements by Bach.

He titled it Aufrichtige Anleitung (Upright Instruction), and described it as: "sincere instruction, wherein lovers of the keyboard, especially those desirous of learning are shown a clear method, not only of learning to play clearly in two parts, but also, after further progress, of dealing well and correctly with three obbligato parts. At the same time, they are shown not only how to come by good inventiones, but also how to develop them well. Above all, however, they are shown how to arrive at a cantabile style of playing, while also acquiring a strong foretaste of composition."

As both a demonstration cycle, and one of the numerous instrumental collections from his time in Cöthen, the Inventions and Sinfonias are unique, since they do not quite fit into the Baroque style, with Bach deciding that a new nomenclature is needed: inventio, for the two-part ideas that emphasize voice leading (probably borrowed from Italian composers he was familiar with: Francesco Antonio Bonporti who used the term in 1712, and/or Giovanni Battista Vitali from his 1689 comprehensive study of counterpoint), and sinfonia for the pieces that emphasize triadic harmonies. For the second time within a few years, J. S. Bach, as musical architect and developer, had broken new ground, and erected a structure that changed the landscape of keyboard music forever.

One of my favorite inventions, number fourteen (born as Praeambulum 8) stands apart from the others. The range in the left hand is wide, although it begins with a simple four-note accompaniment figure, spaced between long rests. The right hand begins with a motive that is one of just two basic rhythmic figures used throughout. As the composition progresses, the left hand becomes an equal partner in melody, the right in accompaniment, with both forming a canonic relationship towards the end of yet another work with perfect balance - a primary feature of the entire cycle.

In less than two minutes, Bach demonstrates to his students and aspiring players how a few, brief ideas can be utilized by repeating them in various forms and modulations, as well as constantly changing density, and using different voicings.

Adapting well to two bass guitars, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience for me to both arrange and record, since I was able to use my first take for the "left hand", and the second one for the "right hand".


Prelude 3 in C♯ Major, The Well-Tempered Clavier - Book I, BWV 848

"The Well-Tempered Clavier is the highest and best school; no one will ever create a more ideal one." ~ Frédéric Chopin

"Let The Well-Tempered Clavier be your daily bread. Then you will certainly become a solid musician" ~ Robert Schumann

One of my favorite preludes from "the 48", referring to both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier (Das Wohltemperierte Klavier), each a collection of preludes and fugues in all twenty-four major and minor keys.

Book I was compiled in 1722 during Bach's appointment in Cöthen, and Book II twenty years later, while he was in Leipzig. Regarded as one of the most influential works in the history of keyboard music, and European classical in general, it has guided and inspired masters like: Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Frédéric Chopin, Claude Debussy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, and Richard Wagner, among countless others.

Bach used the term "well-tempered" from German scholar and organist Andreas Werckmeister's 1707 work Musicalische Paradoxal-Discourse, to help establish a system where compositions could be written and performed in all twenty-four key signatures without the loss of characteristics inherent in them, which was not possible when octaves were sub-divided in equal semitones.

By bringing Werckmeister's speculative theory to life, Bach built a towering musical edifice, in the heart of a remote landscape, that will stand the test of time. His pedagogical description of: "Preludes and Fugues going through all the tones and semitones, both as regards the tertia major or Ut Re Mi and as concerns the tertia minor or Re Mi Fa. For the advantage and use of the musical youth desirous of learning, as well for the pastime of those already skilled in this study" does not do its contents any justice.

Although Bach's name is usually associated with fugues, these preludes are equally as splendid in their free forms, with their irregular number of measures, either in individual themes and phrases, or their entire length. More than mere introductions to the fugues, they are unique pieces with individual attributes, mostly developed independently of their counterparts. They form a musical entity of their own as a fusion of miniature arias, canzonettas, concertos, dance preludes, figured preludes, sinfonias, sonatas, etc. - in short, they are a world within a world.

The third prelude of Book I was originally written in C Major, with Bach transposing the key signature to seven sharps, and adjusting some accidentals. With a minuet-like 3/8 meter, lively tempo, rapid-fire sixteenth-note figures, a syncopated section fourteen measures long with frequent modulation, chordal passages, transitions, and a "call and response" coda, there are numerous technical challenges to overcome in order to achieve the proper fluidity, and set the bright, joyful mood that this short piece requires - at least, in my opinion. There are dozens of recorded interpretations by professional keyboardists at a varying range of tempos, but I have always preferred the faster ones.

Given all of the above, I ended up employing a variety of right-hand techniques, including alternating index, middle, and ring fingers - which was an excellent fit with the time signature - to record this difficult arrangement on two bass guitars. Just like performing it on keyboard, the approach I used was to isolate each section, and loop them individually to train my fingers to maintain the motion needed for at least double the number of measures written, eventually re-assembling the whole piece before recording it.


Contrapunctus 4 a 4, The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080

"Bach is a strange mixture of the meta-physical and the emotional, a fitting father-figure to classical music. Grounded in the old-world picture, drawn to the music of the spheres, he produced oratorios and passions of profoundly human dimensions, but his music also seems - and I say this in spite of my own rationalism - to point beyond, nowhere more so than in his greatest fugues where emotion and the cosmic achieve a thrilling synthesis." ~ Ian Bostridge

Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) is one of four large-scale, monothematic cycles that J. S. Bach composed and refined during the last decade of his life. The later/second edition, published posthumously in 1751, consisting of fourteen fugues and four canons, is an in-depth exploration of all the variations and fugal counterpoints that are possible from a single soggetto (principal subject), and generally considered to be one of his greatest endeavors, as well as the definitive contrapuntal work in the history of music.

The cycle is transcribed as a score, as opposed to keyboard notation, but is designed to be performed on a keyboard instrument - most likely a harpsichord. Bach obviously wanted students to clearly observe the independent character of each individual voice, and their interactions. Also, open score was the standard keyboard notation for counterpoint during his time.

All eighteen movements are based upon a simple theme, derived from the first twelve notes of Contrapunctus 1, written in the key of D minor. Some evidence points to it being inspired by hexachord-based works, typical of composers/keyboardists like Girolamo Frescobaldi, Johann Jakob Froberger, and Samuel Scheidt.

The earlier/first version of 1742 contains twelve fugues and two canons. In the mid-1740s, Bach expanded the concluding sections of several fugues, and added four new movements, including Contrapunctus 4, which introduced a modification of the inverted theme, and Contrapunctus 14, a quadruple fugue that features a four-note subject constructed on the letters of his surname, B - A - C - H, which are the German note names for B flat - A - C - B natural, as its third theme.

By mid-1749, Bach's health began to deteriorate, he never fully recovered, and died a year later, leaving the manuscript of Contrapunctus 14 unfinished, specifically in the middle of the third section. Added to the second edition was this note by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel: "Über dieser Fuge, wo der Nahme BACH im Contrasubject angebracht worden, ist der Verfasser gestorben." ("While working on this fugue, which features the name BACH in the countersubject, the composer died.")

Over the years, this note has originated the myth of "The Unfinished Fugue", and caused confusion as some people seem to think that Bach was right in the middle of composing it, and died once he decided to use his surname - as if God punished him for self-glorification. Others are under the misconception that this was the only time that he had used the B♭ - A - C - B♮ sequence of notes in any of his works.

First of all, Bach would have already worked out all the possibilities for interconnection of the four themes before wasting any of his time - as well as ink and paper. The mere existence of a handwritten manuscript is proof of that. Among the many biographical quotes on how Bach approached his compositions, C. P. E. said: "When he listened to a rich and many-voiced fugue, he could soon say, after the first entries of the subjects, what contrapuntal devices would be possible to apply and which of them the composer by rights ought to apply."

Also, a draft copy is mentioned in his obituary that "was to contain four themes [...] inverted note for note in all four voices", which unfortunately has been lost. This could allude to Contrapunctus 14. One possibility is that he temporarily abandoned it, to move on to another work, and due to his failing eyesight/health, was never able to revisit it. A remote chance is that he intentionally left it "unfinished", as one of his musical puzzles/riddles, along the lines of the triple canon for six voices, Kanon zu sechs Stimmen (BWV 1076), whose sheet music appears in his famous portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, and other submissions he made to Lorenz Christoph Mizler, student and founder of the Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences, during his last few years.

As far as his surname is concerned, the four-note sequence had been used sparingly in the past, but never elaborated. There is a second-hand account that he was once asked about this very subject, and Bach's reply was that he considered it arrogant to do so, despite its thematic possibilities. Biographer Philipp Spitta wrote that his son, Wilhelm Friedemann, correctly stated to him that only in The Art of Fugue did he use his name as the subject of a fugue.

Actually, the first occurrence of it is towards the end of Contrapunctus 4, where it forms part of a meandering, chromatic countersubject to the main theme. It is somewhat concealed, but it is there. It also appears in Contrapunctus 8, this time disguised through inversion, and once again as a bright eighth-note theme at the midpoint of Contrapunctus 11. All four of the longest movements in the cycle contain the B-A-C-H theme, in some form.

The 1751 printed edition contained several errors in the order of the fugues, and included the attachment of the "deathbed chorale", Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (BWV 641), which is not part of this cycle, and was meant as compensation for "The Unfinished Fugue".

Most scholars believe that the correct order should have been:

  • Simple fugues: Contrapunctus 1 to 4
  • Stretto fugues, or Counterfugues: Contrapunctus 5 to 7
  • Double & Triple fugues, or Fugues with multiple themes: Contrapunctus 8 to 11
  • Mirror fugues: Contrapunctus 12 & 13
  • Quadruple fugue: Contrapunctus 14
  • Four Canons (as an Appendix)
To this day, there are still debates whether this was the order that J. S. Bach intended, if he planned to write more settings, or even if Contrapunctus 14 was meant to be added to the cycle. If it was destined to be the final piece, then logic and reason dictate that the soggetto would have been the fourth theme, as it appears in every other movement of the cycle.

For this release, I arranged Contrapunctus 4 with three basses in standard tuning, and one in drop D. It is a jubilant transmutation of the mood of Contrapunctus 3 - which appears as Contrapunctus II (Roman numeral 2) in the 1742 edition. Like its predecessor, it is a four-voice fugue based on the inversion of the main theme - beginning on the dominant A, instead of the tonic D. Although "simple" in structural design, Contrapunctus 4 is a virtuosic work, combining both harmonic and rhythmic elements of the previous two fugues.

It features sixteen entries of the subject - four in every voice - and a recurring two-note motive, sometimes referred to as a "cuckoo" figure, that links this piece to Contrapunctus 1, uniting all four simple fugues. It also introduces stretto (overlapping instances of the fugue subject) twice: first in the tenor and bass voices, then in the alto and soprano, preparing the listener for the next three fugues, making it more of simple-stretto hybrid fugue.

Unlike some recorded performances, which sound like cold, static MIDI files to me, I used the same levels of commitment and enthusiasm as the other arrangements on this album, focusing on the balance and blend of all four voices, and adding some expressive and rhythmic freedom through articulation, dynamics, and tempo throughout the piece. I find it extremely difficult to believe that Bach intended for the entire cycle to be treated purely as an academic exercise, and that any performances of it should be secondary, or auxiliary, to the written score.

Although not as complex as some of the contrapuntal settings that follow, I consider it one of the showpieces of The Art of Fugue, as there is a level of musical sophistication in Contrapunctus 4 that others seem to lack, and intangible qualities that I really cannot express in words.


Allegro, Sonata in C Major for Unaccompanied Flute, BWV 1033

"Any musician, even the most gifted, takes a place second to Bach's at the very start." ~ Paul Hindemith

Performance material dates this sonata to 1731 in the Zimmermannsches Kaffeehaus, Gottfried Zimmerman's coffehouse, as part of the Ordinaire Concerten, when Bach was the director of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. The manuscript, which was copied by his second oldest son, Carl Philipp Emanuel - who also wrote many works for the transverse flute - has caused a debate about which Bach is the actual composer.

It has been performed and recorded for both unaccompanied flute, as well as for flute (or recorder) and basso continuo, or figured bass - partially improvised accompaniment played on a bass line - but if you listen closely to the latter version(s), you will find the continuo parts to be lacking in the musical substance and maturity that is typical of J. S. Bach. In the allegro, especially, the accompaniment is well below the usual harmonic richness found elsewhere. Therefore, I believe that this sonata was originally composed for unaccompanied flute by Sebastian Bach, and the continuo was added later by a young Carl, either as "homework", or through his own volition.

It is improbable that C. P. E. would have attributed one of his own works to his father. During his lifetime, his music was much more popular, and he was considered a better composer. In fact, throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century, C. P. E. was the one referred to as the "Great Bach".

Some scholars believe that this sonata was written during Bach's time in Cöthen - between 1717 and 1723 - for the French flautist Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin, who was a teacher to his older brother Johann Jacob, and who Sebastian had previously met in Dresden. This opens up the possibility that the continuo part was added by a "third party" at this time, maybe one of Bach's pupils, and that C. P. E. was acting merely as a copyist in 1731.

Either way, this movement sounds more convincing as a solo piece to me, as the harmonies imposed by the figured bass are already inherent in the flute. Structurally, it is written in binary form, in 3/4 time signature, with the first theme played twice, followed by a second that is also repeated. The relentless sixteenth-note passages give this movement a perpetual motion, spiritoso (spirited) feel, as well as providing a near-blank canvas for the flautist to experiment with articulation and dynamics.

For my arrangement, I used drop D tuning, and opted to play each theme in two different octaves/registers - just like the badinerie - turning this allegro into more of an étude for the electric bass guitar.


Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Bass Aria, Mass in B minor, BWV 232

"And if we look at the works of J.S. Bach - a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity - on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday, from delightful arabesques to an overflowing of religious feeling greater than anything we have since discovered." ~ Claude Debussy

"It may well be true that Bach’s Mass in B minor - assembled, no less than created - has become, some two hundred and fifty years after he bound its 27 movements together, the most remarkable musical allegory of human existence - its pain, aspiration and promises." ~ Robert Shaw

The Mass in B minor, considered by many to be Bach's magnum opus, is a musical setting of the Latin Mass - or to be more precise, a missa tota (full mass). Unlike his other monumental creations, which emerged as a whole, this is a compilation that took Bach about twenty-five years to assemble, finishing shortly before his death in 1750.

The third part dates to 1724, while he worked in Weimar, and although it does begin in B minor, the prevalent key signature is its relative, D Major. In fact, Bach did not give this work its title, writing instead: Missa; Symbolum Nicenum; Sanctus; and Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem, adding the Roman numerals I to IV, and his signature closing initials S.D.G. - for Soli Deo Gloria (To the glory of God alone), only at the end of Dona nobis pacem, in the 1748-49 time period.

This suggests that Bach intended for the work to be considered as a whole, but not necessarily to be performed as such, especially given the total length of all four parts. Conceptually, the sections of each individual part work extremely well together, as well as the entire Mass, revealing yet another aspect of Bach's genius.

The obvious question of why a German Protestant would even bother to create/assemble a sacred work exclusively based on the Latin/Roman Catholic mass, and then do it in a magnitude that it could never be performed in its entirety, in any church settings, is somewhat difficult to answer. Maybe, for a composer who constantly expressed his intense faith in God, a Catholic liturgy, with a much wider accessibility, was a better and/or more intelligent option than a Lutheran one.

The bass aria Et in Spiritum Sanctum is the nineteenth section, and appears in Part II: Symbolum Nicenum (Nicene Creed) - one of the fundamental creeds of Christianity, drawn up by the Council of Nicaea, which was a meeting of bishops in 325 AD. It is much longer than the Apostles' Creed, and usually used by Christians during the celebration of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Its three sections state beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost & other aspects of Christianity - the latter being the topic of this aria.

Written in A Major, in 6/8 time signature, and marked andantino - a little slower than andante (walking pace), usually a little faster than adagio (slowly, with great expression) - it features two oboes d'amore - which have a more tranquil and serene tone than an oboe - along with the bass voice. (NB: Since the range is higher than the earlier bass aria, Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, some modern-day performances use a baritone voice.) Bach uses lilting rhythms, in triple meter, setting a pastoral mood throughout, in what I think is one of the highlights of Part II.

Lyrics:

Et in Spiritum Sanctum,
Dominum et vivificantem,
qui ex Patre Filioque procedit;
qui cum Patre et Filio
simul adoratur et conglorificatur;
qui locutus est per Prophetas.
Et unam sanctam catholicam
et apostolicam ecclesiam.

Translation:

And I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the Lord and Giver of Life,
who prodeedeth from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son
together is worshiped and glorified,
who spake by the Prophets.
And I believe in one holy Catholic
and Apostolic Church.

For my arrangement, I used four bass guitars, adding some call-and-response between all four voices throughout, as well as a few embellishments towards the end, to slightly complicate the original setting, while still maintaining the older church/plainsong style of the original.


Inventio 8 in F Major, Inventions and Sinfonias, BWV 779

"In Bach, the vital cells of music are united as the world is in God." ~ Gustav Mahler

Based on a theme featuring ascending arpeggios and descending scale passages, this sonata allegro (exposition, development, and recapitulation) in disguise is another one of my favorite inventions.

As I wrote earlier, the Inventions and Sinfonias, aka the Two and Three-Part Inventions, began as teaching tools for his oldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, who was nine at the time, in his Clavier-Büchlein (Little Clavier Book), as Praeambula and Fantasias.

Inventio 8, which began life as Praeambulum 4 - as Bach revised the collection from an ascending & descending order in 1720, to a chromatic ascending one in 1723 - is a brief keyboard piece, written in 3/4 time, that begins as an imitative canon, and is structured as a strict two-voice counterpoint up until the final bar, an F Major chord.

Even with a length of only thirty-four measures, Bach finds different musical ideas to integrate, once again demonstrating to his students what can be done with basic ideas, variations and expansions of them, cadences, dynamics, and harmonic movement. It is basically a short study in the interrelationship of counterpoint and harmony.

A really fun piece to learn and play, I used standard tuning for the right hand part, and drop D for the left. Over the years, like the others in this collection, it has been recorded in a variety of tempos, and once again I chose a rapid one, but not by design.

One of my techniques is to rehearse material at much faster tempos than I intend to record them at, so I am extremely comfortable with the arrangement, and do not waste my time (or the brightness of a new set of strings) on a succession of failed takes. With this piece, it seemed the faster that I rehearsed it at, the more I enjoyed it, so the tempo was determined shortly before recording it.


Gigue, Suite in C minor for Lute (arr. in A min), BWV 997

"Although love for music does not necessarily mean love for the composers of all the times, the true love for music, however, cannot exist without the love for Bach." ~ Dimitrij Kobalewski

Bach composed various works for the lute, with the debate being whether they were written for the stringed instrument that is plucked, or meant to be played on a keyboard instrument called a lautenwerck (lute clavier) - a hybrid instrument that is basically a harpsichord modified to approximate the sound of the lute. His estate catalog featured one of the former, and two of the latter, providing very little help to this debate. Personally, I think that the lautenwerck was the intended instrument.

One of his most famous students, Johann Friedrich Agricola, wrote: "[...] about the year 1740, in Leipzig, having seen and heard a lute-harpsichord designed by Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach, and executed by Mr. Zacharias Hildebrandt, which was of smaller size than the ordinary harpsichord [...]" dating this suite between 1738 and 1741, while Agricola studied and copied the works of his teacher.

In my opinion, this is Bach's only lute work that is best suited for the plucked instrument, which is one of the reasons why I chose a movement from it. It is also one of only two works that are not arrangements of previous compositions for other instruments, and considered by many to be the finest of his works for lute, no matter which instrument it was written for.

I should note that his student Johann Christian Weyrauch wrote out the prelude, sarabande, and gigue from this suite/partita in lute tablature, which I believe is in the nouvel accord ordinaire, or "D minor Baroque" tuning. The problem is that this requires the lutenist to use positions in the upper register, and to alter the bass line, giving more credence that Bach had a clavier in mind when composing this work.

The gigue was one of the most popular Baroque instrumental dances, originating from the Celtic/Irish jig, consisting of two sections, usually with irregular phrases and imitative, contrapuntal textures where the opening motive of the second section was often an inversion of the first. It was usually written in 3/8 time signature, or one of its compound meter derivatives: 6/8, 6/4, 9/8, 12/8, in a moderate or fast tempo.

This gigue, in 6/8, features a simple three-note motive, which is developed through rhythmic alteration, inversion, and ornamental elaboration. I transposed the key signature to A minor, and used two bass guitars like most of the other keyboard pieces on this album. I also added some additional notes to the bass/left hand part during the repeats of both sections, to make it a little more interesting for me to play (and hopefully for the listener to enjoy), while still making sure that the integrity of the piece was not ruined.


"Goldberg" Variatio 1. a 1 Clav., Aria with Divers Variations, BWV 988

"The notes became alive, and glimmered and hopped all around me - an electric fire flowed through the tips of my fingers into the keys [... ] And thus it came to pass, that I was left alone with my Sebastian Bach, attended by Gottlieb, as by a familiar spirit." ~ E. T. A. Hoffmann

The Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen (Aria with divers Variations), Part IV of Bach's Clavier-Ubüng (Keyboard Practice, or Keyboard Exercise) series, published between 1731 to 1741, is an instrumental monothematic cycle comprised of thirty variations embedded between an aria and its repeat. Written in 3/4 time signature, in sarabande form, the aria features a heavily ornamented melody, but Bach morphs it into more of a passacaglia with variations of the basso ostinato (ground bass) in this cycle, by duplicating only the bass progression.

The aria appears as the twenty-sixth piece in the 1725 notebook of his second wife, Anna Magdalena, and its bass line, which is reminiscent of a bergamasca (an Italian rustic dance) by Girolamo Frescobaldi, provides the thematic material for all the variations which are in G major - except for Variatio 15, 21, and 25, all in G minor.

The first eight measures of the aria resemble a theme from George Frideric Händel's Chaconne avec 62 variations in G Major (HWV 442), which dates to the early 1700s, and was published in the early 1730s. Some scholars believe that Dieterich Buxtehude’s 32 Variations on "La Capricciosa" (BuxWV 250), also in G Major and based on a bergamasca, may have been a source of inspiration.

The thirty variations that emanate from the thirty-two measure theme, which is a binary structure of two balanced sections of sixteen bars, are brilliantly arranged in three cycles within the cycle, specifically:

  • Character pieces - as dance forms and cantabile arias
  • Virtuosic pieces - meant to be performed on two manuals
  • Canonic sequence - beginning at the unison, then at intervals one scale-tone greater than the previous (second, third, etc., up to the ninth)
This repeating pattern also incorporates a French ouverture (Variatio 16) to begin the second half, and a quodlibet - Latin for "anything goes", basically a multi-styled medley (Variatio 30) - to end it, resulting in a binary structure for the entire work that mirrors the harmonic theme.

According to lore, Bach was commissioned by Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, the Russian ambassador to Saxony, while he was on a trip to Leipzig, where Bach was Thomaskantor (Cantor at St. Thomas), in 1741. He wanted a set of variations that could be played by his chamber harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, whose name is directly associated with this work, during the aristocrat's constant bouts of insomnia, to help ease his suffering.

Given that Goldberg would have been in his mid-teens at the time, and the universe of moods, styles, and technical challenges provided by the variations, I think it is highly unlikely Bach customized this work for either of them.

Since this cycle is based on a bass line, I just had to include a variation as part of this release, and chose the first, as it is one of my favorites. This spirited piece is in sharp contrast with the slow and contemplative mood of the aria. Opening with the last three notes of the aria - G, F♯, and G - it features a steady triple-time dance rhythm, distinguished by anapestic (short - short - long) beats in the right hand, resulting in aesthetic syncopation.

The rhythm in the left hand is similar to the ones found in the A♭ Major Prelude from Book I, and the D minor Prelude of Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The genre/style is not that obvious, but it seems to have the swagger of a corrente - a lively Italian dance in fast triple meter - or better, a polonaise, which would make more sense conceptually, since von Keyserlingk was of Polish origin, assuming that there is more fact than fiction to the genesis of this work.

My arrangement - right hand in standard tuning, left hand in drop D - takes its cues from the author. Bach provided limited instruction to the performer, in dynamics, tempo, etc., leaving some freedom of interpretation, including the decision of whether or not to execute the repeats, which I decided not to, for two basic reasons: I personally enjoy the entire cycle more without them, and both parts are extremely challenging to play correctly on a bass guitar even once.


Minuet in D minor, Anna Magdalena Bach 1725 Notebook, BWV Anh. 132

"Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can play weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity." ~ Charles Mingus

The Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach of 1725 is the second collection of mostly keyboard works, by various composers, including her husband.

Bach's second wife was arguably the most important person in his life, musical and otherwise, with her many collaborations as a performer (soprano singer), and especially as a copyist to some of Bach's most important works, in addition to her traditional role as mother to thirteen children - with only six surviving into adulthood - and step-mother to four more from his first wife, Maria Barbara, who died in 1720.

The authorship is doubtful, hence its listing in the Anhang, or Appendix of the Bach Works Catalog, but its intimate character, melodic charm, and reflective nature make it a strong candidate for inclusion in the Bach compendium. To me, it just sounds like the sort of piece a devoted husband would write for his young wife, outside of his work responsibilities.

A musical minuet (or menuet) is an adaptation of the social dance of French origin, usually written in 3/4 time, and was adopted into the suite form in the late 17th century. Stylistically refined minuets were popularized by Jean-Baptiste Lully, who Bach was very knowledgeable of. It was typically written in binary form, with two sections of eight bars each. Sometimes, the second section would eventually be expanded, resulting in a ternary form.

For my arrangement, I used two bass guitars, with the one panned left in drop D tuning, for the obvious reason. I opted to play through the piece twice, as once seemed too brief, playing the melody in a different region of the fretboard with added ornamentation on the repeat. I chose a predominantly legato (connected smoothly) technique, as its pensive character sounds better to me in this fashion, and also used a slightly slower tempo than most of the recorded performances I have heard, to better fit the lyrical, expressive themes and overall mood of this piece.


Fugue in G Major "à la Gigue", BWV 577

"Bach opens a vista to the universe. After experiencing him, people feel there is meaning to life after all." ~ Helmut Walcha

This has been one of my favorite Bach fugues since childhood. Once again, there are some doubts to his authorship, as is the case with many of his early organ works, but given its highly-demanding pedal part, which prompted organist and musicologist Hermann Keller to write: "Bach, however, was the first and only composer to venture to write a fugue with obbligato pedal in such a tempo.", the virtuosic four-voice passages, and stylistic similarities to some of his early toccatas, I think this is an authentic work, obviously influenced by compositions like Dieterich Buxtehude's Fugue in C Major (BuxWV 174), and Johann Pachelbel - teacher to his older brother Johann Christoph.

It was most likely written during his tenure at Arnstadt, between 1703 and 1707, where his relatively light workload as church organist would have provided him plenty of time to both study and create. Former student Johann Friedrich Agricola and son Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote the following in Bach's obituary about his time in Arnstadt: "Here he really showed the first fruits of his application to the art of organ playing, and to composition, which he had learned chiefly by the observation of the works of the most famous and proficient composers of his day and by the fruits of his own reflection upon them."

The earliest copy is via the collection of composer Friedrich Wilhelm Rust - a student of Bach's oldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann - whose musical family and Bach's intersected on several occasions. The collection contains printed copies, handwritten transcripts, and copies made by his peers, of more than ninety works, primarily for keyboard.

The naming addition "à la Gigue" is relatively modern, courtesy of British composer Gustav Holst - best known for "The Planets" - who arranged several Bach works for brass and military band, including this fugue, to great success. (NB: Although Holst learned piano at an early age, he was stricken with a nerve condition in his right hand, forcing him to switch to trombone.)

Composed in a lively gigue rhythm in 12/8 meter - which makes it more like an Italian giga (or even a tarantella) than a French gigue, usually written in 6/8 or 6/4 - it features a six-measure subject in a head-neck-tail structure that is modified, modulated, and brilliantly integrated into all the episodic material.

I performed this infectious and cheerful fugue on four bass guitars, with the pedal part in drop D tuning. Given its wide range, and no five or six-string basses in my tool box, I had to come up with some creative workarounds in several sections, used a few volume slopes to help the overall flow, while keeping the original key signature. Influenced by Virgil Fox, and his flamboyant "Heavy Organ" concerts during the 1970s, I recorded it at a fast tempo with spirited performances.


Laß mein Herz die Münze sein, Bass Aria, Nur jedem das Seine, BWV 163

"Most contemporary music is about love between two people. What makes Bach's music particularly striking is that it's about the love of God. This should present a hurdle to someone who, like me, doesn't believe in God - but it doesn't. What I appreciate in Bach is his ability to suggest to me what a belief in God feels like. His music seems to me to be about devotion to a perfect ideal - something purer, better, higher..." ~ Alain de Botton

This cantata, written in 1715 and performed at the Weimar palace church, Weg zum Himmelsburg (The Way to the Castle of Heaven), is one of my favorites among an impressive series that Bach composed between 1713 and 1716, where he explored several compositional structures, as well as unusual combinations of voices and instruments. It was also performed on October 31, 1723 - the twenty-third Sunday after Trinity - as part of the Jahrgang I (First Annual Cantata Cycle), during Bach's first year in Leipzig. Relatively short in duration, it has a simple six part structure:

  • Aria (Tenor) - Nur jedem das Seine
  • Recitativo (Bass) - Du bist, mein Gott, der Geber aller Gaben
  • Aria (Bass) - Laß mein Herz die Münze sein
  • Recitativo (Soprano & Alto) - Ich wollte dir, o Gott, das Herze
  • Aria (Duetto: Soprano & Alto) - Nimm mich mir und gib mich dir!
  • Choral - Führ auch mein Herz und Sinn
Bach had access to an excellent poet at Weimar, Salomo Franck, who was also the director of the mint, and often used money as a metaphor, which was perfect for the gospel that accompanied this cantata, Matthew 22:15-22:

"Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left him, and went their way."

Original Text:

Laß mein Herz die Münze sein,
Die ich dir, mein Jesu, steure!
Ist sie gleich nicht allzu rein,
Ach, so komm doch und erneure,
Herr, den schönen Glanz bei ihr!
Komm, arbeite, schmelz und präge,
Daß dein Ebenbild bei mir
Ganz erneuert glänzen möge!

Translation:

Let my heart be the coin
that I remit to You, my Jesus!
If it is not altogether pure,
ah, then come and renew,
Lord, its beautiful gleam!
Come, work, smelt and emboss,
so that Your likeness in me
might shine forth completely renewed!

Featuring an interesting scheme in both vocal and instrumental ranges throughout the cantata, whose title translates as "To each man his just due", Bach uses two obbligato (obligatory) cellos in this aria, with the odd combination resulting in a dark and daring sonority.

Given his predilection to match instrumentation and tonal colors with the text of his vocal works, one has to look very deep to find any, in this instance. Maybe the echoing effect between the cellos is meant to represent the two sides of the coin/heart, and the burst of notes from the cello at measures 33 to 35 is supposed to represent the "beautiful gleam" and "shine" of the renewed soul?

With two cellos, a proper bass part, and key signature of E minor, this was one of the easiest arrangements for me to write, which still required a lot of work with four bass guitars. Recording it, however, still entailed the usual problems of making all of them sound as if they are being played at the same time.


Minuet II, Suite 1 in G Major for Unaccompanied Violoncello, BWV 1007

"He has so combined in a single part all the notes required [...] that a second part is neither necessary nor possible." ~ Johann Nikolaus Forkel

The minuets of the first suite for unaccompanied cello are one of only five movements, in the entire set of six suites, that do not contain any chordal playing. Bach inserted minuets and other galanterie movements (moderate tempo dances/rhythms that were not part of the traditional layout of a suite) in ABA form, between the slow sarabandes and fast gigues of each suite. The pairs also alternate between major and minor, based on the same keynote, to provide a strong contrast.

Examining the sheet music, is the second minuet a melody in search of a bass line, or vice versa? The short answer is "both". As I wrote in the overview, this is one of many examples in Bach solo instrumental works where implied harmony is used, and by seamlessly fragmenting, alternating, and balancing the two lines, the listener is led into believing they are hearing both parts, as Forkel's quote points out. Over the years, Bach pieces like this one have inspired me and influenced how I write bass guitar arrangements.

Like the prelude that begins this release, I used drop D tuning, but did not change the key signature. Even with the lack of chords, it is not easy to play cleanly, since it is still an arrangement originally written for a bowed, acoustic, fretless instrument tuned in fifths: C-G-D-A, adapted for a plucked, electric, fretted one tuned (mostly) in fourths: D-A-D-G.


Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565

"This can only be the devil, or Bach himself." ~ attributed to a village organist, while hearing somebody else playing inside his church

The Toccata and Fugue in D minor is arguably J. S. Bach's most popular organ work, and the most recognizable in the instrument's repertoire. No autograph manuscript exists, with some scholars dating it between 1703 and 1707, while he was the organist at Arnstadt's New Church. A good possibility is between late 1705, when Bach visited one of his primary influences, Dietrich Buxtehude, in Lübeck for a few months, and his death in May 1707 - or shortly thereafter.

His first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote: "Bach’s first attempts at composition, like all such efforts, were unsatisfactory. Lacking any instruction to point him towards his goal, he had to do what he could in his own way, like others who set out without a guide. Most beginning composers let their fingers run riot up and down the keyboard, snatching handfuls of notes, assaulting the instrument in an undisciplined way. Such composers can only be "finger composers" (or "keyboard cavaliers", as Bach called them later on in his life): that is, they let their fingers tell them what to write instead of instructing their fingers what to play. Bach abandoned that method of composition when he observed that brilliant flourishes lead nowhere."

Forkel's quote leads me to believe that Bach, who enjoyed revisiting and revising older material, did not bother to do so with many of his early works, as he considered them "unsatisfactory". In addition to being a virtuoso on the organ at a young age, Bach was also a well-known consultant, involved in several organ designs, rebuilds, and repairs, so a remote possibility is that this was written solely to be used to thoroughly test out an organ, which would account for its exploratory form, the unexpected subject entries and pedal statements, and even the suggestion that parts of it were transcribed from other instruments he played - specifically, the violin, which he did on at least two other occasions.

However, copies of this work exist, with the earliest, undated (estimates range between 1730 and 1760) by Johannes Ringk, who was a student of one of Bach's former pupils, Johann Peter Kellner. Through Kellner, over five dozen Bach works have been transmitted, and despite some defects/errors in some of the copies, he has proven to be a highly reliable source of attribution.

The entire work is a wonderful fusion of diverse ideas, with connections to both German organ schools, and several of Bach's influences, including: Buxtehude (north German school), in the alternation of contrapuntal sections and quasi-improvisatory passages, and Johann Pachelbel (south German school), his older brother Johann Christoph's teacher. A passage in the fugue is similar to a theme from a Pachelbel fantasia.

In the toccata, the pedal not being an integral part of the texture is found mainly in the south German school, but its beginning with a single recitative line is heard primarily in the northern school, while the use of notated cadences and pedal point is typical of both. The fugue subject in the dominant being answered in the subdominant is more indicative of George Frideric Händel, but the dissonant elements recall Nicolaus Bruhns (north German school), while the recitative sections seem to be inspired from the south German organ school.

The tripartite structure of toccata, fugue, and coda (toccata), is suggestive of Georg Böhm (north German school), who might have been Bach's teacher in Lüneburg (circa 1700), and even helped to distribute Part I of the Clavier-Ubüng, in the late 1720s. Some similarities also exist with a work by one of Bach's lesser-known peers, another pupil of Pachelbel, in Johann Heinrich Buttstedt's Prelude and Capriccio in D minor.

The use of freistimmigkeit (free voice leading) - where lines/voices are added, merged, and subtracted freely - is a characteristic of works by both Buxtehude and Bruhns, as well as Bach's early toccatas, which makes me think that this entire work was an attempt to model their stylus fantasticus, which was an Italian import to north Germany, related to improvisation, but characterized by short contrasting episodes within a free form, much like a fantasia. Inventor and scientist Athanasius Kircher describes it in his book, Musurgia Universalis, as: "the most free and unrestrained method of composing, it is bound to nothing, neither to any words nor to a melodic subject, it was instituted to display genius and to teach the hidden design of harmony and the ingenious composition of harmonic phrases and fugues."

Swiss organist and music critic Ernst Isler wrote: "In these youthful works, it can be impossible to separate clearly, for example, what was influenced by Pachelbel, what derives from Böhm's style, and at which point Buxtehude becomes the primary model. One must remember to entrust certain developments, even in the early periods, to the genius of the young Bach, a creative power unique in its development."

The toccata - Italian for "touched" - dates to the 16th century, with composers like Girolamo Frescobaldi altering it into expansive, free-form pieces in several sections. It was meant to showcase mastery over the instrument, more than sheer virtuosity, including testing the instrument's tuning, which requires a delicate 'touch'. This toccata can be divided into three sections, with the first one familiar even to people who have purposely never heard another Bach piece, due to its overuse in cinema and television, having been a musical cliché as far back as the silent film era, almost always associated with horror movies, Halloween commercials, etc.

The fugue is based on material from the toccata, and although it contains four voices, the majority of the time there are only two or three. As pointed out above, the sixteenth-note subject of the fugue is answered in the subdominant key, with the third and fourth voices being restatements of the first and second. After this exposition, the development section begins with episodic material constructed out of arpeggios and scales. The free episodes are considerable, compared to his later organ works.

The coda (toccata) is marked recitativo - for instrumental music, a recitative can be defined as a non-periodic, free improvisatory melody. Although only seventeen bars long, it is multi-sectional, including five tempo changes: adagissimo, presto, adagio, vivace, and molto adagio. The opening idea from the toccata is extended through multiple augmentations, before ending in a minor plagal cadence.

Having taken this piece apart, to divide it into four bass guitars - one drop D, three standard tuning - I found more balance, logic, and order than is usually associated with it, as well as several elements and ideas used elsewhere in his works, so I am inclined to believe that it is the product of a young, vigorous Johann Sebastian Bach. A temperamental genius who is brought before church and town authorities for disciplinary reasons, on more than one occasion, in an experimental phase of his career. It may not feature the musical depth, or the "mathematical" design manifested in his later works, but it is still a brilliant, dramatic, and powerful composition.

Due to its length, free form sections, and chordal passages, this was the most difficult piece for me to record, but also one of the most rewarding and satisfying to produce. I used a few ideas from three different organists/recordings for my arrangement, and its placement as the finale was chosen well before I constructed a track listing. I could not think of a better composition to end this release with, as any other work following it, would sound anti-climactic.

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