„The greatest difficulties proceed not from the awkwardness of fingers,
as many imagine, but from want of the proper attention.”

Jean-Baptist Besard, Thesaurus Harmonicus, Köln 1603



André Burguete

The Lute Works of Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach and the Lute

As a composer for the lute, Johann Sebastian Bach was an outsider. Yet within his relatively slim oeuvre for this instrument he gave a stimulus which might have saved – had it been adopted and developed – the lute itself from disappearance. The greater musical flexibility of an instrument strung with single courses throughout (the Angélique), ingeniously combined with the advantages of an extended range, made available by the addition of one or two further bass strings tuned in the D minor chord, brought a type of lute into being, far ahead of its time, which quite likely would have been in a position to fulfil the musical demands of the approaching Classical and Romantic periods.

The tablatures here offered are the results of 25 years theoretical and practical research. It is not a case of intabulation of a score in the usual sense, rather an attempt to follow, step by step, and with utmost precision, the path of Bach’s hand over the lute’s labyrinthine fingerboard. The process of deciphering the structures of playing technique that lie behind Bach’s notation, by their very nature, include a reconstruction of exact playing positions.

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Works and Reconstructions

The intabulations provide the final proof that Bach’s compositions for lute were not only fully intended for this kind of instrument, but are devised with attention paid to the finest details of playing technique. Furthermore, they are supremely suited to the lute, enabling absolute fidelity to the musical text.

Connoisseurs of baroque lute tablatures will recognise, on playing through these reconstructed intabulations, perhaps with a certain surprise, how the composer’s “esprit geometrique” reigns in the conception of his lute works, with an even greater perfection than in his compositions for violin, organ and keyboard. This should not, however, lead to the conclusion that J.S. Bach had at his command a sovereign technique comparable to the leading lutenists of his day. It is, on the contrary, precisely his lack of practical routine, to which we can ascribe the equal concern he places on both the perfection of the composition and the possibility of the instrument to sustain each and every note exactly for its written value.

Such touching perseverance, the insistence on the practicable faithful performance of every bar, might have easily led, in a lesser composer, to a decline in musical quality. The consummate balance between inspiration of genius and elegance of execution provides us, in the case of Johann Sebastian Bach, with the most perfect solo pieces the 18th century lute repertoire can offer.

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Johann Sebastian Bach and the Lute in the 18th Century

Surveys of the lute in the eighteenth century have so far tended to concentrate on the person of the Dresden court lutenist Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1684-1750) who, as extraordinary performing personality and one of the most fertile composers for the instrument, can be said to have truly dominated the century.

The comparatively slim oeuvre of J. S. Bach for the lute has been preserved no less than have been the works of Weiss, yet has not managed until today to be made fully playable.

The reason for this is basically the false assumption that the instrument which Bach used was in principle the same lute model for which Weiss composed his works. The performance of Bach’s compositions on such an instrument is admittedly possible, but only in a manner that produces an unsatisfactory sound and requires a defacement of the original notation as it has been preserved; not to mention the arrangement of these pieces for guitar, which is more comparable to amputation.

Closer examination has shown, however, that the range of lute instruments which were made use of in Bach’s time was considerably wider than had been hitherto recognized. Particularly one instrument, known as an “angélique”, prevalent at the time for use in domestic music making and which, in contrast to the lute used by Weiss was strung throughout with single strings, has not until now received the attention due to its considerable role in the musical practice of the period. Once such an instrument has been retuned in a particular pattern – deviating from the usual scheme – then the complete lute compositions of Bach can be played on it: not only, for the first time, absolutely faithful to the notation, but in an elegant, flowing and euphonious, completely convincing manner.

The author unites the qualifications of a practicing lutenist and musicologist in one person. The forthcoming publication, gathering the results of twenty-five years of research, is part of a publishing project which will also include, in addition to an illustrated text volume, the reconstruction of Bach’s tablature and fingerings which have not survived, as well as “uncertain” lute compositions by J. S. Bach:

Edition in staff notation and tabulature, seven volumes with critical report:

Vol. 1  Principle works for lute (BWV 996 &999)
Vol. 2  Principle works for lute (BWV 997)
Vol. 3  Principle works for lute (BWV 998)
Vol. 4  Arrangement of a work for cello (BWV 995)
Vol. 5  Arrangement of works for violin (BWV 1000 & 1006a)
Vol. 6  Ensemble works with lute
Vol. 7  Dubious lute compositions
Vol. 8  Johann Sebastian Bach’s Compositions for Lute – an introduction

Text volume (in preparation)

Johann Sebastian Bach und die Laute im 18. Jahrhundert (in German)
(Price available prior to publication)

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Seminars and Demonstration

There is now the opportunity available for organising lectures and demonstration concerts on the subject of J.S. Bach and the lute in the 18th century.


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André Burguete

Lutenist and musicologist,

was born in St Petersburg of Spanish-German parentage and grew up in Dresden. He studied lute, guitar, composition and musicology in Weimar and Leipzig and between 1989 & 97 headed the Institute for Lute Research – Weiss Academy in the Parc de Schoppenwihr near Colmar, France.

André Burguete is primarily active as soloist and is among the better known exponents in his field. In 1991 he was honoured with the Regio-Musikpreis in Basle and in 1995 with the European Prize for Cultural Achievement in Oxford.

Since before the age of twenty André Burguete has dedicated himself to playing, researching the history and rediscovering the repertory of lute instruments. Practical experience over many years with original lutes from the eighteenth century familiarised him with both the virtues and the limits of these instruments. His ongoing work on the lute compositions of J. S. Bach increasingly brought the tradition of single-strung lute instruments to his attention. With the development of the Liuto forte (www.liuto-forte.com) he has combined the impetus of Bach’s own works for the lute with the remodelling of an instrument which had fully achieved the endpoint of its development by the eighteenth century into a new and once more future-focused contemporary lute.

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André Burguete
Wägnerstrasse 18
D-01309 Dresden
E-Mail: mail@liuto-forte.com

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André Burguete
Wägnerstrasse 18
D-01309 Dresden
E-Mail: mail@liuto-forte.com

Responsible for the contents of this website
André Burguete, Wägnerstrasse 18, D-01309 Dresden

André Burguete

picture credits
Caspar Netscher, Drei musizierende Damen, Städtische Sammlungen Wetzlar (Photo: Axel Schneider, Frankfurt/M)

michaelkaden.de, 2011

Ruskin Watts (EN)
Christian Meyer (FR)
Greet Schamp (NL)

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