Bach's Method of Transcription
by Philip Hii
Among the huge corpus of works by J.S. Bach is a sizeable number of transcriptions. A rather neglected part of the Bach repertory, these transcriptions have only recent]y gained more respectability and interest among scholars and performers. Their impact on the area of performance practice and the study of Bach's compositional process is evident in a number of notable studies.1
Perhaps one of the most neglected of Bach's works in this genre is the relatively obscure clavier transcription (BWV 964) of the A minor Sonata for solo violin (BWV 1003). One of only four surviving clavier sonatas by Bach, the work is a fascinating essay in the art of transcription and is particularly instructive for guitarists as it provides a first-hand look at the concerns and priorities that influenced Bach's compositional process, and resolves some of the more problematical aspects of adapting Bach's music for the guitar. How much, for instance, should technical considerations influence musical content? To what extent do different instrumental idioms play a part in Bach's musical thinking?
This study proposes to examine these issues through a comparative analysis of the two versions of the sonata. It will focus primarily on melodic and harmonic differences, concentrating on textural changes, voice leadings, bass alterations, and chordal voicings Two points of particular interest to guitarists concern the practical reasons for these changes and the extent to which Bach's compositional style was influenced by extramusical factors.
Considering the improvisatory nature of the violin work, it is surprising how closely the melodic lines in the transcription resemble the original. In places where they do differ, one can see a tendency toward greater melodic complexity in the transcription. This is achieved mainly by: 1 ) melodic elaboration and 2) the realization of implied counterpoint.
Melodic elaboration is a feature in all four movements, although it is more marked in the first three. It is effected through the incorporation of passing tones, neighboring notes, arpeggios, and other ornamental figures into the melody. The added note in measure 6 of the Adagio (marked Grave in the original ) is characteristic of this form of embellishment:
Ex. l. Adagio, m.6 (musical examples of the violin version are transposed to D minor unless otherwise indicated )
It can also be seen in the Andante:
Ex. 2. Andante, m.25
A favorite device used by Bach to compensate for the lack of tonal sustain on instruments such as the clavier, or the lute, is to decorate cadential points with arpeggios. This can be seen in the Prelude to Lute Suite No 4.
Ex. 3. Prelude, Lute Suite No.4, mm. 138-139
and again in the Double from Lute Suite No.2 (BWV
Ex. 4. Double, Lute Suite No.2, mm. 47-48
In the transcription of the Allegro, the sustained notes at both cadential points are embellished with similar arpeggiated figures:
Ex.5. Allegro, m.24
In addition to added single notes and arpeggios, Bach also incorporates ornaments into the melody. As one might expect, ornamentation is most profuse in slow movements. In measures 11-12 of the Adagio, a simple figure is embellished by a turn:
Ex. 6. Adagio, mm. 11-12
Again in measure 20, a similar figure is further decorated by a turn preceded by a neighboring note:
Ex. 7. Adagio, m.20
Perhaps the most interesting example of the added ornament is the compound ornament in the final cadence in the Adagio. Here a cadential trill is further embellished by a turn and an ascending chromatic line:
Ex. 8. Adagio, mm. 22-23
The increased ornamentation in the transcription i s undoubtedly due to instrumental differences in tonal sustain. However, a much more significant explanation may lie in a characteristic feature of stringed instruments. Limited by fingering and strings, most string instruments possess an inherently mutual exclusiveness between melodic and harmonic components. A complex form of one will preclude the use of the other or reduce it to its simplest elements: in other words, complex melodies necessitate simple harmonic structures and vice versa. Unencumbered by such constraints, the clavier afforded Bach more flexibility in both melodic and harmonic invention, an opportunity he evidently exploited in the transcription
The next category of melodic alteration is that resulting from the realization of implied counterpoint. It is more complex, as it involves the redistribution of notes from a single line into new counterpoints: in other words, the transformation of simple homophonic textures to contrapuntal ones. This process can be perceived on several levels
On the simplest level, a single line is re-notated and re-voiced. In most cases, the counterpoint is already inherent in the line but is obscured by ambiguous notation. One can see this in m. 7 of the Adagio:
Ex. 9. Adagto, m.7
In the excerpt above, a deceptively simple arpeggiated figure in the violin version is expanded and the implied two part texture clarified in the transcription. In the process, Bach inserts an additional note to complete the arpeggio. It would be interesting to speculate whether the note was a part of the original conception of the line, and deleted to facilitate greater ease in execution, or whether it was a result of the transcription process. The passage also exposes one of the many myths pertaining to Bach's melodies in his unaccompanied string writing.3 The "self-contained" melody of Bach is essentially the result of compressing a contrapuntal texture into one line, chiefy through ambiguous notation
More complex cases of implied counterpoint being realized can be seen in other parts of the Adagio. In measures 9, 15 and 18, seemingly disjunct melodies are developed into two or more distinct parts in the transcription:
Ex 10a. Adagio, m.9
Ex. 10b. Adagio, m.15
Ex. 10c. Adagio, m.18
These examples pose another question: Was the counterpoint implicit at its time of conception or did it suggest itself at the time of transcription? Perhaps the answer may lie in Bach's compositional procedures. In a letter to Johann N. Forkel, C.P.E. Bach said of his father: "If I exclude some of his clavier pieces, he composed everything else without instrument, but later tried it out on one.4 The implication is significant, especially in view of the limited contrapuntal and harmonic possibilities of the violin. The process of later trying out the sonata must have entailed some modifications to its original conoeption, resulting in the simplified textures and lines.
Perhaps the most substantial instance of deriving real counterpoint from single lines can be seen in the Fugue. A short excerpt will suffice to illustrate this techmque.
Ex. 11. Fugue, mm. 111-113
This short passage probably best epitomizes Bach's technique of reducing counterpoint to single lines. A key factor in the effectiveness of an unaccompanied melody depends on the extent to which the harrnonic progression is defined by the melody. In solo violin music, whenever multiple stops are technically unfeasible, it is crucial that the melody also incorporate elements of the bass line. This principle is effectively employed in the violin version of measures 111-113 of the Fugue. Here, a long florid arpeggiated line manages to imply the first inversion bass note (c# in measure 111) resolving to the root position tonic harmony d in measure 112 ) and back to the first inversion in measure 113. In contrast, if one eliminates the added counterpoints and bass notes in the revised clavier version, the corresponding melodic passage is weaker: in m 111, it is in second inver.sion and in 5I.113, in third inversion.
As in his melodic revisions, Bach's harmonic concern in the transcription is primariIy that of greater elaboration, greater complexity, and the clarification of the musical structure. He achieves this chiefly by: 1 ) redefining the bass line, 2) providing greater harmonic support, and 3) adding contrapuntal material.
As a melodic entity, the bass line seems to lack the same integrity of Bach's musical thinking as the main melody. It is freely transposable by octave, in part or in its entirely, and its placement is largely dictated by technical considerations. A comparison of the original bass line and the transcription in measures 5-8 in the Adagio will serve to illustrate this.
Ex. 12. Adagio, mm. 5-8 bass reduction (both excerpts are in the key of A minor.)
Perhaps the most obvious example of a redefined bass line can be seen in the first few measures of the Adagio:
Ex. 13. Adagio, mm. 1-3, bass reduction
(both excerpts are in the key of A minor.3
Transposing parts of a bass line by octave was, of course, a common and accepted practice in baroque times.5 It is a direct result of musical ideas surpassing instrumental constraints. The obvious solution of compressing and compacting ideas usually produced minor distortions of the musical line exemplified by transpositions and omissions.
Despite the greater complexity of the bass line, there is little harmonic change in the transcription. The only perceptible changes are on a superficial level involving mere]y the thickening of chordal textures and an increase in chordal activity. Except for parts of the Fugue, much of this chordal thickening is in the form of harmonic padding and has minimal contrapuntal significance.
Ex. 14. Adagio, m. 4
This fact may also be a contributing factor to the general inconsistency of the part-writing as is evidenced in measure 15 of the Adagio:
In general, the Fugue undergoes the most revision; melodic phrases are extended:
Ex. 16. Fugue, mm. 3-4
complex polyphonic textures are further developed:
Ex. 17. Fugue, mm. 18-21
and counterpoint is further intensified by chordal interjections:
Ex. 18. Fugue, mm. 132-135
On the whole, two distinct compositional approaches can be detected in the Fugue; one is based on the stricter and more learned Germanic fugal style, and the other is influenced by the melodic and homophonic Italian style, characterized by idiomatic violin figurations. It should, however, be added that this does not, in itself, provide any conclusive proof of how such instrumental idioms influenced Bach: after all, many of Bach's early organ fugues display the same tendencies, employing similar strict fugal expositions and equally violinistic writing in the sections of free non-fugal episodes.6
An attempt has been made in this brief account to relate the intellectual aspect of Bach's compositional process to the practical considerations of adapting it for performance. A basic premise was provided by C.P E. Bach in his letter to Forkel asserting that Bach's compositions were largely conceived independently of instrumental considerations and adapted much later. By using two versions of a work as a point of reference, an attempt was made to determine how much the process of adaptation can affect musical composition. Although it is not the intention of this essay to suggest that the clavier version represents the original conception, its greater complexity and completeness does provide a glimpse of what the composition might have been under different circumstances.
This article is based on a paper delivered at the 1989 GFA Guitar Festival in Lubbock. Texas
Philip Hii holds degrees from the University of North Texas, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and a diploma from Berklee College of Music. He currently heads the guitar program at Del Mar College and Corpus Christi State University.
I Two that are particularIy pertinent to this study are:
1) Howard Shanet "Why did Bach Transpose His Arrangements?" The Musical Quarterly 36 (1950), pp. 180-203.
2) Nicholas Goluses, "J.S. Bach and the Transcription Process, Guitar Review 77 (Spring 1989), pp 15-23.
2. Two of these sonatas (BWV 965 ancl BWV 966) are adaptations of works by Jan Adams Reinken (1623-1722).
3. Forkel was probably one of the first to propagate the myth. He suggested that Bach's melodies were conceived in such a manner "that a second part is neither necessary nor possible ' See Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel (editors), The Bach Reader (New York: W.W Norton, 1966), p.323.
4. The Bach Reader, p.278.
5, According to Alice Artzt, the main diffcrences between the autograph and the intabulated version of the Third Lute Suite "lie in a discreet juggling of thc basses in the tablature." See Alice Artzt, "The Third Lute Suite by Bach, Journal of the Lute Society ofAmerica 1 (1968), p.10.
6. F. E. Kirby calls this style of fugal composition the "concertato style." See F E. Kirby, A Short History of Keyboard Music (New York: The Free Press 1966), pp. 119-124.