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Bach on the Lute with Nigel North


Sol Joseph Recital Hall
50 Oak Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
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Free, no tickets or reservations required

Bach on the Lute with Nigel North 


Johann Sebastian Bach
Partita in A Minor, BWV 1013 for solo Traverso
     Bourreé Anglaise   

Lute Suite in E Minor "auf lautenwerk", BWV 996
     Prelude (Passaggio – Presto)

Suite in C Major, (after BWV 1012, 6th suite for solo cello)
     Gavottes 1&2

Artist Profile

Nigel North was initially inspired into music, at age 7, by the early 60's instrumental pop group "The Shadows". Nigel studied classical music through the violin and guitar, eventually discovering his real path in life, the lute when he was 15. Basically self-taught on the lute, he has (for over 30 years) developed a unique musical life that embraces activities as a teacher, accompanist, soloist, director, and writer.

Some "milestones" on the way have included the publication of a continuo tutor (Faber 1987)- representing his work and passion for this subject. The music of J.S.Bach has been another passion, and the 4 Volume CD collection "Bach on the Lute" was recorded on the Linn Records label (1994-1997), now available as a 4 disc box set.

The ensemble Romanesca was formed by Nigel, together with Andrew Manze (violin) and John Toll (harpsichord & organ). For ten years (1988-1998) they explored, performed and recorded 17th-century chamber music winning several international awards for their recordings.

Nigel North enjoys accompanying singers and is also an enthusiastic teacher. For over 20 years he was Professor of Lute at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, in London; from 1993-1999 he was Professor at the Hochschule der Künste, Berlin; 2005-2207 he was Lute Professor at the Royal Conservatory in Den Haag, Netherlands, and since January 1999 Nigel North has been Professor of Lute at the Early Music Institute,  Indiana University, Bloomington in the USA.

Recent recording projects have included, Robert Dowland’s “A Musical Banquet” with soprano, Monika Mauch, for ECM (2008), Lute Songs with tenor Charles Daniels for ATMA (2007) and the Lute Music of Robert Johnson for Naxos (2010).

Program Notes


One may ask “Why play Bach on the lute?”  The lute in question is the one played in Bach’s lifetime; either the 11-course lute (with 11 courses and 20 strings, or the 13-course lute (with 13 courses and 24 strings, as in today's concert). Both usually tuned in a D minor chord with an added scale of bass diapasons strung in octaves. These were the standard lutes in Germany during Bach’s lifetime, however, on this program, I am using an alternative tuning of A minor which requires retuning only four of the top six courses. 

In 1903, in the last years of the Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe, a German musicologist, Wilhelm Tappert, decreed that a certain collection of pieces were Bach's lute works. These were labeled BWV 995-1000 and 1006a. BWV 995 is, in fact, Bach's own arrangement for lute, in his hand, of his 5th cello suite. The autograph is in normal notation with two staves, rather than the usual tablature used by lutenists. It is also for a lute with one more course than normal and is mostly playable on a normal 18th-century lute with a few modifications. This suite is the only clear "Lute Work", the remainder being mostly meant for a keyboard instrument known as the "Lautenwerk", a gut-strung harpsichord which imitated the sound and range of the lute. In Bach's house, at his death, there was at least one lute and one Lautenwerk, but it does seem clear that Bach never actually played the lute. In my own search for idiomatic lute music by Bach, I first chose to make transcriptions of the cello and violin works before the “lute works”.

We can read from contemporary sources that Bach liked to take the works for solo violin and solo cello and play them on the keyboard, adding as much as was needed to make them sound idiomatic. We have the 2nd sonata for violin, BWV 1003, in a beautiful keyboard arrangement; not an autograph but thought to be Bach's work; similarly, the C major violin Adagio from BWV 1005.  Like many musicians in his time, Bach liked to rearrange existing compositions and make new creations from old material. His interest in the lute and in lutenists even lead him to take a Sonata by the contemporary lutenist, Sylvius Weiss, arrange it for harpsichord and add a new violin part. This work became known as BWV 1025. We also have three lute tablatures of BWV 995, 997 and 1000 written out by lutenists contemporary with Bach. We don't know if Bach knew of these or approved of them. I hope so, and I hope that he might also approve of and like what you will hear in this recital. Truly wonderful music played on a noble and expressive instrument that was part of Bach's musical world. 

BWV 996 (often referred to by the guitar community as the 1st Lute Suite) survives in 3 keyboard sources. The main source, in a student’s hand, has the words “auf Lautenwerk” (for the lute – harpsichord). It is an early suite from Bach, c. 1720, and is written in a lute style and tessitura. However, it is impossible to play on the lute in the normal tuning, and the “A minor” scordatura, makes it just possible, even if we do not have any evidence of lutenists in the 18th century playing this suite.

Having created a tuning to realize two Bach “lute works”, I transcribed two more works in the same tuning. The Partita for solo traverso (BWV 1013) survives in one manuscript copy, copied by Kellner in the same source which contains his copy of the cello suites. We hear a German Allemande, an Italian Corrente, a French Sarabande, and an English Bourèe. Of the cello suites (BWV 1007-1012), the final suite, BVW 1012, was originally written in D major for the 5 string cello. This suite makes an easy metamorphosis into a C major suite for lute in the “A minor tuning”.

Nigel North, December  2019