Walter Bitner

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Bach on the Lute: 70 Years of Recordings, Part I

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Smith, Hopkinson, 1981-82/1987. Johann Sebastian Bach: L’œvre de Luth. Auvidis E 7721. AAD (2 CDs) ~ click images to enlarge

The Lute Appendix iii c

Just in time for Sebastian’s birthday (March 21 or 31, depending on your calendar preference): here is an overview of recordings of his music performed on the lute. While perhaps not complete, I believe that the major recordings that have been released on compact disc are described or at least acknowledged here, and many others besides. (Lute performances available on CD are nearly the only recordings considered here.) I trust that members of the lute community won’t hesitate to let me know what I have missed!

Most of the compact disc recordings referred to in this article (and many more besides) are listed in the discography to this series.


The repertoire

Music by J.S. Bach performed on the lute falls roughly into two categories:

  1. the “canonical” works for lute that were assigned BWV numbers by the compilers of Sebastian’s catalog:
    • BWV 995: Suite in G minor (transcribed from Cello Suite No. 5, BWV 1011)
    • BWV 996: Suite in E minor
    • BWV 997: Suite in C minor
    • BWV 998: Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-flat major
    • BWV 999: Prelude in C minor
    • BWV 1000: Fugue in G minor (transcribed from Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001)
    • BWV 1006a: Suite in E major (transcribed from Partita No. 3 for solo violin, BWV 1006)
  2. contemporary arrangements of other works by Sebastian, especially his cello suites and sonatas and partitas for solo violin

“78” record label for side 1 of Archiv Production 2412-2413 – the first recording of BWV 995, performed by Walter Gerwig, November 22, 1949, Musikstudio Thienhaus, Hamburg-Blankenese, Germany.

What seems clear by now is that it seems unlikely that Sebastian actually wrote music for lute, beyond its use in a few choral works for instrumental color. Discussion of what the pieces in category 1 are and why they are attributed to him is beyond the scope of this article, but in a nutshell: at least some of them were intended for lautenwerck, the gut-strung harpsichord, and many of them are not playable as written on the lute. Lutenists who perform the category 1 music invariably must make adjustments, amendments, compromises, or other arrangements in order to produce a satisfying performing edition.

A good exposition of the problems surrounding Sebastian’s music for lute can be found at The Myth of Bach’s Lute Suites by Clive Titmuss. As Clive states at the top of his essay:

A more up-to-date reading of the evidence would be that Bach did not write any music specifically intended for solo lute. The apocryphal lute works lie well within the confines of Bach’s established keyboard style, and other than a poorly thought-out arrangement, ill-suited to the instrument and worked-out at the keyboard (BWV 995, Suite in G minor), almost nothing from the composer really links them to the lute. Recent scholarship and the work of a number of makers and players of 18th Century-style keyboards have made it obvious that Bach wrote the music for, and probably at, the lute-harpsichord. The real story is everything that happened after his death that connects the works in question to the lute.

~ Clive Titmuss, The Myth of Bach’s Lute Suites

Considering how profound – and popular – Sebastian’s music is, it might be surprising how relatively few lute recordings have been made of his music “for” and on the lute. One reason for this is that his music is in fact not easy to play on the lute, one facet of this difficulty being that the music in category 1 is not “idiomatic” to the instrument as described above. For this reason, and to expand the repertoire of Sebastian’s music for lute, it is not unusual for lutenists to transcribe his music for the lute themselves (even I have done it, and perhaps you have too). Arrangements of this kind were a regular part of musical life during Bach’s own time (he was an active transcriber himself, and produced many keyboard transcriptions of concerti by Vivaldi, for instance) and there are centuries of precedence for this practice.

North, Nigel, 1994. Bach on the Lute Volume One. Linn Records CKD 013.

The English lutenist Nigel North, in the notes to his luminous series of recordings Bach on the Lute (from which this article takes its title), described the impulse towards the arrangement of the pieces in category 2:

Of all these doubtful lute pieces the G minor Fugue BWV 1001 and the G minor suite 995 feel natural and satisfying to play on the lute; the others feel less like real lute pieces & are more awkward to play, even though I adore them as music. Instead of labouring over perpetuating the idea that the so-called lute pieces of Bach are proper lute pieces, I prefer to take the works for unaccompanied Violin or Cello and make them into new works for lute, keeping (as much as possible) to the original text, musical intention, phrasing and articulation, yet transforming them in a way particular to the lute so that they are satisfying to play and to hear.

~ Nigel North
liner notes to Bach on the Lute, 1994


Walter Gerwig (1899-1966)


When I first began to play the lute in the early 1990s, my brother-in-law (an audiophile and record collector) gave me a cassette tape upon which he had recorded German lutenist Walter Gerwig‘s 1965 Nonesuch LP Johann Sebastian Bach: Lute Music. Thank you, CarlosThis album included music from both categories: BWVs 999, 1000, excerpts from 996 and 1006a, and a transcription of 1007 (the Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major) into A Major. This cassette was my introduction to Sebastian’s lute music, and I was captivated. Gerwig’s lute and technique differ in some ways from contemporary, historically informed practice: his instrument was of heavier construction than those based on historical models that have been built in recent decades, his approach and right hand technique seems to have been closer to that of a classical guitarist, etc. Despite these differences, these recordings are important historically and persuasive musically. They’re beautifully paced, he make sensitive use of dynamics and a surprising array of timbres – in a few passages he even plays between the rose and the fingerboard.

Gerwig, Walter, 1964/1999. Johann Sebastian Bach: Original and transcribed music for lute. MUSICAPHON M 51538. ADD

I wore out that cassette long ago, and was thrilled when Musicaphon released a CD in 1999 that included both the recital I had had on cassette and a recording of BWV 995 that Gerwig had made the same year (1964) for another album.

Walter Gerwig was a vital figure of the early music revival in the first half of the twentieth century. As far as I know, he was the first person to record Bach’s music on the lute: he recorded BWV 995 for Archiv in 1949, which was released across two 78s. More than once in my early lessons with Patrick O’Brien, Pat referred to Gerwig’s recordings and how much they had meant to him when he became enthralled with the lute as a young man.

Eugen Dombois (1931-2014)

Clive Titmuss states in his essay quoted above that lute recordings of Sebastian’s music were made in the 1950s by Michael Schäffer and Michel Podolski, but I do not believe that any of these were transferred to compact disc. A youtube upload (from vinyl) of Podolski’s mono LP Bach: works for the lute (c 1955) may be listened to here. Also in the 1950s, Julian Bream recorded much of the category 1 music on guitar for two albums that probably reached the first broad audience with Sebastian’s lute music – although it wasn’t performed on lute.

Eugen Dombois studied lute with Walter Gerwig from 1955-1958 in Cologne, and taught lute for decades at the famed Schola Cantorum Basiliensis beginning in 1962. Many prominent lutenists and recording artists studied with Dombois, including several who went on to record Sebastian’s music and are featured in this article.

John Schneidermann, who studied with Eugen Dombois in the 1980s, told this story in a recent interview:

Dombois was a musician’s musician. He no longer played the lute, but if he needed to demonstrate he would read directly from the lute tablature, Renaissance or baroque, and play on the harpsichord or clavichord. During one lesson I was at A=415 and the clavichord was at A=440. The keyboard did not have a lever to change the pitch, so Dombois read from the lute tablature and transposed down a half step. I did not hear anything he said for the next twenty minutes because I was still trying to wrap my mind around what he had just done, and with perfect ease.

~ John Schneidermann
This is Classical Guitar, May 18, 2015

Dombois, Eugen M., 1973/1998. The Baroque Lute. SEON/Sony SBK 60372. ADD

He recorded two (“red and blue”) records titled Die Barocklaute I & II for ABC Classics in 1973. These included repertoire by Conradi, Kellner, and Weiss as well as by Sebastian, and were combined by SEON for a rerelease on CD in 1998. (All the music from both LPs was included on one CD with the exception of the Weiss suite.)

Dombois plays category 1 pieces on The Baroque Lute: BWVs 995 and 998, and performs on a “Baroque Lute by Nico van Der Waals after models from ca. 1700” according to the liner notes. The recording captures a warmer sound and the impression is of a more deeply resonant instrument than that on Gerwig’s recordings made nearly a decade earlier. The interpretive approach to Sebastian’s music heard here strikes me as more monumental and less intimate than Gerwig’s, especially in his powerful articulation on the bass strings of the instrument.



It was the next generation of lutenists who finally developed the technique and held the instruments in their hands that would realize the promise of Bach’s music on the Lute.

Hopkinson Smith c 1980 ~ photo from the liner notes to Johann Sebastian Bach/L’oeuvre de Luth

The American lutenist Hopkinson Smith (b 1946) graduated from Harvard in 1972 with a degree in musicology and moved to Europe to study guitar with Emilio Pujol and lute with Eugen Dombois. Eventually he would join his teacher Dombois on the faculty at Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, where he teaches to this day.

In 1974 Smith was part of the group – along with Jordi Savall, Monserrat Figueras, and Lorenzo Alpert – who founded the legendary early music ensemble Hespèrion XX. He had already recorded several albums of sixteenth and seventeenth century solo lute music by 1980, when he began to record the first complete edition of the category 1 music, which he completed in 1981 and was released as a two-CD set the following year.

I found Hopkinson Smith’s Johann Sebastian Bach: L’oeuvre de Luth at Tower records in New York City in the early 1990s – it was one of my first purchases of recorded lute music, the first CD recording of Bach on the Lute that I ever heard, and by now I am sure that I have heard these recordings more than any other performances of the category 1 pieces.

It’s an astounding recording.

Smith plays with a relaxed and serene virtuosity, revealing an ever-changing panorama of emotions and a multiplicity of voices in Sebastian’s music. Every tempo feels natural and in service to the music, every ornament, articulation, phrasing, voicing, dynamic underscores the music’s variety of mood: at turns tender, strong, passionate, resigned, grand, buoyant, stormy. Smith’s very personal approach to making music – which can be heard across many albums spanning centuries of repertoire – serves this intimate music so well. One wonders how anyone could doubt that Bach wrote music for the lute!

The first disc (995, 996, 998) is performed on a 13-course lute by Nico van Der Waals and the second (997, 1006a, 999, 1000) on a 13-course lute by Joel van Lennep. The recording is miked close enough to the instrument that the rich sympathetic overtones of each imbues the atmosphere of the music with its unique character. If van Der Waals’ lute comes across as more limber and even-tempered, van Lennep’s instrument delivers a powerful sound well-suited to the program on the second CD.

North, Nigel, 1985. Bach Lute Music. Amon Ra CDSAR023.

Nigel North (b 1954) is the other lutenist who would become renowned for his Bach interpretations whose first recording of Sebastian’s music was released in the 80s. North began his musical training as a child on violin, began to study guitar around age 10, and lute at 15. He studied at the Royal College of Music and Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the 1970s, and began teaching at Guildhall while still a student there. Bach Lute Music was recorded and released in 1985, a single disc program of category 1 music: 1006a, 999, 1000, 995. North also plays a 13-course instrument by Nico van Der Waals.

The performance on this disc communicates clearly North’s vision, deep commitment to this music, and his superlative musicianship. Unfortunately the recording – made with a pair of stereo microphones in crossed hypercardoid configuration – do not capture an atmosphere of warmth and intimacy in step with the performance’s beauty and depth. At times, the instrument’s tone sounds brittle, especially in the upper registers.

In his notes that accompany this recording, North already hints at the direction his engagement with Sebastian’s music would take in the decade to come:

Why does this music hold so much fascination? I think the answer lies in the sheer beauty and strength of the music coupled with the mystery surrounding Bach and the lute… His lute music has such a magnificence and magic not found elsewhere, but, alas, is so often awkwardly written for the instrument. It is like a high mountain which, from the summit, commands a view of the whole creation and in order to reach there we have to negotiate many seemingly impossible routes.

~ Nigel North
liner notes to Bach Lute Music, 1985


Concluded in:

Bach on the Lute: 70 Years of Recordings, Part II (coming soon)


*       *       *

The Lute:

I ~ Meet the Lute

II ~ Francesco da Milano

III ~ The Medieval Lute

IV ~ Petrarch’s Lyre

V ~ Renaissance Lute

VI ~ Baroque Lute (coming soon)

VII ~ Ottaviano Petrucci and the First Printed Lute Books

VIII ~ The Frottolists and the First Lute Songbooks

IX ~ The Capirola Lute Book

X ~ Music Printer to the King: Pierre Attaingnant

XI ~ Attaingnant’s Lute Books

XII ~ The Lute at the Court of Henry VIII

XIII ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music

XIV ~ Simone Molinaro


XV ~ Diana Poulton




i ~ The Lute: A Bibliography

ii ~ The Lute: A Discography

iii ~ Lute Recordings:

       a ~ Dowland on CD: A Survey of the Solo Lute Recordings: Part I

       b ~ Dowland on CD: A Survey of the Solo Lute Recordings: Part II

       c ~ Bach on the Lute: 70 Years of Recordings, Part I

      d ~ Bach on the Lute: 70 Years of Recordings, Part II (coming soon)

iv ~ The Lute Society of America Summer Seminar West, 1996

1 Comment

  1. […]        c ~ Bach on the Lute: 70 Years of Recordings, Part I […]

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