The Sonatas and Partitas —An Arranger's Perspective (Part One)
By: Frank Koonce and Heather DeRome
This article is Part-one of a three-part essay discussing several of the issues we encountered while making our guitar edition of the Sonatas and Partitas. In this installment, we will discuss one of the biggest concerns that must be addressed when arranging Bach’s solo string music for the guitar, and that is whether or not to add bass notes or middle voices.

Sometimes there is an obvious reason for a note “omission” in the original, such as in measures 210–213 of the D-Minor Ciaccona. The chords crossing the barline between measures 210 and 211 are both in three voices, and then the motive repeats down a step in 211, through to the downbeat of measure 212. However, here, the chords that cross the barline have only two voices instead of three. Why?

For the pattern to be repeated exactly, we would need a middle voice, D, and then a middle voice E, as shown with smaller fonts in Example 1b.

And already, we must digress because, actually, we are presented with a choice, E or C-Sharp for the middle voice in measure 212. Using C-Sharp would at first seem to follow Bach’s sequence. However, that note would yield two problems. First and most importantly, we would have a doubled leading tone since the second beat has C-Sharp also, an octave higher. That note then arpeggiates to the lower C-Sharp. Another detail that might support the choice of E is that in the two previous measures, that middle note is the same in both of the three-note chords in measure 210 ––and in 211, once we have added the middle note, D. At measure 213, if we put C-Sharp as a middle voice, we would also want to use it in that last chord of measure 213. However, that note is already being used in the bass. Furthermore, look at the second note of each measure: Those notes match the middle note from the downbeats of their respective measures.

Coming back to the violin score and our question, why did Bach not repeat the pattern exactly? The “missing” D at the end of measure 211 could be played on the violin’s open D string, but then where would the G be played? The next string above D is A, which is too high to accommodate that G. The omitted D could not have been played one string lower, because that string, the violin’s lowest, is being used for the bass-note B. In other words, we have two strings and three notes. The guitar, however, being tuned in fourths––not fifths––can easily accommodate all three notes. The next downbeat, discussed above, presents the same problem of two notes falling on the same string. In cases like these when we were making our arrangements, we added the “missing” note. This is just one of many examples that show how tuning an instrument in fourths, rather than in fifths, lends itself better to playing chords––AND a further example of how Bach’s solo string music was so ingeniously constructed, because, on the violin, none of these passages ever is felt as lacking.

By studying Bach’s repertoire as models for adapting his music to a new medium, we endeavor to understand how and why he made certain changes, and to apply those methodologies to our own work. In some instances, such as in his lute arrangement of the E-Major Bourrée, Bach himself shows us the possibility of adding a new voice entirely.

In cases like these, where there is the potential for adding a significant amount of counterpoint––but without the benefit of having another realization by Bach himself––we did not create new, fully-developed lines. Aside from the fact that we could never compose as well as Bach, we wanted to keep the work as being by Bach, without editorial overreach.

At times, for example in the D-Minor Giga, BWV 1004, Bach provides a “skeleton” of a bass line, and it may be interrupted by an upper line that then takes the lead in such a way as to keep the harmonic movement very clear to the ear. In Example 3a, we see that on the downbeat of the first two measures, Bach gives us a note that functions as a bass and as the fundamental harmonic support. On the third beats, the harmony changes, and this is implied only in the upper voice; that is there is nothing in the lower part to confirm the new chords. Then, in measures three and four, the upper part begins a sequence that clearly implies a circle of fifths.

In our guitar arrangement [Example 3b], on beat three in the first two measures, we added notes to clarify the change of harmony. In measure 1, there was the choice of A or C-Sharp for the beat-three bass note, and also the question of keeping it as a two-voice chord or adding in a third note. We decided against using an A bass, because Bach himself tends to make his bass lines move by step. Although leaps of course do occur, they generally are found more at final cadences, or when arpeggiating a chord. On the other hand, using C-Sharp is also somewhat unusual because there is a preference for changing a bass note over a barline, and measure two repeats the C-Sharp. Bach, however, did repeat basses over a barline in instances where he either wanted to shift a metric accent, or as is the case here, where the repeated note actually serves to emphasize it, in the same way that an orator can create emphasis by repeating a word. As for the choice of two or three voices, we chose three because it is generally better to have less than an octave between voices, especially on strong-beats.

Then, in measures three and four, when the upper part begins a sequence that clearly implies a circle of fifths, we added in the implied basses, simply because it is more idiomatic and effective on the guitar. It is also the kind of thing that Bach, himself, did almost invariably when arranging for a harmonic instrument such as the lute or keyboard. Notice here on beats 2 and 4, that the larger intervals between the voices are acceptable to the ear because they occur on weak-beats, and also the descending melodic material immediately fills in the gap.

All the issues discussed thus far are fairly straightforward, and if one spends a little time and effort coming to grips with the structure of the music, the answers come with a fair degree of certainty. However, Bach did not write the bulk his solo string music in the same fashion as his keyboard or lute or vocal music, and then choose to omit the occasional note because of a technical constraint. The violin solos are not always full of these implied notes. Parts two and three of this article will discuss Bach’s very unusual––and extremely effective––approach to composition in the solo string music. Be sure to read these articles which will discuss some of the more tantalizing riddles that present themselves when one transfers this music from a four-stringed, bowed instrument tuned in fifths, to a plucked instrument with six strings, tuned in fourths.

Copyright © Koonce/DeRome, 2020.