March 13 – Bach and the Guitar
On March 13, 2014, the United States Post Office issued the Jimi Hendrix Forever Stamp.
What does this have to do with the guitar?
James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix, born 1942 in Seattle, Washington, died in London, UK in 1970, is widely considered one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of popular music.
The rock and Roll Hall of Fame names him as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock and roll.” In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine published a list called “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Jimi Hendrix was #1. The magazine, using a panel of guitarists, updated its list in 2011; Hendrix was still among the top five.
What was so great about his playing?
Hendrix pioneered many techniques that are standard today: “shredding”—the use of distortion, reverb and feedback; using the thumb on the fretboard; playing solo on a chord while maintaining the rhythm; playing long legato lines, more like a horn; coaxing unique sounds from the guitar.
Most importantly, say his devotees, Hendrix did it all, did it consistently better than anyone else, did it with more raw passion, and never did the same thing twice.
What does this have to do with J.S. Bach?
Lots; in lots of interesting ways.
For a time, Jimi Hendrix lived in a house in London right next to the house George Frideric Handel had lived in. English Heritage has place two “blue plaques” on the now-conjoined houses and the dwellings function as Handel Hendrix House Museum and concert venue. Remember, although they never met, Bach and Handel were contemporaries, born in the same German state.
Jimi Hendrix, in his autobiography, Starting at Zero: His Own Story, says one of his most important influences was the music of Bach.
Hendrix was not alone. In his 1992 essay, “Eruptions: Heavy Metal Appropriations of Classical Virtuosity,” Robert Walser notes the profound influence of Bach’s baroque style (1600-1750) on heavy metal, citing Richard Middleton’s comparison of musical trains shared by both styles, particularly improvisational virtuosity (Bach was renowned for his ability to improvise), the similarity between jazz rhythm sections and Baroque’s continuo sections, and affective power.
On March 13, 1997, in Cologne, Germany, Nigel Kennedy played Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the world premiere of his Hendrix Concerto.
Nigel Kennedy is a UK born (1956) violinist who took a hiatus in his classical career to train at the Juilliard School in New York and who also crosses over into the worlds of jazz, blues and popular music. Kennedy, noted for the passion in his playing, speaks eloquently of his reverence for Hendrix: “When I heard Jimi, he made me want to play the violin like a guitar; more aggressive, more passion.” Kennedy believes the world of classical music has a lot to learn from rock ‘n’ roll. “The great rock guitarists were in tune with their instrument. They pushed things. They played like fire.” Kennedy recorded a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” for the 1993 album Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix and the 1999 Sony Classical release The Kennedy Experience, which featured improvisations based on Hendrix’s compositions.
What does this have to do with Bach and the guitar?
It is an example of the power of intermingling genres in music. Just as Kennedy plays rock guitar music on his classical violin, so others play Bach’s classical harpsichord music on their modern guitars.
It is likely that Bach never wrote any music for the guitar. Every piece of his played on guitar today, primarily his six cello suites, his four violin sonatas, the Chaconne, his four lute suites, and some keyboard works and the occasional cantata, is transcribed from other instruments,
For 100 years musicians believed that Bach wrote four suites and a number of miscellaneous pieces for the lute, now played on the guitar. More recent scholarship suggests, however, that even those pieces were not written for solo lute, but for a keyboard instrument—the lute harpsichord.
Nevertheless, the tradition, possibly myth, of Bach’s lute compositions continues. Here is a brief history.
During the Baroque period, the lute was the “noblest” instrument, the chosen instrument for the dance and for accompanying solo songs at court. Harpsichordists, influenced by lutenists, copied their style of ornamentation and their grouping of dances according to keys, called “dance suites.” Bach was so enamored of the lute that he had a lute-harpsichord built for him by Zacharias Hildebrand, which imitated the sound of a lute.
Most of Bach’s music remained in hand-copied versions during his lifetime. The Bach Gesellschaft first indexed and published Bach’s entire oeuvre in 1851, listing the “lute” works as keyboard music.
Wilhelm Tappert, a German musicologist, soon (1900) presented a contrary opinion, identifying BWV 995-9 and BWV 1000 and 1006a as lute pieces. In 1905 organist and physician, Albert Schweitzer supported Tappert, spreading the myth of the lute suites outside Germany.
In 1921, Hans Dagobert Bruger published a transcription of the pieces for a ten-string guitar-lute hybrid popular since the 18th century. This was the first edition of lute pieces arranged for guitar. Bruger transposed the pieces into the keys in which they are now usually played on the six-string guitar, setting the precedent for their inclusion in the guitar repertoire.
Other publications supported this tradition up until the 1960s, when musicologists such as Hans Radke began to reexamine the “lute suites” and argue that they had been composed for the lute-harpsichord, but the tradition of composition for lute held.
The tradition received further support from guitarists in performance, beginning with Andres Segovia in 1922 and his passionate playing of Bach masterpieces. Segovia’s performances mark the transition from the lute to the guitar, firmly establishing Bach’s reputation as a composer of lute music. Many other noted guitarists followed Segovia, culminating in 1975, when Australian guitarist John Williams issued a recording entitled The Four Lute Suites, a widely-released work that influenced an entire generation of guitarists.
Also in the 1970s scholars and musical technicians, beginning with Martha Goldstein, re-constructed the lute-harpsichord and recorded selections. Thus, the restoration of the music to its most probable origins began. Nevertheless, a number of artists released complete recordings on the baroque lute. Therefore, while many scholars think the evidence for composition on a keyboard is preponderant, but the guitar tradition continues.
The musical intermingling continues.
In his essay, “Defending Bach against his Devotees,” the sociologist and musicologist Theodor W. Adorno argues that if we try to keep the composer’s spark alive through an emphasis on “purity,” we risk losing the vital spark itself. Adorno says some Bach aficionados have:
transformed the composer into a simplified signifier for musical greatness, and can be sticklers for historical “authenticity” of performance. They place him on a pedestal, his music completely transcending the sociocultural contexts of his time, and of all time ever after. . . . [Thus], he is changed into a neutralized cultural monument, in which aesthetic success mingles obscurely with a truth that has lost its intrinsic substance.
Whether we accept Adorno’s caution or not, the cross-cultural mingling continues. We will hear Bach on the guitar--On April 2, 2016 at the Whittier College Bach Festival--and the German break dance group will perform Red Bull Flying Bach. A last connection to delight in:
Bach signed all his compositions Deo soli Gloria, “Glory to God alone.” Jimi Hendrix called his music “electric church.”