Johann Sebastian Bach

Suite for lute in E minor, BWV 996 (BC L166)

    Description by Blair Johnston

    Nobody knows exactly what instrument J. S. Bach had in mind when composing (and, in some cases, arranging) his many pieces now considered to be for lute; indeed, some of these works are all but unplayable on any known variety of Baroque lute, and it may well be that in these cases he was writing for a peculiar device known as the Lautenwerk--a kind of harpsichord mechanism designed to approximate the timbre of the lute. A surviving manuscript of the Lute Suite in E minor, BWV 996, Bach's earliest work for lute (probably composed in Weimar sometime between 1707 and 1717, perhaps earlier), actually bears the inscription "Aufs Lautenwerk," though the words appear to have been written by another hand. In the end, the question is probably moot: both Lautenwerk and Baroque lute are, sadly, all but extinct, and today one almost always hears the E minor Suite, like all Bach's "lute" works, played on guitar (we must remember that Bach himself was never possessed of the relatively modern notion of absolutely specific instrumentation--his own arrangements of solo violin and cello works for lute prove this, and he would almost certainly not object to hearing the works on another instrument).

    The E minor Lute Suite is laid out in the traditional Froberger keyboard suite model, to whose four basic dance movements--allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue--Bach has added a florid Passaggio (a particular variety of prelude whose origins are to be found in the improvised introductions to Baroque organ toccatas) and a lively Bourrée.

    The Passaggio is in fact a dual movement, beginning with a single-line melodic plunge that soon gives way to a more recitativo passage in which Bach sets isolated chords against more animated outbursts in the treble register. The second half of the prelude movement is a much more tightly-metered Presto built along miniature fugal lines.

    The Allemande is of the traditional kind, steady in rhythm and serious in tone. In this movement, BWV 996's possible keyboard genesis can be seen and heard in the hand-against-hand style of the two voices. Of special beauty is the mix of minor and major scales at the final cadence of the dance's second half.

    The Courante is a particularly graceful example of this triple-meter dance, its frequent lapses into hemiola serving as a vestigial reminder of the compact two against three rhythmic coloration that, three-quarters of a century before Bach's time, was so vital a part of courante style.

    The zarabande, as a dance-genre, first came to Europe during the fifteenth century via the Spanish New World, and was originally a far raunchier (and faster) dance than those we know from the High Baroque literature. In the Sarabande of the E minor Lute Suite, we are given an example of the very slow, tender kind of sarabande that first began to pop up in France at the turn of the eighteenth century. The transparency of ornamentation in the second half is nothing short of heavenly.

    Of completely different stock is the energetic Bourrée, with its (almost) unbending long/short-short rhythms and driving bass line.

    The concluding Gigue is very nearly a perpetual motion--the sixteenth notes only falter at the two cadence areas. During the second half Bach indulges in some delightful imitation on the inverted form of the first half's melody.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Passagio - Presto
    2. Allemande
    3. Courante
    4. Sarabande
    5. Bourrée
    6. Gigue

    Appears On

    Year Title / Performer Label / Catalog # AllMusic Rating
    2019
    BIS
    BIS 2285
    2018
    Orchid Classics
    ORC 100082
    2018
    Naxos
    857393637
    2017
    Brilliant Classics
    95480
    2017
    Hungaroton
    HCD 32772
    2017
    Hänssler Classic
    HC 16085
    2017
    Deutsche Grammophon
    002894797316
    2016
    Alba
    ABCD 395
    2016
    Stradivarius
    STR 37055
    2016
    Cybele
    SACD 031517
    2016
    Sony Classical / Sony Music
    309294
    2015
    Erato
    2564617518
    2015
    Musica Omnia
    MO 0508
    2014
    Christophorus
    CHR 77392
    2014
    Katrin Endrikat
    2013
    Sunnyside Communications
    SSC 1348
    2013
    Brilliant Classics
    94408
    2013
    Channel Classics
    CCSSA 34713
    2012
    Various Artists
    Decca
    4783655
    2012
    Alba
    ABCD 143
    2012
    Various Artists
    Bt
    BT 3060
    2011
    Analekta
    AN29767
    2011
    Erato / Virgin Classics
    5099909632
    2010
    Brilliant Classics
    94050
    2010
    Decca
    2010
    RCA Red Seal
    88697316212
    2009
    Naïve
    40003
    2009
    Azica Records
    71250
    2009
    BR Klassik / Campanella
    130175
    2008
    Naxos
    8570470-71
    2008
    Virgin / Virgin Classics
    3793472
    2008
    Deutsche Grammophon / Universal
    445 713-2GGA2
    2008
    Proprius-AudioSource
    2041
    2008
    Jaro / Zebralution
    2007
    Decca
    4766379
    2007
    Stradivarius
    11020
    2007
    Stradivarius
    33540
    2007
    Idis
    6526/27
    2007
    Deutsche Grammophon
    2007
    Scandinavian Classics
    220529
    2007
    Vanguard
    2017
    2007
    Primo Records
    6046
    2006
    Brilliant Classics
    93102
    2006
    Brilliant Classics
    99697
    2006
    Universal Classics & Jazz
    2006
    Sony Music Distribution
    78738
    2006
    Decca / Universal
    2006
    Paul Berget
    5637427163
    2005
    Various Artists
    Brilliant Classics
    92215
    2005
    EMI Classics
    2005
    Transart Live
    133
    2005
    Erato
    2005
    Fuga Libera
    508
    2005
    Vanguard Classics
    1778
    2004
    Lyrichord
    8051
    2003
    Stradivarius
    33571
    2003
    Deutsche Grammophon
    000204902
    2003
    Erato / Virgin
    7243562198
    2003
    dB Productions
    80
    2002
    Naïve
    3000
    2002
    Sony Classical
    89964
    2002
    Guild
    7232
    2002
    Stradivarius
    33469
    2002
    Sony Music Distribution
    89612
    2002
    Virgin Classics / Angel Records / Virgin
    62075
    2001
    Haenssler
    92568
    2001
    Teldec
    81232
    2001
    Lion
    LMC 2002CD
    2001
    Naxos
    555720
    2000
    Capriccio Records
    51069
    2000
    Delos
    3258
    2000
    Auvidis
    4861
    2000
    Virgin
    45284
    2000
    Christophorus
    0072
    2000
    Andes
    1005
    2000
    Supraphon
    3501
    1999
    Teldec
    25705
    1999
    Teldec
    25704
    1999
    Various Artists
    Teldec
    3984-25716-2
    1999
    Haenssler
    92109
    1999
    EMI Music Distribution
    62024
    1999
    Frame
    9722
    1999
    Telarc Distribution
    80523
    1998
    Azica Records
    71210
    1997
    Sony Classical Essential Classics
    SBK-62972
    1997
    Supraphon
    3338
    1996
    Hungaroton
    31616
    1996
    Ascencion
    104
    1995
    Dorian
    80126
    1994
    Telarc Distribution
    80403
    1994
    BIS
    587
    1994
    MusicMasters
    67128
    1994
    EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics
    7243555123
    1993
    Astree Auvidis
    7721
    1993
    RCA
    61603
    1992
    Gasparo Records
    275
    1991
    RCA
    60494
    1991
    Sony Music Distribution
    45858
    1990
    DHM Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
    77097
    1989
    Virgin
    59503
    1986
    CBS Records
    42204
    1973
    Archiv Produktion
    Matthew Korbanic
    Brilliant
    93102-VOL1
    Brilliant
    99701
    Brilliant
    99702
    AMPCAST
    Fleurs de Lys
    3006
    Brilliant
    99702/8
    Capriccio Records
    10033
    Brilliant
    99701/16
    Brilliant
    93102/16
    SNE
    599
    KyoArt
    163180
    Classics for Pleasure
    9014
    Tom Nauman
    8670
    Philips
    416141
    Aquarius International Music
    17207
    Musical Heritage Society
    524263
    BMG
    0902661583
    RCA
    5841
    Multisonic
    310007
    12 Street
    4222
    RCA Victor
    39804
    Oreade Music
    5282