Transcribing Bach’s Solo String Music: When to Add or Omit Notes

by Frank Koonce and Heather DeRome

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For guitarists, transcribing Bach’s works that originally were written for the violin and for the cello presents challenges that are different from those in his works for the lute. Because he was working within the technical capacities and constraints of bowed instruments with four strings, and because these issues do not always apply to a plucked instrument with six-strings, more changes from the originals are necessary. In that sense, one may think of the guitar editions of Bach’s lute suites as being transcriptions and those of his solo string music as arrangements. There is no arguing that Bach’s violin and cello works are perfect as they are, and when one delves into the process of making arrangements rather than straight transcriptions, it becomes even more apparent that Bach was able to use technical constraints to his advantage, rather than have them create weaknesses in the composition. However, if these constraints are transferred to an instrument that does not have them, then indeed they may stand out as compositional flaws.

This certainly must be a reason why, when Bach recycled his own compositions, he did not simply transfer the same music from one instrument to another; instead, he modified it by taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of the new instrument. It is probably also why, as noted by his pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola, that Bach “often played [the Sonatas and Partitas] on the clavichord, adding as much in the way of harmony as he found necessary. In doing so, he recognized the necessity of a sounding harmony, such as in compositions of this sort he was not able to more fully achieve” [on the original instrument].[1]

We are fortunate to have examples of how Bach himself arranged bowed-string music to be played on the lute or keyboard. By studying this 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 Bach’s music for solo strings, for example, sometimes one or more notes are excluded from within an otherwise complete contrapuntal line. When this happens, we try to understand why Bach made that choice. A rudimentary understanding of the violin will show almost invariably that the “missing” note falls on the same string as another note that is being played. In places where a note seems to be omitted because of the violin’s tuning, and when that note falls easily on the guitar, we added it in our arrangements. On the other hand, if a note may fulfill a voice that is playable on the guitar but also easily playable on the violin, then we more often than not did not add it, because Bach likely would already have done so if he had wanted.

Conversely, sometimes in the solo violin and cello music, we see what may appear to be an extra voice in a passage. For example, a passage that is obviously in three voices may suddenly have a fourth voice for just a beat or two, as shown in measures 11–15 below.

Example 1. Violin Sonata III, BWV 1005: Fuga, mm. 6–15

Example 1. Violin Sonata III, BWV 1005: Fuga, mm. 6–15

At the end of measure 10 the fugue subject enters for the third time, now in the soprano line, and so the counterpoint there is theoretically in three voices. However, at the downbeat of measure 11, Bach has four notes. We can see that the soprano, alto, and bass notes follow the lines from the previous measure, but that the tenor note E (on the main staff) does not appear to be attached to its own contrapuntal line. This is because, on the violin, the bow would not be able to play that three-note chord as it is notated in our Ossia staff.[2] Since the bow is not able to skip over a string when playing two or more notes simultaneously, they must be on adjacent strings. However, and as always, Bach has made the passage work well, because at the same time that he adds the middle note, the melody note goes up, and the chord becomes more intense. Bach never succumbs to the limitations of the violin; he always makes a technical concession into a musical strength. And so here, in our arrangement, we gave a choice to players: They could follow the three-voice exposition, which is important for a fugue, or they could use Bach’s solution to his technical challenge on the violin, but which does not apply to the guitar.


With regard to possibly adding notes, there are certain Baroque conventions and procedures to follow so that it is done stylistically and not just arbitrarily. There are many clues to examine, such as the implications provided by original slur markings, harmonic conventions with regard to chord progressions, and common melodic and harmonic formulas––or stock patterns known as Schemata, which Bach himself frequently used. For example, one of these patterns, shown in Example 2a, is a very common cadential formula that is still familiar today. Avid listeners will recognize it even when it is decorated with dotted rhythms, ornaments, or intervening notes¬, and also if certain notes are omitted from it. Example 2b shows the same Schema (singular), but with an added mordent, middle voice, and note divisions.

Example 2. Cadential Schema

Example 2. Cadential Schema

Recent musicological research shows that, in Bach’s time, students were taught to compose using these stock formulas, stringing them together and combining them with bass lines. The bass lines also were well-established patterns, which grew out of Partimenti exercises that formed the basis of a student’s training.[3] These formulas appear in various works of the period, with a greater or lesser degree of harmonic and/or melodic development, and therefore may be used as models for the addition of notes that are not technically possible on the original instrument, or simply as a basis for improvisation.

The different possible solutions in Example 3 show modular Schemata at work. Example 3a is one that is found the Allemanda of the second violin partita. Example 3b shows the same Schema––but with Bach’s own added bass notes––in a different work, the fourth lute suite. Example 3c is our guitar arrangement of the violin excerpt, but with the basses from 3b added. (Players may also add Bach’s appoggiatura from 3b, or other ornaments, as they wish.) Example 3d adds a different Schema altogether, also common at the time, and one that Bach uses in many of the final cadences in his lute suites.

Example 3

Example 3a, c, d. Violin Partita II, BWV 1004: Allemanda, m. 15;
Example 3b. Lute Suite IV, BWV 1006a: Gavotte, mm. 91–92

The Possible Addition of a New Voice

Bach sometimes provides a “skeleton” of a bass line, which may be interrupted by an upper line that then takes the lead in such a way as to keep the harmonic movement clear to the ear. In Example 4a, we can 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. In measures three and four, the upper part begins a sequence that clearly implies a circle of fifths, as these types of passages often do.

Example 4a. Partita II, BWV 1004: Giga, mm. 1–4 (original)

Example 4a. Partita II, BWV 1004: Giga, mm. 1–4 (original)

In our guitar arrangement, Example 4b, on beat 3 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 bass note on beat 3, 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 cadences, or when arpeggiating a chord. On the other hand, using C-Sharp is also somewhat unusual because there is usually 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.

Then, in measures 3 and 4, 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.

Example 4b: Partita II, BWV 1004: Giga, mm. 1–4 (edited for guitar)

Example 4b: Partita II, BWV 1004: Giga, mm. 1–4 (edited for guitar)

The decision to add or remove notes was never taken lightly or for granted; the questions that arose within that framework were extremely diverse and formed a continual source of opportunities for learning to understand Bach’s music more profoundly. As mentioned above, there are clues to study in all aspects of the music: aspects of notation, of violin technique, of the species counterpoint that Bach inherited from his forefathers, and also of the harmonic language that was prevalent in his own era.

Functional Harmony

If, along with analyzing Bach’s music by ascribing chord functions––labelling them with Roman numerals and classifying them as tonic, dominant, and subdominant––we were to look at educational resources that were current throughout Bach’s life, we would likely be astounded to see how music training was much different than we imagine. As mentioned earlier, students learned their craft largely through practical, hands-on study of Partimenti (exercises in the form of bass lines to harmonize) and the Schemata (stock patterns).

Functional Harmony, as it is now taught, is based on Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie,[4] which was first introduced in 1722. At that time, Bach already was 37 years old! This kind of analysis––this way of relating to music––did not exist when Bach composed his works for unaccompanied strings. The concept of chords being in root position or inverted also did not exist. For example, if we see the stack of notes E/G/C we call it a C-major chord in first inversion. We consider C as the most important, or “fundamental”[5] note of that chord. However, this was not Bach’s perspective. According to his training, the bass note is E, and therefore he would have related to that chord as a type of E sonority, not as a C chord.

Rameau’s treatise was very influential and formed the basis of our modern practices, which were further developed by theorist Hugo Reiman in the late nineteenth century,[6] and then by others such as Simon Sechter, Arnold Schoenberg, and Heinrich Schenker.[7] This different perspective of having a fundamental bass means that our familiar system of analysis sometimes falls short in providing the answer as to which notes are most appropriate to add to a passage––in other words, not the notes that can be played, but the notes should be played, according to then-established conventions.

A striking difference one notices when comparing educational resources that are based on Rameau’s treatise to resources used by teachers working with Partimenti, is that the former includes theoretical instruction and verbal guidance, while the latter includes only music that was designed as didactic exercises to be explored within the maestro-disciple relationship. In the same way that children under the age of eight have the ability to learn a new language easily by listening and imitating, learning music at that time also was based on this kind of hands-on training, through the exploration of literally hundreds of such modular “pods,” if you will, like the ones presented in Examples 2 and 3.

The difficulty with this method arose only when musicians who were employed at the courts were asked to train their adult patrons, because the adult mind learns differently. Rameau’s treatise provided the ability to create a logical step-by-step curriculum that appealed to the nobility, and in this way it made its way into the mainstream of musical education, eventually replacing the older model so thoroughly that it became virtually unquestioned as being the foundation of all music theory.

It is how all students are trained now, and possibly why most young students balk at the toil and drudgery of learning theory. Conversely, most of us would be at a complete loss if handed a page of Partimenti to work with and improvise upon. If we were asked to provide an analysis of Bach’s music but not discuss it in terms of chords or inversions, how would we describe what is happening harmonically? Prior to Rameau’s treatise, students working with Partimenti had a different way of learning harmony, known as the “Rule of the Octave.”

Rule of the Octave

The most basic premise of the R.O.T.O., shown in Example 6, is that the stable scale degrees (i.e., do and sol) are harmonized with a fifth and a third, and the unstable degrees with a sixth and a third. The most unstable ones, such as ti when it ascends to do but not when it descends to la, and la when it descends to sol but not when it ascends to ti, also have an added dissonance: ti has an added fifth and la, an added fourth.

Example 6: Rule of the Octave

Example 6: Rule of the Octave

In the key of C, for instance, a scale could be harmonized with the chord tones shown below (note the differences between the ascending and descending scales). This is a treble clef reduction of one of the first of many R.O.T.O. versions, in three- and four voices, published by François Campion in 1716, around the same time Bach was composing the Sonatas and Partitas.[8]

Looking at this through the lens of our modern harmonic system, there are root-position chords on the tonic and dominant, and first-inversion chords on the weaker scale degrees. The chords that have a strong “tendency,” that is, a strong pull towards another note, have added sevenths. For example, a present-day scholar might look at the chord built on the leading-tone B, as it ascends to C, and analyze it as a first-inversion G7, or dominant-seventh chord. According to the R.O.T.O., this is a chord built on an unstable scale degree; therefore, it has a third, fifth, and sixth above the bass.

Considering the implications of this a little further, we may say that the tonic and dominant chords, which include the interval of a perfect fifth, are heard as being “at rest” or stable. The other basses all are harmonized with the intervals of major and minor sixths, the imperfect consonances, and are heard as being “in motion.” Within that framework the bass moves by step. However, if we relate to all chords as inversions of an implied “fundamental” bass (again, Rameau’s term) which is different than the “given” bass, then we are hearing an imagined leaping bass line, in a music where there is no real difference between the perfect and imperfect consonances. It gives the listener a radically different experience.

This being said, there is no question that Rameau’s system was ingenious in that it was able to encapsulate what already was being done, but from an entirely new perspective. Since then, it has served the musical world so well that the Partimenti system fell into disuse and eventually was all but forgotten.

In preparing our guitar arrangements of Bach’s solo violin and solo cello music, we used the modern tools of harmonic analysis extensively; however, our new and rudimentary understanding of Schemata and R.O.T.O. also proved to be very helpful in making decisions for passages in which Bach’s intended harmonies seemed ambiguous. Much more research is needed, but for anyone who is seriously interested in Baroque music, these historical practices are worth looking into. For us, it has indeed opened up a whole new world.


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1 Cited in Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, revised edition with a supplement (NY: Norton, 1966), 447.
2 Ossia: (It.) meaning “or it may be,” is used as a direction in music to indicate an alternative way to play a passage.
3 See Robert O. Gjerdingen, Music in the Galant Style (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
4 Jean-Philippe Rameau, Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels [Treatise on Harmony reduced to its natural principles], first published in Paris in 1722 by Jean-Baptiste-Christophe Ballard.
5 Indeed, many writers of the time referred to Rameau’s treatise as la basse fondamentale de Rameau; the very term “fundamental bass” comes from that treatise.
6 Hugo Reiman, Vereinfachte Harmonielehre oder die Lehre von den tonalen Funktionen der Akkorde
(1893). Trans, Eng.: Harmony Simplified or the Theory of Tonal Functions of Chords (London and New York:1896, republished by Cornell University Library, 2009). Reiman was first to use the term “functional harmony” and described three tonal functions––tonic, dominant, and subdominant.
7 See Robert E. Wason, Viennese Harmonic Theory from Albrecthsberger to Schenker and Schoenberg (Ann Arbor, London, 1985).
8 Joel Lester, Bach’s Works for Solo Violin: Style, Structure, Performance (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 30.

One thought on “Transcribing Bach’s Solo String Music: When to Add or Omit Notes

  1. Some years back, a very talented cello player lived near me. She played outside often. One thing I noticed is that a cello has a lot going on in it. That becomes very obvious in open air acoustics. Within the cello there is the power to carry and create its own overtone and extra tone harmonies. Even my loudest guitar, not so much. I consider this possibility, Bach wrote to suit and make use of the abilities of available players. Bach rewrote themes in various formats. I wonder, if Bach was to rewrite one of his existing pieces for Segovia or Bream, what would he change?

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