A Guitar Tribute to J.S. Bach on His 336th Birthday


By Gretchen Menn

One of the great treasures and marvels of our species: J.S. Bach. The extent of his musical importance would be difficult to overstate. Centuries later, his music still delights, inspires, educates, and endures. 

I have been in love with the prelude to J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 since I first started working on it during my second year of study with Phillip de Fremery—a brilliant classical guitarist, teacher, and mentor to anyone fortunate enough to learn from him. He also boasts the distinction of having been entrusted by the Segovia family with Andrés Segovia’s Transcripciones and is an authority on the performances and arrangements of Maestro Segovia. 

My hesitation to record a version of the prelude stems from my deep reverence of the piece, not to mention the many breathtaking performances by some of the world’s most astounding classical musicians. It was when luthier Kenny Hill lent me his personal guitar that I knew I needed to make the most of my time with it, and so I put aside my trepidations to capture where I was with a piece that feels like part of my soul. This instrument has Hill’s signature ergonomic design, True Temperament frets, cedar double top, and rosewood back and sides. So today, on Bach’s 336th birthday, here is his transcendental prelude on a sublime instrument, by a guitarist who is ever striving to learn and grow.

At the same time, de Fremery granted a rare interview, discussing details of his history with this piece. You can hear an audio file of his concert performance, recorded in 1991 at Mount Holyoke College’s Abbey Chapel, below. Scroll to the end of the interview to see a page from de Fremery’s handwritten edits to the composer Manuel Ponce’s arrangement.

Talk about the history of this piece as played by Segovia.

It is important to understand that Segovia did not add pieces to his repertoire simply because he could play all the notes. On the contrary, he fiercely adhered to his initial rule, which was that he would not perform, publish, or record any transcription unless he felt that it clearly benefitted from its adaptation to the guitar.  Apropos of that, we see in the enormous arc of his career that only once—in the case of Bach’s Suite No. 3 for Cello—did he prepare and record an entire suite. However, as we all know he often did play single movements, as was the case with the prelude to the Cello Suite No. 1, as transcribed by his close friend and noted Mexican composer Manuel Ponce. It does seem clear that both Ponce and Segovia were concerned with the loss of sustain in the giving up of the intensity of the bow, hence the frequent addition of complementary counterpoint lines.

Segovia’s first recording of this transcription took place during the EMI years, somewhere between 1927 and 1939. Then, in the mid-’50s, he recorded it for Decca, taking a slightly slower tempo, employing fewer ligados in the left hand and featuring noticeably fewer of Ponce’s counterpoints. I felt this allowed him to deliver more weight—it seemed less busy, more majestic—reaching a better compromise vis-à-vis the loss of the bow.

Where you have taken the piece?

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In 1991 I had the opportunity to record this piece live in concert. My goal was to take it still further in the direction originally conceived by both Ponce and Segovia: first and foremost I was looking for still more weight. This meant more changes. Three of these changes could have been expected. Others, strictly speaking, are departures in a sense. The logical extension necessarily involved a still slower tempo, fewer ligados and still fewer of Ponce’s counterpoints. The change no one could have expected is that I performed it on the guitar Michael Cone built for me in 1976. Stay with me here. This instrument was built to be played without fingernails while accommodating the higher tension available, thanks to the use of varnished gut strings. In my opinion this combination of factors allowed me to achieve not only fuller and longer durations but considerable expansion of the dynamic range as well, bringing it closer yet to the inherent force of the bow.

What advice would you give guitar players who want to learn this? Can you identify some common misconceptions, pitfalls, and misinterpretations? 

Certainly in the end it is up to each player to identify the unique challenges which inevitably surface in the process of study. My personal experience has been as follows: as stated above, I feel the Bach-Ponce transcription stands best on its own, and that the player will need to utilize all possible means of thickening the sound. Assuming that the player is using the fingernail technique—which we certainly should—the solution is to create a less direct approach to the strings. This solution may be easily reached by first lining up the main joints of the right hand directly adjacent to the strings and then moving the wrist about one inch toward the bridge saddle. This is the less direct attack of the nail to the string, the territory of the thick tone, more of a “bowed” sound, so to speak. Other nuances are available but this is the main thing. In accessing this type of sound, the player will notice that the tones last longer, that they take up more space, that they develop more energy, and that this combination of aural impressions allows the player to use a more moderate tempo.

You might enjoy Sharon Isbin’s Classical Guitar Answer Book, available at store.acousticguitar.com.

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