Bach: Suite for Three Violas (after BWV996)

Johann Sebastian Bach

Suite for Three Violas (after the Suite in E minor for Lautenwerke, BWV996)

Arranged by Daniel Powers

duration: approx. 15 minutes
Score and parts: $19.99
Order through JW Pepper

Bach’s autograph manuscript for the BWV996 Suite has never come to light. It is primarily known through a copy made by Bach’s colleague (and cousin) Johann Gottfried Walther (1684-1748), headed with the description “aufs Lauten Werck,” which was assumed to refer to the lute, making this the earliest of Bach’s handful of compositions for this instrument.

However, “Lautenwerck” is also the name of a keyboard instrument, a type of harpsichord strung with gut instead of wire, resulting in a mellower, lute-like sound. The inventory of Bach’s estate shows that he owned two such instruments at the time of his death; there is also a record that one was purchased in Weimar, built in 1715 by another Bach cousin, Johann Nikolaus Bach.

These factors, together with the fact that the work as written is admirably suited to keyboard technique, lead to the conclusion that the BWV996 Suite was intended from the start as a work for lute-harpsichord (though lutenists and guitarists are understandably reluctant to concede this).

Sometime in early 2013, I happened to hear a performance of the suite on guitar, and before it was over, I had somehow come up with the idea that it might sound nice on three violas. It’s possible that this wouldn’t have occurred to me, were it not for the fact that some months before, I had been present at the 2012 International Viola Congress in Rochester, NY, where I heard several fine viola ensembles perform; so the idea of contributing something to the repertoire had been at the back of my mind for a while.