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May 14, 2013

Fleshing Out New Dimensions in Bach’s Music


Hopkinson Smith, the New York-born lutenist, guitarist and theorbo player has been on the front lines of the early-music movement since the mid-1970s. After co-founding and spending a decade with the ensemble Hespèrion XX, he has gone on to build a solo career espousing the glories of early plucked instruments, long before pop star Sting made the lute trendy. (The theorbo is a now-obsolete bass lute with two sets of strings attached to separate peg boxes, one above the other, on the neck. The biggest difference between the theorbo and the cello, of course, is that as one would do with any lute, one plucks the theorbo rather than using a bow. Think, then, of the cello suites on guitar.)

Smith is no purist when it comes to transcriptions. He has previously arranged and recorded a number of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin. The latest recording is the second of two devoted to Bach’s six suites for solo cello, transcribed by Smith for lute.

In the album’s liner notes, Smith notes that “transcriptions are not highly thought of,” and even “strongly condemned by a whole host of music lovers in the name of historical accuracy and respect for the original work.” But he makes the case that the lute brings something new to the table: whereas Bach’s cello suites use single melodic lines to suggest all of the elements of the musical structure (harmony, potential base and intermediary parts), the lute, a harmony instrument, fleshes out these dimensions.

Smith plays the elaborate prelude of the Suite No. 4, with a stately sense of purpose. He proceeds with a lyrical Sarabande, pleasant bourrees and a whirling Gigue. In the Suite No. 6 he is especially convincing in the formidably technical Courante. The album includes Bach’s own lute arrangement of his Cello Suite No. 5, still preserved in an autograph manuscript and played with gentle authority

Hopkinson Smith is now the only artist to have recorded all Bach works that can be performed on plucked instruments: L’oeuvre de luth (E3000), the Sonatas and Partitas BWV 1001-1006 (E8678) and the 6 Suites BWV 1007-1012. About the Sonatas and Partitas recording, Gramophone wrote: “Hopkinson Smith makes such a good case for Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas on the lute that his recording is arguably the best you can buy of these works–on any instrument.”


Hopkinson Smith



Bach, Cello Suite #6 in D

‘Bach’s writing in these suites is as varied and inventive as ever. Melodious, boisterous, amazingly delicate, expansively lyrical, then cleverly busy with detail in complicated figuration… I see my intention in arranging for a plucked instrument as a challenge to approach ‘what Bach himself might have done’ in adapting a piece from one medium to another. No one can ever know for sure, of course, but familiarity with his chamber music and keyboard works gives clues. Where the cello writing is melodious with occasional chords, the plucked instrument can provide a fuller accompaniment.’ –Hopkinson Smith


An Interlude with Hopkinson Smith

‘I think it’s worth listening to the more peaceful approach, the more non-violent approach that the lute can bring to these works.’


I want to be sure to ask about the transcriptions of works by J.S. Bach.

I made a recording which came out at the beginning of the Bach Year 2000 of my lute versions of The Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by Bach. I prefer not to use the words “lute transcriptions of the originals for violin.” I prefer to circumvent the issue by saying ‘lute versions of pieces based on the violin versions’, because the violin versions themselves are so often not born on the instrument themselves, but come from some musical ideal above and beyond any instrument. In Bach’s lifetime, some of these works were adapted for other instruments by Bach himself, and by instrumentalists in his circle including his son and son-in-law. So it seems a natural extension of these works themselves to try them on the lute. There’s an interesting anecdote, related by a contemporary of Bach, that often in the evenings he would sit down at the clavichord and play the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, extemporizing the voices and harmonies which are impossible on the violin. It’s no mystery to a lute player why he would choose the clavichord, because of all the keyboard instruments, this is the one with the musical language closest to the lute in terms of touch, dynamics and intimacy. The work I did with the Sonatas and Partitas took me several years, and I played them all in concert before I recorded them. It was an extremely creative and gratifying project because when one is playing so much Bach, one sort of lives artistically–and I think a little bit in some other way–on a different plane of existence. As Stravinsky said, “Bach is our greatest European composer,” and I think almost anyone would agree. There are so many instances in the Sonatas and Partitas, especially in contrapuntal passages, where the music seems to be almost not for the violin, but against the violin. Often the violinist is reduced to an awkwardness of bowing, trying to play different voices at the same time with a bow primarily intended for playing a single line on single string. Although there are other examples of polyphonic playing on the violin from Germany in the generation before Bach, the demands of the Sonatas and Partitas really seem to go beyond the instrument in several cases. Anyway, I think it’s worth listening to the more peaceful approach, the more non-violent approach that the lute can bring to these works.

Didn’t Bach write some works for the lute?

Except for one little piece, all of the Lute Suites by Bach are adaptations in one form or another of pieces which were conceived for another medium, such as the unaccompanied violin or cello. Other pieces are in mainly keyboard collections, and so forth. The Fifth Cello Suite, for instance, is very different from all the others, and so it’s very interesting to study. It’s essential to study what Bach has done, but it won’t give you necessarily specific solutions for the other cello suites.

Hopkinson Smith: ‘I think there is certainly room for as much variety of personal approach in our days as there was in those days.’

Hopkinson Smith: ‘I think there is certainly room for as much variety of personal approach in our days as there was in those days.’

Would it give you an idea of what path to take, perhaps?

Yes. It can stimulate your creativity, it’s true. About the Fifth Cello Suite, cellists will often say, “Oh yes, this is the one that’s got a different tuning; it’s a different style of composing.” They might even think he conceived it for the lute and then adapted it for the cello, but we know that the cello suites were conceived in the early 1720’s, and although we don’t have a score of the Cello Suites in Bach’s hand, we know the dating. The score we have of his adaptation of the C Minor Suite for the Lute in G minor is actually in Bach’s hand, and it looks like the rough copy that he used to write it out the first time. The watermark on the paper was from the period 1727 to 1731, so the paper, at least, was later than the cello version. It’s of course possible that both pieces were originally based on another model which hasn’t survived, but at least for the cello/lute question, it seems to be fairly clear that the cello version was there before the lute version was.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Ciaconna (Part 1) from Partita II BWV 1004 in D minor, from the Hopkinson Smith album, Sonatas and Partitas (2000). ‘..when one is playing so much Bach, one sort of lives artistically–and I think a little bit in some other way–on a different plane of existence,’ says Smith.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Ciaconna (Part 2) from Partita II BWV 1004 in D minor, from the Hopkinson Smith album, Sonatas and Partitas (2000)

Is it at all odd to be living now in the twenty-first century and still be playing music from two, three, four and five centuries previous?

HS: That’s a question that people ask sometimes. It seems like a perfectly natural thing for me. It may seem odd to somebody else, but it seems perfectly natural to me, because whatever you do as a musician, in the best moments it is a completely contemporary expression. The music should have such an immediacy and clarity, and such a connection to the performer’s creativity and sincerity as an artist, that the question of the epoch in which the music was conceived becomes of secondary importance in terms of the basic message that is there.

Do you enhance this message at all, or do you bring exactly the message as it was put down on the paper?

What you try to do, always, is go beyond what you see on the paper to find the real spirit of the music, which is behind any particular notation. From the outside, it may seem that people who play early music on historical instruments, use historical technique, play music according to the rules set down in the Baroque or the Renaissance periods–all these different things which seem like a kind of rigorous set of postulates that one must follow are actually are just normally part of the language. For instance, if you’re reading Shakespeare, does it bother you that the sentences fall into a certain rhythm? Does it bother you that there are subjects and verbs in the sentences? No. These are things that are naturally part of the language, and his language is an eloquence and reflection that no one would actually use in this particular form today. But it’s so intimately connected with the expression and the sort of nobility of reflection that he incorporates, that this is all one and the same. In the best of moments, I think one should experience no limits at all in a certain instrument or a certain period, but rather find total freedom. What we’re trying to do is find and communicate this total freedom, and at the same time liberate the spirit that is behind it.


J.S. Bach, Partita No. 1 in A minor BWV.1002, original tone in B minor. Hopkinson Smith, lute, from his album Sonatas & Partitas (2000)

How much is the music and the liberation, and how much is Hopkinson Smith?

Everybody has his own approach and every instrumentalist has his own sound, and every instrumentalist has an instrument through which his voice takes shape and becomes real. I don’t think of it in terms of these categories–how much is the music and how much is me, for instance. But I think there is certainly room for as much variety of personal approach in our days as there was in those days. Just to elaborate a little bit on that point, there is a lute treatise from the seventeenth century, the Mary Burwell Lute Book. Mary Burwell was an English woman who had lute lessons with someone who had studied with the legendary Vieux (Ennemond) Gaultier, who was the patron saint of all French lute players in the seventeenth century. At one point in the book she lists the main players, apart from Gaultier, who were active at the time. These were all composers and performers, and she gives a caricature of each one of these performers… “This person should only have played at funerals and burials because his playing was so somber and morose; this person should have been an organist because he was so pedantic in the way he played; this person played too well because he added ornaments and tirades and what-all wherever he could, and the music was completely obscured; this player should have gone to the marketplace and accompanied the dancing bears because he made so much noise and such a racket,” etcetera, etcetera.

It sounds like these items should have appeared in the Daily Gazette! [Both laugh]

Yes. On the one side it shows that musicians spoke as badly of each other in those days as they do today, but more importantly it shows that the idea of a French school of interpretation, on a very individual level, is a complete fiction. It shows that there were so many different approaches to something that we consider to be of one “French school” of the seventeenth century.

Are all these approaches right?

They’re all valid. It’s also valid to say that not every one of these approaches will please you or me, so if you’re looking for right and wrong, this is not the place to do it. There’s no room for a moral judgment here, but there’s plenty of room for openness of spirit and for trying to understand many different ways of doing things.


An interview with Hopkinson Smith interviewed by Boyce Lancaster at WOSU Public Radio, Columbus, OH (Part 1), in which the artist explains how he came to study and play the lute, the beauty of the lute and how he found his instrumental voice.

Part 2 of Boyce Lancaster’s interview with Hopkinson Smith on the differences between a baroque guitar and a modern guitar

Part 3 of Boyce Lancaster’s interview with Hopkinson Smith, who talks about one his mentors, Emilio Pujol, and about connecting with inner musicality and instruments.


Is there much, if any, music for your instruments being written today by other composers?

There are contemporary composers who write for the lute and other early instruments, and actually there are some performers who specialize mainly in this. I’m always interested to see what people are doing. I have piles of compositions that composers have sent me at home, and I’ve played through them all. Normally I’m in touch with the composers about how I feel about them, but my heart is more in the earlier repertoires, and that’s still how I basically nourish myself artistically.

Without mentioning any names, do any of these contemporary composers get it?

A good composer–one who knows the instrument–certainly has something interesting to say. I wouldn’t say they get it or they don’t get it. I wouldn’t actually put it in a kind of black and white situation, but there are some interesting things happening.


From his 2012 album, Bach Suites nos. 1, 2, 3, Hopkinson Smith performs Prelude do la Suite Bwv 1007


But mostly you continue to bring to life the old composers and keep them alive?

Yes. The lute and the early plucked instruments in general have a vast repertoire for quite a few different instruments from about 1500 to the middle of the eighteenth century. There is so much music that one could easily spend several lifetimes investigating historically. Above all, something that takes much more time with the instrument in the hand is really finding the essence of a style, and a composer and individual pieces. One could spend an enormous amount of time really bringing this to fruition. A small part of the work that I do, actually, is bibliographical and historical, actually looking for sources here and there. Much more of what I do is playing over and over certain pieces, certain phrases, trying to find the expression which really seems to come from the music itself. This is something that just takes ages. Dowland himself, in the introduction to his Variety of Lute Lessons, where he translates a section on how to study the lute, says that when you have a difficult piece you shouldn’t go over from the beginning to the end each time and play right through, but you should stick with it and work on it; go over and over the passages that are enigmatic, even if it’s a thousand times until “thou sees thyself prettily seen within it.” That means until you find yourself really reflected in the passage you’re playing, or, in our way of expressing it, until I can identify with everything in the piece. In our day and age where everything else is so automatic and so quick, and at the push of a button we have this information or that information, this is one aspect of studying music that has not changed in hundreds or thousands of years, and I don’t imagine will change in the future either.

Excerpt from a 2003 interview with Hopkinson Smith by award winning broadcaster and writer Bruce Duffie. Read the entire interview at Bruce Duffie’s website.

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