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Transcribing Baroque Lute Music for the Narciso Yepes 10-String Guitar

Transcribing Baroque Lute Music


Narciso Yepes plays Sonata for 13-course baroque lute by Rudolf Straube (excerpt):  


Naturally, the simplest way to perform baroque lute music on the guitar is to use a 13-string guitar tuned almost exactly as a 13-course baroque lute. The tablature is then read directly without the need for thought or creativity in terms of transcription, transposition or any technical problem-solving. However, this approach is  not and never was the intention behind the design of Narciso Yepes's 10-string guitar, which is a far more innovative concept with application over a broad range of repertoires, not just the baroque.

When Narciso Yepes conceived of the idea of his 10-string guitar, in the early 1960's, his reasons were based in an understanding of acoustics and a musical necessity. (He was, of course, a deeply educated musician who had studied interpretation with the pianists Vicente Asencio and Walter Gieseking and composition with Nadia Boulanger, among others.) Yepes settled on the minimum number of additional strings that, when tuned a singular way, resolved what he perceived as the primary problem of the guitar: inconsistency between the sustain envelopes of certain notes that are enriched by resonance from sympathetic strings and other notes that do not have the same support. Yet, the second reason for Yepes's modification of the guitar was that he wanted to make more "legitimate" transcriptions of lute music , of Bach , and of the Spanish keyboard repertoire; transcriptions that sacrificed none of the essential musical ideas. The desire not to undermine the aesthetic purity of line and voice-leading, or the calculation of register, is especially pertinent to the performance of Renaissance and Baroque music (indeed, any contrapuntal composition) which depends on both the vertical and the horizontal relationships between the notes of its various voice parts. As such, Yepes endeavoured to resolve the problem of sympathetic resonance, but also within the parameters of that solution to extend the bass range of the guitar, along with its technical possibilities. This meant that, with only minor scordatura (re-tuning, but not re-stringing), the guitarist could easily switch between the interpretative possibilities offered by the normal tuning (sympathetic resonance for all 12 notes of the scale and an extended bass range to C2) and a number of possible alternative tunings (extended bass range to B1/A1 or the availability of a certain bass note as an open string, though at the expense of sympathetic resonance for certain notes).
"No, I do not play [baroque lute music] with a d-minor tuning, but I also have a guitar in d-minor tuning with fourteen strings; but for me it is very difficult to travel with the guitar and the lute, and the other guitar and the other lute, and the third guitar and the fourth lute... With the ten-string guitar I have many possibilities, and I do not need the baroque tuning exactly." (Narciso Yepes. Soundboard. 1983)

How is baroque lute music performed on the modern 10-string guitar with its standard string setup?

Below is the most common, nominal tuning of the 13-course baroque lute in the usual (transposing) guitar notation and in lute tablature (the 11-course baroque lute is the same, excluding the lowest two courses):

13-course baroque lute tuning


The " nouveau-ton" or "new tuning" of the first six courses of the baroque lute basically forms a D minor triad ( D, F, A). This tuning is consequently sometimes referred to as "D minor tuning". Though it is worth knowing that this is D minor in name only, as there was no real standardization of pitch during the baroque period; meaning that a note given nominally as D could and would have sounded at a variety of lower or higher pitches rather than the standardized pitch we think of today. (It should also be noted that varieties of the "D minor" tuning were common, for example, a variant - a form of so-called "goat's tuning" - in which the F's were sharp, among other extraordinary tunings.)

If the first six courses of the baroque lute have a natural affinity for the key of D minor while the modern guitar's most natural key is arguably E minor, then it stands to reason that a composition written for the baroque lute can (generally, but not always) be transposed up a major second in its totality to a more 'guitaristic' and accessible tonality, say, from D minor to E minor, or from G minor to A minor. Aside from the fact that pitch was not standardized and therefore nominal rather than actual in the baroque period (making arguments for "original" key a moot point), in addition, we need only consider J.S. Bach's transcriptions of his own works to establish that the practice of transposition is far from 'inauthentic'. To take one example: the Suite "Discordable" BWV 1011 for violoncello in Anna Magdalena Bach's handwriting is the same work as the Suite "de Bruxelles" BWV 995 for the Baroque lute in Bach's autograph manuscript. Without having to debate which came first, it is safe to say that both are authentic versions by Bach, one in C minor and the other in G minor.

The transposition can be done at the same time as the realization of modern notation from the tablature by imagining the lute tuned to E minor rather than D minor, as follows:

13-c: G4, E4, B3, G3, E3, B2, A2, G2, F#2, E2, D2, C#2, B1
11-c: G4, E4, B3, G3, E3, B2, A2, G2, F#2, E2, D2
We may compare the Standard Tuning of the modern/Yepes 10-string guitar:
E4, B3, G3, D3, A2, E2, C2, A#2, G#2, F#2

Standard 10-String Guitar Tuning  

Transposed a major second up, courses (2), (3) and (4) of the baroque lute become the same pitches (with the same intervals between them) as the open strings of the guitar, (1), (2) and (3). This resolves a number of fingering problems on the guitar when working from music that is idiomatic to the tuning of the lute. It also allows the guitarist to maintain many of the lute's characteristic campanella techniques, use of slurs and of open treble strings. (Though it should be noted that there is no 'fit-all' solution and sometimes a composition will have to be transposed by a different interval than a major second to best suit the nature of the guitar and accommodate the musical context.)

Note also that the open G(#)2  and F(#)2 basses (commonly required in high positions on the fingerboard) are available on the Yepes 10-string guitar, in their correct register, and may be tuned natural, flat, or sharp, depending on the scordatura (re-tuning) of the lute or the musical requirements of a particular composition. (The A#/B-flat string could also be raised to B natural if required, though the possibility of fretting the B in various positions across the bass strings, usually makes a B2 bass string redundant.)

However, for music requiring an extended bass range it is most often (7) or C2 (the lowest bass string of the modern 10-string guitar) that is re-tuned (either up to D2, for 11-course lute music, or down, below C2, for 13- and 14-course lute music):


scordatura (10-string guitar, string 7 re-tuned to B1)


Lowered to B1 or even A1, the seventh string makes the full bass range of the baroque lute available to the guitarist. However, it is necessary to fret certain basses on (7) that would otherwise be consigned to their own, open strings on the lute. This is why Yepes, with good reason, made the seventh string the lowest and not the tenth: so that it can be actively used in the service of the music while also fretting the trebles. For example: in his transcription of the second Sonata (or Suite) by S.L. Weiss, Yepes uses the above scordatura of (7) to B1. The work is transposed from D major to E major, and the basses below E2 are fretted on the seventh string, in their correct register and with respect to the composer's intended voice-leading.

Excerpt from Yepes's autograph ms. of Suite II by Weiss
S.L. Weiss - Bourree, Sonata 2 (London Ms.),
autograph transcription by Narciso Yepes, seventh string lowered to B1.
Below, a live performance by Viktor van Niekerk of the Allemande from
the same Sonata, also transcribed by Yepes, showing the use of the basses.


While more technically demanding than performance on the lute, this practice of fretting low basses on (7) is basically an extension of the normal 'guitaristic' technique and should not pose an able guitarist more limitations than possibilities. However, in those few instances where basses cannot be executed in their correct register it is necessary (as on the six-string guitar) to transpose an entire phrase or motif of the bass part to a higher octave or otherwise (knowing the basic rules of melodic voice-leading and the aesthetics of the period) re-arrange the bass part in a manner that does not undermine those baroque virtues of line and calculation of register. In other words, the practice of simply transposing an individual bass note (turning a melodic interval of a step into a minor seventh or augmented octave) must be avoided. That is, unless that transposition is a "correction" of an instance where a bass note is obviously not possible on the lute, though it is possible on the guitar, as in the correction of an augmented octave to a step in a chromatic bass line.
"The point is not to just translate the tablature numbers into notes, but to consider what the composer would have done if he had the present resources at his fingertips." (Narciso Yepes. Frets Magazine. 1980.)

It goes without saying that these changes can only be carried out by performers of proven ability and with a sound instrumental and musical grounding. Baroque lute music, being idiomatic to the lute and not to the guitar, offers guitarists not only many challenging technical obstacles to overcome, but also abundant musicological and interpretative challenges in terms of the realization of the tablature, ornamental symbols and free embellishments. Baroque lute music is most definitely not the best place for any newcomer to start building their 10-string guitar repertoire.

More on the use of the bass strings :

Firstly, from Narciso Yepes's autograph manuscripts and videos showing his fingering solutions for the performance of baroque lute music by Weiss, Bach and others, it is unequivocally clear that he often played fretted rather than open basses, and with sound musical reason.

Bass notes may be played open on the lower courses of the lute and a specious logic may suggest doing the same on the guitar whenever open basses are available, but this approach often leads to very different, unmusical results on the 10-string guitar. Take, for example, a descending minor second from A2 to G#2. On the lute, with its bass courses tuned in steps, the dissonances of unintended (and undesired) harmonic seconds between adjacent strings can easily be checked by the right hand thumb. However, since a number of dissonances could result between basses that are not directly adjacent to each other on the 10-string guitar - eg. between (10) and (6), (5) and (9), (8) and (5), (6) and (8) - it is advised to avoid letting these pairs of strings ring together.

Simply fretting one or both of the basses in, say, a descending step from A2 to G#2, and thus avoiding perfunctory use of open strings, already goes a long way towards more musical results, without such obvious dissonances. Though where the use of these open string pairs will be unavoidable, it will be necessary to check the first bass actively with a damper motion. This may be done with a finger of either the left or the right hand, the thumb of the right hand (if it is free to make the jump, usually just after sounding the second bass), or by the heel/wrist of the right hand.

Secondly, the seventh string is not necessarily to be tuned to the lowest bass note required by a particular composition. At times this will yield all or most of the original basses with the most accessible fingering. At other times it may be necessary to tune the seventh string below the lowest bass note, with the result that all or most of the original basses become available as fretted notes. Depending on the musical context, it may sometimes even be best to tune the seventh string higher than the lowest note of the original and to adapt the affected bass lines as discussed earlier. Though if a composition cannot be transcribed without losing or distorting the essence of its musical ideas or the aesthetics of its period, it is best not transcribed at all.

Sonata by J. G. conradi
  Above, an example of the seventh string raised to D2 for a Sonata published by J. G. Conradi (transc. Viktor van Niekerk). Below, Narciso Yepes playing a Suite by Kuehnel for 11-course baroque lute, likewise taking the 7th string up to D2 (and transposing the work from G to A major).

NB! Silver-wound seventh strings will not work optimally in the manner that Narciso Yepes envisioned the use of the lowest string. Yepes "insisted" on a special, gold-coloured seventh string. Aside from incidentally being a useful visual aid for newcomers, this string was actually designed to withstand scordatura up to D2 and down to A1, without "buzzing" when fretted while it is tuned lower than the standard C2. At present, this special string is still manufactured only by Aranjuez Strings.

In conclusion, here are some more examples of scordatura used by maestro Narciso Yepes for the performance of baroque lute music using the standard string setup, particularly the works of J. S. Bach:
  • Suite in A minor BWV 995: (7) = A1, (10) = F2 (natural)
  • Suite in E minor BWV 996: (7) = B1 [see video below]

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Some baroque lute music transcribed for 10-string guitar is available to download for free on the Sheet Music page of this site.

Copyright 2009-2012 by Viktor van Niekerk (All rights reserved in all countries; no unauthorised duplication of any material on this site permitted.) Information about the 10-String Classical Guitar designed by Narciso Yepes