JS BACH Prelude in C
Staying with the greats Bridget Mermikides transcribes a true musical milestone from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier for solo classical guitar.
Bridget Mermikides arranges and transcribes a true musical milestone by the mighty Johann Sebastian Bach for classical acoustic guitar.
Although Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t receive significant appreciation during his lifetime, he is now a considered one of the greatest and most influential composers of all time. His staggering body of work is now universally praised and adored by musicians. His technical control and deep expression has had a profound influence not just on Western Art music but also on a range of diverse idioms including modernism, metal, jazz, pop, electronica, tango and beyond. Many speak of his music as being of such musical perfection, that it has some kind of higher ‘Truth’, eternal through the ages. When it was suggested that a Bach piece might be included on the Voyager probe as evidence of earthly intelligence to any alien lifeforms who might intercept it, a colleague of astronomer Carl Sagan objected, saying: “That would be just showing off”.
I’ve selected Bach’s ever-popular Prelude in C major, the opening piece from The Well-Tempered Clavier. Completed in 1722, this book of 24 preludes and fugues for keyboard (one for every major and minor key in a particular ‘well-tempered’ tuning system) was written at a time in Bach’s life where he had a supportive patron and an artistic freedom to hone the instrumental and secular aspects of his craft with some autonomy, as opposed to the gruelling and often restrictive working environment he endured for much of his later life.
The Prelude in C Major is made up largely of a repeating (and quite ‘guitaristic’) arpeggio pattern that travels through an exquisite harmonic progression. Bach’s genius is evident in the way that he takes the largely ‘functional’ harmony and imbues it with elegance by the use of inversions (which of the chord degrees is in the bass), voice-leading (how one chord moves to the next) voicings (how the notes are spread out) and pedal tones (the use of static notes against a moving harmony). For example
Prelude in C is one of those pieces that sounds like it should be relatively easy, but turns out to be somewhat tricker than expected.
notice how the simple C major chords in bars 1, 15, 25 and 29 – which any lesser composer may treat as identical - differ in terms of voicing and inversion as the piece progresses. There’s also a beautiful use of major 7 chords presented in third inversion (7th in the bass) in bars 8 and 16 (C/B and F/E respectively) - a gorgeous and progressive sonority. Many pieces from this period would end with I-IV-V7-I (C-F-G7-C), but Bach creates a wonderful and sophisticated ending from this simply framework. For example a C7 is included in bar 32 (a ‘secondary dominant’ of F) to move to F and then a C pedal tone in the bass is sustained through bars 33 and 34, which - with the G7 chord - above it creates an engaging tension.
This is one of those pieces that sounds like it should be relatively easy, but turns out to be somewhat trickier than expected. Although the arpeggio pattern is repetitive, rhythmically even and not too fast, the keyboard voicings are often close in the bass, requiring slurs, stretches and some octave displacements to make the piece playable on the guitar.
I’ve kept to the original key of C major, but used drop D tuning which widens the range of possible voicings. As ever, be patient in practice – using the tab captions to help you through the trickier sections – and you’ll be rewarded with an extraordinary piece to enjoy for years to come.
Bach: the over-used term genius really does apply here