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Bach's Music for Lute, Transformed

Guitarist Stephan Schmidt, sitting with his instrument against a white background
courtesy of the artist
Stephan Schmidt

On The Bach Hour, the composer's music for an ancient instrument is filtered through a modern sonic prism by guitarist Stephan Schmidt, and Christophe Coin leads the Cantata No. 115.

On the program:

Trio Sonata in G minor, BWV 1030 (after the Flute Sonata in B minor) - Rare Fruits Council

Cantata BWV 115 Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit (translation) - Barbara Schlick, soprano;  Andreas Scholl, alto;  Christoph Pregardien, tenor;  Concerto Vocale of Leipzig and Baroque Ensemble of Limoges, Christoph Coin, director

Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro, BWV 998 - Stephan Schmidt, ten-string guitar



J.S. Bach’s music for lute is beautiful. But to play it on a modern guitar, you’ve got a problem.


Modern instruments are so different from lutes that they only work if you change the key of the music, compromising what Bach originally wrote. Guitarist Stephan Schmidt found an ingenious way around that problem, though, and you’ll hear the results, coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I’m Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from Classical Radio Boston WCRB, a part of WGBH. The lute was already an ancient instrument by the time Bach wrote for it. And while some specialists continue to master the lute, more players now gravitate towards playing those works on the guitar. It’s like the difference between the harpsichord Bach played and the modern grand piano. With different parameters of projection, color, and nuance, musicians can find new interpretations with a modern guitar. Stephan Schmidt took things one step further, as you’ll hear later on.

Also on the program is the Cantata No. 115, Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit, or “Make yourself ready, my spirit.” You’ll find a translation of that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can hear this program again on demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Like that difference between the lute and guitar, modern interpretations of Bach’s music can cast those works in new colors, whether it’s through a string quartet, a brass quintet, or, at the extreme end of the scale, arrangements for full orchestra by Leopold Stowkowski, Edward Elgar, or any number of other composers. But here is an arrangement that, by the sound of it, you might mistake for one of Bach’s own. This is a Trio Sonata based on the Flute Sonata in B minor, performed by an ensemble called the Rare Fruits Council, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 1030]

This music was originally composed by Bach as a Flute Sonata. And just as the composer himself constantly re-fashioned his music in different forms, the performers you just heard, the Rare Fruits Council, created a version of that sonata for two violins, cello, and harpsichord.

In following the church calendar to create his sacred cantatas, Bach’s year was, broadly speaking, split in two. For half the year, between December and May, he wrote music that reflect themes taken from the story of Jesus’s life. Then, between May and December, his works reflect themes revolving around the stories and lessons Jesus used in that life.

The Cantata No. 115, Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit, or “Make yourself ready, my spirit,” fits right in the middle of that second part of the year. Using what’s known as the “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant,” it confronts the constant presence of evil in the world, and how a believer might best respond to it.

The piece begins with a deceptively cheerful chorale fantasy, the text warning the believer to be vigilant and prepared for Satan’s temptations. The cheerful lightness you hear, with effervescent flute and oboe lines paints a sonic picture of the word “Geist,” or “spirit,” in that opening line, “Make yourself ready, my spirit.”

The alto soloist continues with that warning, but now set to a graceful but haunting dance called a siciliano, reflecting a sort of lullaby quality for the words, “…sleepy soul … Do you still rest? Arouse yourself now!”


A recitative for the bass soloist makes it clear that God is watching over the believer, but the soprano answers with a spare, meditative aria, making it clear that God may be watching, but it’s up to the believer to pray.

[MUSIC – BWV 115]

The tenor soloist sings a recitative confirming the importance of prayer in combating evil, and the chorale tune from the opening movement returns in its pure form to re-state Bach’s theme of “Watch, plead, and pray.”

Remember, you’ll find a translation of the text for this piece from Emmanuel Music when you visit our website, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a performance of the Cantata 115 with soprano Barbara Schlick, alto Andreas Scholl, and tenor Christoph Pregardien. Christophe Coin leads Concerto Vocale of Leipzig and the Baroque Ensemble of Limoges, here on The Bach Hour.


J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 115, Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit, or “Make yourself ready, my spirit,” in a performance directed by Christophe Coin. He’s also the piccolo cello soloist in that entrancing aria for the soprano, which was sung by Barbara Schlick. Andreas Scholl sang the alto aria, and Christoph Pregardien was the tenor soloist, along with Concerto Vocale of Leipzig and the Baroque Ensemble of Limoges.

The piccolo cello is an instrument with a very particular combination of warmth and delicacy, but it’s not in use any more. Bach wrote for the instrument in at least nine different cantatas, eight of them written in the same year. So it seems likely that he had someone around at the time who really knew what he was doing with that instrument.

Another instrument Bach occasionally wrote for is the lute. And while there are a lot of terrific lutenists around these days, it’s an instrument firmly rooted in the past.

Players of the modern guitar run into a problem when they tackle these lute pieces, though. Because of the different ways the lute and guitar are constructed, guitarists have to modify the music just to make the pieces playable at all..

Guitarist Stephan Schmidt, though, came up with a solution that preserves everything Bach wrote. He uses a ten-string guitar, which combines the range of the lute with the greater resonance and power of the guitar.

Here is Stephan Schmidt with Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 998]

Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro, originally written for lute and performed by Stephan Schmidt on a 10-string guitar.

Remember, if you’d like to hear this program on demand, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.