Classical Guitar Study: Bach’s Prelude BWV 996 1st Lute Suite

What did Bach, Brahms and Machiavelli Have In Common?

When a musical genius and giant like Brahms says “study Bach”, there you will find everything”, it’s advice that has to be taken seriously.

Even though Bach isn’t with us today, his music is.

So by learning to play Bach’s music we learn from him to grow and improve as musicians.

I’ve worked through all of Bach’s Lute Suites of which there are 4 and this prelude that I’m playing here is from the 1st Lute Suite. I can definitely say that as a guitarist I am the better for the experience so I entirely agree with Brahms.

Some time ago I came across a really intriguing quote by Niccolo Machiavelli, I’ve been chewing over ever since:

“When evening comes I return home and go to my library. On the threshold I change my muddy and dusty workday clothes and put on the robes of court and palace and in this more dignified dress
I enter the antique courts of the ancients and I’m welcomed by them and there I taste the food I find nourishing and was born to savour.
And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions and they, out of kindness, reply to me. And for the space of 4 hours I forgot the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death:
I pass into their world and live through them”.

Niccolo Machiavelli

When you know a little about Machiavelli that quote makes a lot of sense and isn’t that kind of what Brahms was saying?

Machiavelli (1469-1527) worked for the Medici family in Florence but at one point the Medici’s were expelled.

On their return to Florence the Medici’s suspected Machiavelli of being complicit so he was interrogated and tortured and what they did to him was sickening.

That world was so brutal. It’s inconceivable how cruel people could be and were.

Subsequently Machiavelli was banished. But during his banishment he maintained correspondence and a close interest in the politics of Florence.

Machiavelli, during his banishment, wrote his Magnus Opus “The Prince” which is essentially a text book on how to take power and keep it.

It was basically a job application, he wanted his old job back with the Medici’s.

The Prince was based on the dominant political figure of the time – Cesare Borgia who was the oldest son of Pope Alexander VI – hang on a minute… are Popes supposed to have children?? – Pope Alexander VI did.

It’s an absolutely fascinating period of history that we call the Renaissance and if you’re interested in understanding the Renaissance you must know the story of the Medici’s and there are so many great documentaries to start with.

Also the story of “The Borgias” and there’s a great dramatised mini series called “The Borgias” which is a really entertaining way of getting to know the events of the Renaissance which produced the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Something must have been going on.

My Time With The Brilliant Dulcie Holland

I know first hand how good it is to have someone in your corner that knows everything that you want to know, someone that has all the answers.

As I was working through my grades and diplomas for guitar, there were theory exams I needed to do in conjunction with my practical exams.

I had a local teacher help me and while I was passing my theory and musicianship exams I would only get marks in the mid 60’s so I decided to find a more experienced teacher so someone suggested I call Dulcie Holland.

I didn’t know if there was such a person called Dulcie Holland because when you went into a music shop in those days there would be a colossal display! and a plethora of theory books with the name “Dulcie Holland” on the front cover.

That name “Dulcie Holland” seemed to me to be an industry, maybe “Dulcie Holland” was the brand.

Even if there was such a person, surely she must be in America or England?

No she was Australian and living here in Sydney! I called her and for about 5 years I went to her place every Monday morning for my theory and musicianship exams.

It was immediately clear that her knowledge and experience was enormous and my exam results went from mid 60’s to mid 90’s.

It was astonishing to behold. Holland had dedicated her life to music so being around her you couldn’t help but pick up on or benefit from all that experience.

History was always a favourite subject for me but having Dulcie Holland as a teacher, music history was brought to life.

Dulcie Holland

I felt the connection with music of the past.

Rita Crewes and Jeanell Carrigan wrote a nice biography and tribute to her called “A Musical Missionary: The Life & Music Of Dulcie Holland”.

The title is so appropriate. I asked Dulcie where she got the idea to write all of her theory textbooks and she explained that when she came back from England after studying there she saw a need for it.

She was a composer also but unlike her contemporaries, Miriam Hyde and Margaret Sutherland concentrated on their composing, Dulcie felt that she could be more effective writing her books and win more converts for music.

Hence the book’s title “A Musical Missionary”.

So many people benefited from her books and I am definitely one of those people!

I think the best compliment that Dulcie Holland paid me was during one lesson where she was checking a four part harmony exercise that I’d done.

She looked up and said – “you know, you have very good grasp and understanding of harmony, better than most”. Having Ike Isaacs as my Jazz Guitar teacher really helped.

So Brahms and Machiavelli made a study of the great minds of the past to progress and develop their ideas to push standards higher.

That’s what I feel learning the pieces from Bach’s Lute Suites has done for me.

Unpacking Bach’s Prelude 996

This Prelude from the 1st Lute Suite is particularly challenging.

It’s in 2 parts, the first half is almost a free improvisation while the 2nd half is more rigid rhythmically becoming a “polyphonic fugue”.

Poly means many or more than one and phone means voice so polyphony means we have more than one voice or melody line and we can hear this in our Prelude. We can hear the upper voice and lower part or bass playing against each other creating “harmony”.

One music dictionary describes a fugue as “a musical composition in which 1 or 2 themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts”.

It’s a really good feeling when you learn a piece like this and eventually get a fluent performance going, kind of like the first time you learn to ride a bike, it’s a real thrill!

Shopping Cart
Skip to content