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Classical Guitar Lesson: BWV 996 Courante (Bach)

"The Bach Lute Suites are a never-ending source of musical inspiration, but they're also very challenging." - Jason Vieaux

In this advanced classical guitar lesson from his online school, Jason Vieaux goes over the courante section from Bach's "Lute Suite in E minor" (aka BWV 996). The courante (or corrente, coranto, or corrant depending on what language we're using) refers to third section of the piece and is characterized by triple meter dances from the Renaissance and the Baroque era.

Bach typically wrote in two styles, French and Italian, and would utilize different spellings to differentiate between the two countries. So for this case, we use the French spelling of courante for this characteristically French piece.

The courante from Bach's BWV 996, simply stated, has a lot of notes. There are a lot of ornaments and a wide variance of subdivisions of the pulse - which actually contains two different meters. The pulse grouping is not even indicated in the time signature, which only adds to the vagueness of this piece. Sound complicated enough? Don't worry, Jason Vieaux is an expert and carefully guides you through this courante with expert precision that comes from decades of playing classical guitar.

classical guitar lesson on courante by jason vieuax

The ambiguity in meter and pulse are typical for these highly French stylized courantes. The French style has a heavy ornamentation and rhythmic complexity, which contrasts from the more flowing Italian style of courantes.

In the notation the time signature indicates 3, but what does that mean? Is it 3/2? Or, is it 6/4? The answer is that it is actually both.

To demonstrate how this works, Jason Vieaux plays two example measures where the six quarter notes are grouped into two large beats in a 6/4 time signature, with quarter notes grouped into two large dotted half notes.

He then plays a couple measures where the six quarter notes are grouped into three equal beats (half note each, making it 3/2 time).

It is essential to learn how to play courantes with proper phrasing. Understandably, this is a lot to handle (which is why it's in the Advanced section of the Online Classical Guitar School). To simplify things while you are practicing and just identifying the beats, you can try taking the ornaments out - remove all the extra notes and musical flourishes and just focus on the rhythm.

Often times, students do not play rhythmically because they try to fit in ornamentations in all the wrong beats. Once you feel comfortable with the beat and the rhythm, then you can start adding the ornaments back in - one at a time, practicing each one separately first.

Although this is a more difficult classical guitar piece to play, having heard how beautiful it sounds will provide a little bit of motivation for you to practice. Listen below to a great example of the courante from Bach's Suite in E Minor, played on the traditional lute for which it was written.  


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