I bet Bach played the lute a little bit… just like your mom plays the guitar a little bit.
If you’re already a virtuoso player of the organ, harpsichord, violin, viola, voice, and other instruments, you probably wouldn’t want to have to learn how to negotiate a fretted instrument as well. Not to mention that the guitar didn’t really exist in Bach’s world – people played the lute. The lute was incredibly popular. I bet most of you reading this are within walking distance of a guitar, the same could have been said about lutes back then. In fact, Bach actually owned a lute; it’s listed in the register of his belongings that was made after his death. Interestingly, two other instruments are listed as well…
Bach owned two Lautenwerks (or lute-harpsichords).
This is an instrument much like a harpsichord but strung with gut strings (harpsichords use metal strings). Using gut strings meant that this instrument could imitate the sound of a lute. However, the pieces he composed for the “lute” (except for one of them) are almost unplayable on that instrument. While there is some record of lutenists of the day playing Bach’s music, his Lute Suites are much more easily played by a keyboard instrument.
Guitarists bend over backwards to play these Lute Suites. Some modern lutenists have made some great recordings as well. Go to iTunes, Spotify, or your preferred listening source and check out recordings by Paul O’Dette, Nigel North, Hopkinson Smith, or Eduardo Eguez.
Here’s a video of Michele Barchi playing the Lautenwerk: