We could say that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach transcends instrumentation. Wendy Carlos did a great deal to prove that with her 1968 album Switched-On Bach, composed entirely (and laboriously) on an early Moog synthesizer. Despite its controversial union of long-revered compositions with practically untested musical technology, that project won high praise, not least from as famed an interpreter of Bach as Glenn Gould. Here at Open Culture we've featured many of Gould's own performances of Bach: of the Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor in his 1960 U.S. television debut, of the cantata BWV 54 on a 1962 CBC special, of The Art of Fugue and the Goldberg Variations as played toward the end of his life in the early 1980s.
Going back to 1959, we find a 27-year-old Gould playing Bach in a National Film Board of Canada documentary, and on "the piano he favors above all others for practicing: a 70-year-old Chickering with a resonant, harpsichord quality recalling the instruments of the time of Bach." But to truly hear Bach's music as Bach himself would have heard it, you need to bring out those very same instruments.
That's the mandate of San Francisco's Voices of Music, an ensemble dedicated to "renaissance and baroque music, drawing upon the many and varied sources for historical performance practice." We've previously featured their performances of Pachelbel's Canon and Vivaldi's The Four Seasons on original instruments; more recently they've put together a Youtube playlist of their original-instrument performances of Bach.
The ten selections on Voices of Music's Bach playlist include the Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor BWV 1008, Allemande and Courante played on the baroque cello by Eva Lymenstull; the Arioso from Cantata 156 (Sinfonia) with Marc Schachman on the baroque oboe; the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B Flat Major BWV 1051 played by Kati Kyme and Elizabeth Blumenstock on baroque viola (viole da braccio), Elisabeth Reed and William Skeen on the viola da gamba, Tanya Tomkins on the baroque cello, Farley Pearce on the violone, and Hanneke van Proosdij on the harpsichord; and the Sonata No. 3 in C Major for baroque violin BWV 1005 interpreted by August and Georgina McKay Lodge, the former playing the baroque violin and the latter reading Ursula K. Le Guin's poem "Hymn to Time."
This isn't the first time the work of Le Guin, now remembered as an influential author of science fiction and fantasy literature, has been set to music. Just after her death in 2018 we featured Rigel 9, the space rock opera she created in collaboration with avant-garde composer David Bedford in 1985. If Le Guin's words suited a tale of the future told with high-tech New Wave sounds, they suit an acoustic return to the eighteenth century just as well.
This is a versatility much like Bach's own, which has guaranteed that, more than 250 years after his death, his music retains its power and depth whether expressed through a piano, a synthesizer, or indeed the instruments of his day — not that the players of percussion tubes or wine glasses have done him great injustice either.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.