Leonard Bernstein Introduces the Moog Synthesizer to the World in 1969, Playing an Electrified Version of Bach’s “Little Fugue in G”

When Wendy Car­los released Switched-On Bach in 1968, her “great­est hits” com­pi­la­tion of the Baroque composer’s music, played entire­ly on the Moog ana­log syn­the­siz­er, the album became an imme­di­ate hit with both clas­si­cal and pop audi­ences. Not only was it “acclaimed as real music by musi­cians and the lis­ten­ing pub­lic alike,” as Bob Moog him­self has writ­ten, but “as a result, the Moog Syn­the­siz­er was sud­den­ly accept­ed with open arms by the music busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty.” There’s some exag­ger­a­tion here. Stars like the Doors, the Mon­kees, and the Byrds had already record­ed with Moogs the year before. And some clas­si­cal purists (and clas­si­cal Lud­dites) did not, in fact, hail Switched-On Bach as “real music.”

But on the whole, Carlos’s inno­v­a­tive demon­stra­tion of the elec­tron­ic instrument’s capa­bil­i­ties (and her own) marks a mile­stone in music his­to­ry as the first clas­si­cal album to go Plat­inum, and as the first intro­duc­tion of both Baroque music and the Moog syn­the­siz­er to mil­lions of peo­ple unfa­mil­iar with either.

Were it not for Carlos’s “use of the Moog’s oscil­la­tions, squeaks, drones, chirps, and oth­er sounds,” as Bruce Eder writes at All­mu­sic, it’s unlike­ly we would have the video clip above, of Leonard Bern­stein giv­ing his own demon­stra­tion of the Moog (dig his hip “HAL” ref­er­ence from the pri­or year’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), dur­ing one of his pop­u­lar tele­vised “Young People’s Con­certs.”

Hav­ing just begun mov­ing out of the stu­dio, the Moog was still a col­lec­tion of mod­u­lar box­es and patch cables—an engineer’s instrument—and it takes four men to wheel it out on stage. (The eas­i­ly portable, self-con­tained Min­i­moog wouldn’t appear until 1970.) Most peo­ple had no idea what a Moog actu­al­ly looked like. But, its for­bid­ding appear­ance aside, the sounds of the Moog were every­where.

Bern­stein men­tions Car­los, and those stuffy purists, and makes a few more sci-fi jokes, then, instead of sit­ting at the key­board, hits play on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. This pre-record­ed ver­sion of Bach’s “Lit­tle Fugue in G” was actu­al­ly arranged by Wal­ter Sear, and the record­ing lacks some of the panache of Carlos’s play­ing while the tin­ny play­back sys­tem makes it sound like 8‑bit video game music. But for this audi­ence, the musi­cal wiz­ard­ly was still decid­ed­ly fresh.

The choice of Bach as Moog mate­r­i­al was not just a mat­ter of taste—his music was unique­ly suit­ed for Moog adap­ta­tion. As Car­los explains, “it was con­tra­pun­tal (not chords but musi­cal lines, like the Moog pro­duced), it used clean, Baroque lines, not demand­ing great ‘expres­si­vo’ (a weak­ness in the Moog at the time), and it was neu­tral as to orches­tra­tion.” The Moog could also, it seems, make Bach’s fugues fly at almost super­hu­man speeds. Hear the “Lit­tle Fugue” played at a much more state­ly tem­po, on a tra­di­tion­al pipe organ, fur­ther up, and hear it break into a run in the majes­tic per­for­mance just above.

Organs and harp­si­chords, strings and horns, these are still of course the instru­ments we think of when we think of Bach. Despite Carlos’s inven­tive foray—and its fol­low-up, The Well-Tem­pered Syn­the­siz­erthe syn­the­siz­er did not rad­i­cal­ize the clas­si­cal music world, though its avant-garde off­spring made much use of it. But it sure changed the sound of pop music, and wowed the kids who saw Bernstein’s pro­gram, some of whom may have gone on to pop­u­lar­ize both elec­tron­ic instru­ments and clas­si­cal themes in prog-rock, dis­co, and yes, even video game music.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Moog Syn­the­siz­er Changed the Sound of Music

A BBC Sci­ence Show Intro­duces the Moog Syn­the­siz­er in 1969

Bob Moog Demon­strates His Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Moog Mod­el D Syn­the­siz­er

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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