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Bach and His World is a 70 minute celebration of the towering genius of baroque music, Johann Sebastian Bach. The concert also honours the artisans and tradespeople whose labour and expertise made the performances of Bach’s music possible. In examining the origins and anatomy of Bach’s orchestra, we hope to shed light on the workings of our own instruments and our own ensemble.
Most of the music on the programme is typical of the works which would have been performed at regular Friday night concerts at Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse in the north German city of Leipzig where Bach lived for the last twenty-seven years of his life. He directed the music in the principal churches of the city, taught at the famous St. Thomas choir school and directed the “Collegium Musicum,” an ensemble made up of university students, members of his family, professional players from the Leipzig municipal band, and musical visitors passing through the town. Many of these performers played on instruments made by local artisans in Leipzig, a well-known centre for instrument building.
The building of baroque instruments began with materials from the natural world—bird feathers for the quills that pluck harpsichord strings, maple and spruce for the bodies of stringed instruments, and boxwood for oboes. Sheep intestines were used to create strings for Bach’s stringed instruments, and brass strings were made by hand for his harpsichords. Eighteenth-century techniques are still used for the manufacture of historical strings for period instruments today. Because the guild members of early modern Europe were obliged to guard their trade secrets, modern makers have had to be detectives, using forensic evidence from scraps of old strings and sources such as Diderot’s eighteenth-century Encyclopedia of the “Sciences, Arts, and Crafts” to determine the materials and techniques that would have been used for Bach’s instruments.
We are extremely grateful to the generous scientists, historians, instrument builders, and photographers who helped create the images and film clips which are used in the concert. These include English harpsichord builder Malcolm Rose; Toronto luthier Quentin Playfair, who built a cello for the project; maj production in Montreal who created the footage of violin string making; Dr. Daniel Geiger of Santa Barbara, who provided the magnified images of instrument materials; and the University of Iowa Centre of the Book, who created the footage of paper making.