Exploring the lautenwerck, 18th-century keyboard instrument played by Bach and others

Posted on: March 25, 2021

A press release “arrived with the swagger of a carnival barker,” writes Neda Ulaby in Thursday’s (3/25) National Public Radio. “ ‘An Instrument You May Never Have Heard Before!’ the press release promised, and then … ‘Dongsok Shin Plays Bach’s Favorite Forgotten Instrument!’ … The lautenwerck [is] an instrument indeed new to me. I called Dongsok Shin, an accomplished keyboardist … who specializes in the harpsichord, organ and fortepiano. Lautenwercks were equally popular in Johann Sebastian Bach’s day, Shin said. ‘If he owned two of them, they couldn’t have been that off the wall,’ he pointed out. Bach wrote a number of pieces specifically for the lautenwerck…. No lautenwerks survived the 19th century. Picture extremely delicate harpsichords—in fact, lautenwercks are alternately called lute-harpsichords. Their strings are made of guts, originally from sheep (like lutes), which gives lautenwercks a warm, intimate tone distinct from brassy, metal-strung harpsichords…. The small handful of artisans currently making lautenwerks are basically forensic musicologists, reconstructing instruments based on research and what they think lautenwercks probably sounded like. Unlike a Steinway piano, there’s no standardization to contemporary lautenwercks. ‘None of them really work the same way,’ Shin said. ‘They’re all different shapes and sizes.’ ”