Bach's Favorite Instrument You've Probably Never Heard Of: The Long-Lost Lautenwerck

Mar 25, 2021
Originally published on March 25, 2021 10:19 am

Could there be a more unloved, abject literary form than the press release? Inherently clammy and needy, press releases crowd the inboxes of busy reporters, who find it all too easy to ignore their entreaties. ("My client is soooo great!")

But every so often, a press release shows up like this one from Early Music New York. It arrived with the swagger of a carnival barker. It was flashy. It was fun.

"An Instrument You May Never Have Heard Before!" the press release promised, and then in bright red text: "Dongsok Shin Plays Bach's Favorite Forgotten Instrument!"

Dongsok Shin discusses the Lautenwerck & plays J.S. Bach: Prelude, Fugue & Allegro in E-Flat BWV 998
Early Music New York / YouTube

Reader, I clicked. I simply couldn't resist. A press release suckered me into writing about the lautenwerck, an instrument indeed new to me. I called Dongsok Shin, an accomplished keyboardist and a member of the Baroque ensemble REBEL, 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. But these days, he said, those compositions are usually played on harpsichords.

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. (My editor, Steve Smith, was reminded of a quote from the late conductor Sir Thomas Beecham comparing the sound of harpsichords to "two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm.")

"The gut has a different kind of ring. It's not as bright. The lautenwerck can pull certain heartstrings," Shin said, with the authority of one who knows firsthand.

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."

Shin is an early music maven, but he's also a fan of superhero movies, cartoon violence, Star Trek and Star Wars. "We love living life in excitement," he said. "And we sometimes forget there are other things in life too."

Playing the lautenwerck, he says, is a path towards peace in trying times, made extra meaningful around Johann Sebastian Bach's birthday. (The exact date is contested, but he would've been 336 years old in late March, 2021.) Bach's music played on the lautenwerk is a gift — anytime you have a chance to hear it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750), German composer and fan of the lautenwerck, 1746.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images


We're honoring the birthday of a great classical composer this morning with a story about a long lost instrument. The story was prompted by a question that intrigued our arts reporter, Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: So this video showed up in my inbox. It's the sort of thing I normally instantly delete.


DONGSHOK SHIN: Hello, friends of Early Music New York. My name is Dongsok Shin.

ULABY: But the average video press release does not normally stump me with a question.


SHIN: What is a lautenwerck?

ULABY: A whatenverk (ph)?


ULABY: I am such a sucker. It turns out a lautenwerck is an instrument, a lot like a harpsichord and popular during the baroque period in Europe three centuries ago. These days, the lautenwerck is largely forgotten. Dongsok Shin told me Johann Sebastian Bach loved the lautenwerck.

SHIN: If he owned two of them, I mean, they couldn't have been that off the wall.

ULABY: Bach wrote a bunch of music for the lautenwerck, but you could pretty much only hear it on the harpsichord until recently. Lautenwercks did not survive the 18th century. They were extremely fragile. Here, Shin's playing a reconstructed lautenwerck, a piece by Bach he wrote for the instrument.

SHIN: (Playing lautenwerck).

ULABY: Normally, you'd hear this piece on a harpsichord. Now you're hearing it like Bach intended, with a caveat. The handful of artisans making lautenwercks now are basically forensic musicologists reconstructing instruments based on what they think they sounded like. Lautenwercks are also called lute-harpsichords because they use strings made from guts like lutes rather than from metal. During the baroque, Shin says, lutes were not really used in public performances. They were personal, intimate.

SHIN: People would play them for themselves or for their very dear friends in a small room. The lautenwerck can pull certain heartstrings.

ULABY: Dongsok Shin is an early music maven, but he's also someone who adores superhero movies, "Star Trek," cartoon violence and "Star Wars." The lautenwerck, he says, is a path towards peace in 2021.

SHIN: You know, we love living our lives in excitement, and we sometimes forget that there are other things in life, too.

ULABY: Johann Sebastian Bach's birthday is right around now. The exact date is contested, but he's 336 years old. The lautenwerck - a gift this morning to you. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.