Baroque Music on a traditional Musical box

by Jonathan Herz on June 5, 2012

I completed a very interesting and unique box recently for a customer interested in early music. The box plays a transcription of four pieces from Bach’s French Suite #1 in D minor.

The program is unusual in that it is a note-by-note transcription of the piece, not an arrangement. Making a transcription program is challenging, as the maker can’t use octave substitutions, modified ornamentation, or other tricks of the arranger’s art to fit the limitations of the comb. Because of this, fully 88 teeth were required to play four minutes of relatively un-ornamented music. The Sarabande and one Menuet each fit the playing time of the cylinder perfectly. The other Menuet was divided into two tracks, the second of which is a few seconds short of filling the entire cylinder track. This is a box which makes no compromises to the exigencies of the musical box format; a program for the musical purist.

It is unusual to hear Bach on a traditional sounding musical box. Although a few Bach works are available on modern musical movements, I know of no programs from that era that included one of his works. The classical programs for 19Th century musical boxes we almost exclusively contemporary work. Yet the musical box is wonderfully matched to Bach’s music. The work was composed prior to the invention of the piano. Bach intended the piece to be played on the harpsichord, and would have played portions to himself on the harpsichord as he composed them. Like the musical box, and unlike the piano, the harpsichord is a plucked instrument. The very bright tone, sharp attack, and rapid decay of a musical box is reminiscent of a harpsichord. Also, both the harpsichord and the musical box have no dynamic variation. All notes are sounded at the same volume each time they are played, again, in contrast to the piano (which owes its very name, short for fortepiano or pianoforte, to the fact that it can be played both softly and loudly). The shared musical character of the harpsichord and the musical box makes music written for the one especially appropriate to be played on the other.

You can hear the results here:

Sarabande                        Menuet I                          Menuet II a                              Menuet II b

This is a unique program, designed to the exact preferences of the customer, and a remarkable new way of presenting the Baroque musical style.

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