George Lepauw’s Bach Odyssey


Three centuries ago Johann Sebastian Bach combined his matchless knowledge of counterpoint and inexhaustible imagination to create forty-eight pairs of preludes and fugues in all the keys. His revolutionary keyboard pieces, gathered in the two volumes of The Well-Tempered Clavier, stand among western art’s towering landmarks.

The Paris and Chicago-based Franco-American pianist George Lepauw was compelled to record the complete preludes and fugues by his ‘desire to become a more complete musician, and a better human being’.

But first, in the Winter of 2017 Lepauw traveled in Bach’s footsteps, tracing the arc of the composer’s life from his birthplace in Eisenach to his grave in Leipzig, in order to feel more connected to the man behind the name Bach. He returned to Germany six months later to record The Well-Tempered Clavier in Weimar’s Jakobskirche, a church well-known to Bach and close to where he had served the dukes of Saxe-Weimar and was briefly imprisoned by his aristocratic masters for disobedience.

Bach48: Journey into The Well-Tempered Clavier charts Lepauw’s life-enhancing encounter with the composer. “These pieces contain everything there is to say about the human condition,” notes Lepauw. “What I feel today, having completed the recording of these preludes and fugues, is something that marks life. It has taught me that my folly has a reason.”

George Lepauw’s revelatory album includes a complete film of the recording, as well as a documentary, co-directed by Martin Mirabel (“Lucas Debargue: To Music”) and Mariano Nante (“Pianists’ Street”), that follows his personal Bach odyssey around Thuringia and Saxony and all the way to his actual prison cell in Weimar.

Watch the trailer for BACH48

Prelude Nr. 1 in C Major, Book I

George interviews Matthew, and Matthew interviews George 

Orchid Classics founder Matthew Trusler had some questions he wanted to ask George.

And George had some in return…..


Matthew asks George.

MT:  What was it about this mammoth work that inspired you to set about such a huge undertaking?

GL:  Multiple aspects : its completeness; going through all the keys and some of the greatest keyboard and harmonic challenges; its variety; its opportunity for musical and emotional growth; its impact on all great music since; and probably most of all, the sheer joy of playing this music every day for a long time…

MT:  Bach is one of the very few most streamed classical composers of today, almost 300 years after his death, which is an astonishing thought. What is it about his music that has transcended time and adapted to new ways of life in such an incredible way?

GL:  Good melodies, fantastic harmonies, groovy rhythms. What’s not to like, other than some piano teachers who tell their students to take all the life out of it and play it straight and dry?

MT:  2020 is becoming known for the TikTok generation. An exciting time to be a classical musician? Or a terrifying and depressing one…..

GL:  Both, of course. Unless we can begin to TikTok through some of Bach’s cantatas…

But in some ways what’s tricky about TikTok and our times more generally is the fact that so much is going on (and we are made aware of it) and this means our attention is in great demand, which makes short form platforms like TikTok work, but which is hard for classical music to enter, as overall we are dealing with the most long-form artform their is, outside of literature… My hope is that some people will continue to need and appreciate long-form as an antidote to our short form folly.

MT:  If you could add a class to the curriculum for all young people studying music what would it be?

GL:  Meditation, yoga, qi-gong, and generally adding a focus on the mind-body relationship and learning. And then, a few tips on how to make a living in music (wink wink). Although, probably, I’d just cancel all classes, and tell everyone to travel the world, learn from people and musicians (not just classical) wherever they can, read, learn more about themselves… Because being a musician is not a skill set, it’s a spiritual quest, and there is no point in being a professional musician if one has not pursued their own spiritual quest before. To be a musician, you really do have to be a seeker.

MT:  You are someone who has clearly taken pleasure in pursuits outside of music. If you had to start all over, would you still choose to be a musician?

GL:  Yes. Having had the chance to consider and even try other things, I cannot tell you how happy I am to have my instrument and my capacity to play it, and give me joy, comfort, and access to such beautiful music. It gets even more important as life goes by… but I do know myself at this point, and am not torn by my choices.

MT:  What is it about the recording process that is interesting or important to you, and do you consciously try to add something new to a recording of a work which already exists?

GL:  No, I don’t try to add anything consciously. But knowing that the work has already been recorded by the greatest musicians has the positive effect of making me feel utterly free to do as I feel is true to me, since I have no historical interpretative responsibility and there are no expectations for me! Thus my recording remains completely true to my unforced vision. But I do try to play all the right notes. It’s about finding a delicate balance between my impulses and understanding the intention of the markings on the page (because markings, however precise they may be, remain very approximate nonetheless as a translation of a composer’s thoughts, emotions, intentions….).

I do love the recording process, the intensity of that short time in space, of the pressure to overcome one’s shortcomings, at all costs, and to find freedom in that… what a great challenge!


George asks Matthew.

GL:  You’ve had a “long” and successful career as a solo violinist and then decided to start a record label. Can you give me some background on this process and why you chose to do that? How conscious were you of starting a real business?

MT:  It’s funny, for as long as I can remember I wanted to be a violinist – but for just as long I also wanted to start a business of some kind. I used to dream about it as a youngster, doodling logos and trying to think of an idea that might possibly work (none of them would have). I always enjoyed reading books about great, creative businesses and the equally creative people who built them. So when the moment came to start something small myself, I was very conscious that it was my first step into a new world, and I very definitely wanted it to be a real business.

GL:  It seems like the early 21st century would be a bad time to start an independent classical label. Overall CD sales took a dive in the industry these past twenty years. How do you survive in this environment?

MT:  Well it’s true, we started Orchid pretty much as the record business hit its lowest point. But as is often said, that can be quite a good time to start something! The transformations that the record industry were going through were also quite positive for artists – it felt to me as though artists were becoming more empowered creatively, and were able to lead the process more than they had previously, which fit entirely with what I wanted. Now things have changed completely – the growth of streaming has set the industry back into regular growth and that looks set to continue, so things are looking pretty exciting now.

GL:  What’s different about you and your label?

MT:  I feel like my experience as an artist has given me a pretty good view of things from their side of the process, and it has led me to try endlessly to build something which is fully and entirely committed to artist-led creativity, so that everything we do is viewed through that desire.

GL:  Do you like music? And if so, what music would you most want to keep listening to for the rest of your life (open-ended question)?

MT:  Of course, I love music! But I love it in a different way now I’m not playing it all the time.

I love listening to the albums we are working on – genuinely – I always have something playing while I work (right at this moment I’m listening to Elena Urioste and Tom Poster playing Grieg, which is a fantastic recording). I also really enjoy going to concerts now, something I didn’t do a lot of in the past. I love watching our artists, sitting in the back with a glass of wine. By far the best way to be in a concert hall!

GL:  Speaking of classical music, do you think it really has a future? Or are we in the death throes of the artform?

MT:  Well, I’m obviously hoping it has a future! I can’t believe that something which has been around for this long and given happiness to so many generations of people around the world is suddenly going to stop doing so. It certainly is changing in terms of the way it is delivered, and presumably the manner in which it’s consumed, but the creativity is still there – people still have a burning desire to write, play and listen to classical music so I don’t see why that would change just because of TikTok.

GL:  Why should people even bother buying CDs anymore? Should the future of music simply be streaming?

MT:  CDs are a living embodiment of an artist’s work. Something to have and to hold, to open up and read, a tactile object to put on your shelf. A lot of people love this – including me – and CD sales are still a very significant portion of the business. Until someone invents something better for the same purpose I see them staying here – what else are you going to get signed after a concert?! Streaming is huge and growing rapidly, and I love working with that reality. But CDs are still very much a thing.

GL:  What are the highlights of your label over its existence? Any funny stories you can share?

MT:  I genuinely feel love and pride for every album we’ve put out over the last 14 years – it’s difficult to single one out! When we first signed Gabriela Montero I did an even more energetic dance around the kitchen than usual as she was someone I’d been dying to record. And working with my former classmates Jonathan Biss and Stuart Goodyear has been a lovely thing. But I think of all the things we’ve done, I am most proud of the charity albums – Fairy Tales and Wonderland. Each one took literally years to put together – and each included moments when we thought it would never work out. Having Louis de Bernieres deliver his script to Alice in Wonderland about 24 hours before the premiere was certainly not boring, and hearing Kenneth Branagh reading the Duck and the Kangaroo for us was ridiculously touching.

GL:  You went to pretty good music schools, methinks. What do you think was missing from your education and, if you were the director of a music conservatory program, what would you add or change if anything to the way musicians are educated?

MT:  I was lucky enough to have a very good musical education, particularly at Curtis. But I wouldn’t say I was taught a lot about the real world, or the skills you need to navigate it. Sadly, a lot of skills musicians learn are very much untransferable! I’ve done a lot of reading since then to try and learn the things I need to, and continue to do so pretty voraciously as there’s so much of it – but I think a few more classes on marketing and general business skills, for instance, would be pretty useful to all music students. Having a career is about so, so much more than just playing your instrument, which is something I didn’t really grasp at all until long after college!

GL:  Ok, now let’s get serious. What is the best thing about being British? The worst? Among other things, can you touch upon English food and drink? Sports? Other aspects of culture not including classical music?

MT:  Being British is extremely brilliant. Anthony Joshua. Lewis Hamilton. Andy Murray. James Bond. Just a few of the things my young children are growing up to love next to me on the couch.

Fugue Nr. 1, C Major, Book I

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