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Learn about the background of "The Well-Tempered Clavier" by J. S. Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach’s masterpiece “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” is a crowning jewel of the Baroque era. It is a vivid collection of two distinct sets of “preludes” and “fugues.” The collection dissects the intricacies of all 24 keys (12 major keys and 12 minor keys) in each book and was composed by Bach for solo keyboard.

In the Baroque era, “Clavier” was the generic name used to indicate different types of keyboard instruments. The most typical ones included a clavichord, harpsichord, and other organs.

Prelude in C Major by Bach with his autograph

Prelude in C Major by Bach with his autograph in 1722

Origin

Johann Sebastian titled the collection “Das Wohltemperirte Clavier” while the modern German title stands as “Das wohltemperierte Klavier.” The book is dated 1722 and was composed in Köthen, essentially for the youth who desired to learn music, including those who were already proficient in the study of music. Bach crafted the second book roughly 20 years after the first book, titled “The Well-Tempered Clavier - Part Two” in Leipzig.

The modern editions are titled “The Well-Tempered Clavier - Book I & Book II” respectively. This collection is regarded as one of the best works in the vast history of classical music. No other book from the Baroque era has been so thoroughly scrutinized, cherished, and performed.

Although Bach’s collection was not essentially published during his lifetime, multiple copies and manuscripts were spread all across Europe by his pupils. Contemporary musicians like Beethoven and Mozart also got hold of these manuscripts, in turn influencing the pathway of Western music. The whole collection was published almost 51 years after Bach’s death.

History

The usage of the word “well-tempered” advocates that back in those days, fine-tuned keyboard instruments that can play all 24 keys were scarce. From the latter half of the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, the meaning of this word was considered to be “equal-temperament.” If we follow the trail of well-tempered’s” historical significance, we will first arrive at A. Werckmeister, the advocate of tuning methods. A similar historical change was also paramount at that time, the initiation of the “tonal system.” As the Baroque era began, multiple church modes were reduced, establishing the scope for freedom of modulation. Subsequently, more “major” and “minor” keys became available for usage. Bach was clearly influenced by these developments, and it is hardly surprising that he chose this exact period to launch his venture - utilizing all keys theoretically available. This makes Bach’s collection extremely important, not only for that era but also for launching new avenues for future generations. 

Musical Intention

Bach, however, successfully distinguished the organ from other stringed keyboard instruments. His own classification of the instruments was also a convenient reference to a distinct character of timbre and sound, including the physical dimensions of the instruments. Such differences are significant to a composer, and for someone of Bach’s class, it was epoch-making. Bach’s choice of instruments while working on this collection has been thoroughly debated over time. It’s speculated that he had regular access to some “clavier” type instrument. The conventional view suggests that Bach wanted to perform the work on his clavichord, but accepted the limitations of the keyboard after considering the requirements of future performers and learners. He had understood the importance of disseminating his work.

The title of the collection also suggests that Bach had composed for a “12-note” tuning system where all keys were in tune. This was also known as “circular temperament.” Bach, as an organist, was certainly familiar with all tuning systems, including the meantone system. Another speculation suggests that Bach intended to use equal temperament.

Musical Overview 

Both Book I and Book II comprises 24 pairs of “prelude “ and “fugue.” The pairs are alternatively set in major and minor keys - the very first pair in “C major,” the second pair in “C minor,” the third pair in “C sharp major” and so forth. A rising chromatic form is continued until all keys are represented, ending with a fugue in “B minor.” This is followed through repeatedly, increasing a halftone with each instance. Johann Sebastian had also recycled some of the preludes and fugues from different sources.

Bach's autograph in the first book is dated 1722. However, it also comprises several preludes form his earlier works, including the “Klavierbüchlein” which is dated 1720. There is also a huge collection of “Prelude and Fughetta” predating the first book.

The primary source of “The Well-Tempered Clavier - Book II” is the manuscript titled “London Original.” Also, there is a separate version of this book, which was published later by the 19th-century Bach-Gesellschaft. This version is assumed to be crafted in 1744. Johann Sebastian's son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol is the main writer, including some corrections by Bach himself.

A musical analysis of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” suggests it encompasses a tremendously wide array of styles, even when compared to most iconic pieces of literature. The preludes typically exhibit Baroque melodies but are formally freestyle. They are often paired with a free coda. They are also distinct for having an odd number of measures, both when it comes to the measures and phrases in each prelude.

All fugues are marked to show how many voices there are in any given fugue (2, 3, 4, or 5 voices). There is a single “two-voiced” fugue, 2 “5-voiced” fugues, while the majority are “three voiced” and “four voiced.” They utilize a complete array of “counterpoint,” namely stretto, thematic inversion, fugal exposition, etc. However, these fugues are comparatively not so dynamic as Johann Sebastian’s fugues composed for organ. Also, multiple analysis has been attempted to decipher the relations of motifs between fugue and prelude. The most motivic reference is present in Book 1, in the “B major” set. Here, the fugue utilizes the first 4 prelude notes in a similar metric position, albeit, at half-speed.

Major Recordings

Over 150 recordings of this celebrated collection have been documented until now, also transcriptions for synthesizers and ensembles.

  • In the period spanning from 1933 and 1936, Edwin Fischer recorded the first complete version of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” 
  • In 1949 (Book I) and 1952 (Book II), Wanda Landowska made the second recording on harpsichord of both Book I and Book II of the collection. 
  • In 1959 (Book I) and 1967 (Book II), Ralph Kirkpatrick recorded the first complete version on a clavichord. 
  • In 1959 (Book I) and 1961 (Book II), another famous organist Helmut Walcha also recorded both books on a harpsichord.
  • In 1982, Daniel Chorzempa became the first person to record it, utilizing multiple instruments, namely fortepiano, organ, clavichord, and harpsichord.
  • Tatiana Nikolayeva, Rosalyn Tureck, András Schiff, João Carlos Martins, and Angela Hewitt have all recorded the collection on piano twice. Ralph Kirkpatrick also holds a similar feat (for harpsichord and clavichord.) 
  • Anthony Newman is the only person to have recorded it thrice, once on the piano and twice on the harpsichord.
  • A Canadian pianist Glenn Gould who specializes in Bach pieces, recorded Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 & 2 starting in 1963 and completing recording in 1971.   

Well-Tempered 

Clarity is essential when it comes to considering “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Hans von Bülow called it music’s “Old Testament,” and rightfully so. The limpid, clean, textures are merely one of its most striking characteristics. Add to that a subtle sense of rightness in every tempo. The tone of the preludes are perfectly timed, nothing seems labored or hurried, as the fugues naturally unfold. Each voice exudes its own distinct space and color, like the savory icing on a delicate dessert.

The wonderfully lucid and thoughtful range of music, including Bach’s myriad styles, makes the collection an instant blockbuster. The way Bach varied his preludes to incorporate multiple musical forms, from improvisations to arias, studies to dances, tending every one of them individually evokes a clear sense of musical authority and direction. There are no ulterior motives, just a natural unfolding of some truly mesmerizing music. 



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