The First Book of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier
Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Bach-Archiv Leipzig, 1746
2022 marks the tricentenary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s manuscript of the First Book of his Well-Tempered Clavier. Completed in 1722 while the composer was employed in Köthen, this musical monument consists of a cycle of 24 preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys, in ascending chromatic order. A second collection employing this same schema followed 22 years later, in 1744.
To celebrate this important anniversary, Bourgie Hall invites you to learn more about this foundational work of the keyboard repertoire, one that made a lasting impact and swayed the course of history in Western European art music.
Contrast and Balance
The Well-Tempered Clavier offers at once an alluring contrast and perfect balance between strict musical form (the fugue) and free form (the prelude), as well as displaying astonishing variety. The fugues, which range from two to five voices including one with three subjects, harness the full range of contrapuntal processes, while the preludes show amazing melodic and rhythmic diversity. As Bach did not specify to which keyboard instrument this collection was destined, its contents can be performed equally well on the organ, the harpsichord, and even on the modern piano; these preludes and fugues form a remarkably rich and complex repertoire and represent a monumental challenge in terms of musicianship and technique.
A Pedagogical Tool
The collection is also invested with a pedagogical purpose: it was originally conceived to help young musicians attain both technical and musical proficiency at their instrument. Even today, there are very few aspiring pianists who have not come head-to-head with one or the other of these preludes and fugues during their musical training. It is worth mentioning that Chopin began each day by playing one of them, and later composed his own cycle of 24 preludes, highly prized by performers and music lovers.
The title itself is mystifying: what does “well-tempered” mean, exactly? And what, indeed, is “temperament”? Temperament denotes a tuning system for instruments.
In Bach’s day, a standardized temperament did not yet exist, and tuning could, therefore, vary considerably from one instrument to another. Most were tuned in pure thirds and fifths, enabling composers to obtain exceptional acoustical results in certain keys, for example, in C and G. On the other hand, access to remote keys was greatly restricted: acoustically very unpleasant to the ear, they were usually avoided.
In their search for a temperament that would enable composers to explore a wider range of keys, Baroque-era theorists proposed various ways of tuning fixed-pitch instruments such as keyboards. And to make all keys accessible, acoustical compromises had to be made, primarily the necessity of dividing the octave into twelve equal parts (as is the case for modern pianos) and, thus, foregoing the purity of intervals such as thirds and fifths.
Although these various ways of resolving the dilemma did result in compromises on the purity of certain chords and intervals, it was now possible for composers to venture into new keys! It was in response to these new ways of tuning keyboard instruments that Bach produced the Well-Tempered Clavier; now musicians had access to a full cycle of short and varied pieces as they mastered all possible keys.
It is worth noting, however, that Bach did not necessarily require equal temperament for performing the Well-Tempered Clavier. He simply recommended a temperament adapted to all 24 keys of the scale, thus enabling a multitude of variations. The term “well-tempered”, therefore, does not point to any particular tuning system, still less to an equal division of the octave: indeed, Bach never specified which temperament was to be used, leaving it to the performers to exercise their sound judgment. Incidentally, in Bach’s day, as is still often the case today, harpsichordists tuned their own instruments.
A Rich Legacy
The Well-Tempered Clavier confirms Bach’s immense influence on the world of music, one that continues to this day. He was the first composer to demonstrate the vast possibilities of a temperament that would yield satisfactory acoustical results in all keys. Virtually every great composer after Bach has, at one point or another in their growth, been compelled to consider this monument. If subsequent generations were able to produce the extensive wealth of masterpieces we know today (Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin, among so many other), it is partly thanks to Johann Sebastian Bach and his Well-Tempered Clavier.
If you would like to enjoy the Complete First Book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in concert performed by musicologist and harpsichordist Geneviève Soly, don't miss these three events at Bourgie Hall on January 16, 17 & 18, 2023!