Only a handful of musical works are as bound to their year of composition in the same way as Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. And the curious thing is that the collection was not even published during Bach’s lifetime. Nevertheless, it is one of his most iconic compositions, and one which enjoyed relatively widespread dissemination already during the composer’s life (in manuscript copies), and later in print. The first printed collections appeared, one after the other, in 1801 and in the immediately subsequent years. By then, however, many of the greatest musicians of the generations after Bach had already learnt to appreciate this absolute masterpiece of inventiveness, musical architecture, and creativity. Mozart and Beethoven had transcribed some movements excerpted from the collection for string ensemble, so as to be able to better savour the masterful intertwining of the melodic lines. By the first centenary of the work’s composition, it had become the daily bread of most “serious” musicians. And this applied first and foremost to current and prospective composers; the collection became one of the pillars of piano teaching only slowly. The kind of skills required of most pianists-virtuosi, and of most pianists-amateurs in the nineteenth century did not seem to need such a robust training as that offered and provided to by the Well-Tempered Clavier.
It is well known that the complete collection comprises forty-eight pairs, each constituted by a Prelude and a Fugue. The first collection was completed in 1722, as is quite prominently shown on the beautiful, enigmatic, and fascinating titlepage, a highly decorated piece of calligraphy in Bach’s own hand. The very aesthetical appearance of this page demonstrates the justified pride Bach had in this majestic achievement. The second book came only twenty years later.
The Preludes are, as a rule, “free” pieces; normally they belong in no clearly recognizable genre. Many of them are characterized by the repetition of a technical/compositional module, which is moved in different positions. In this fashion, the Preludes also acquire the function of a technical exercise: a purpose clearly envisaged by the composer. Another feature of many preludes is that they have a seemingly improvisational character. Of course, they represent the kind of improvisation that Bach, not any lesser mortal, could have created. Traditionally, in fact, one of the functions of the Preludes was also to afford performers the possibility of “exploring” the keyboard they had to play; in this fashion, the instrument’s possible irregularities or idiosyncrasies became clearer.
In contrast, Fugues are among the most rigid, complex, and structured forms in music history. Whilst the Preludes frequently have a strong harmonic component (i.e., they are based on progressions of chords, underlying the chosen technical/compositional module), Fugues are quintessentially polyphonic. Polyphony is marked by the use of imitation, i.e. the reciprocal “calls” among the different parts, which “cite” fragments proposed by the other parts; in Fugues, these imitations are strongly codified. Every Fugue is based on a “subject” (a melody, initially proposed by a single voice), which is repeated by each voice at its first appearance, and which then comes constantly throughout the composition. The subject’s entries become more frequent toward the Fugue’s ending, in the strettos. The subject may also appear in “augmentation” (with the rhythmical values proportionally augmented), or in inversion (the ascending intervals become descending and vice-versa), as well as in other modified forms. When the first voice finishes its presentation of the subject, the subject passes to the second voice, whilst the first proposes the “countersubject”, which constitutes the subject’s counterpart throughout the Fugue. Of course, the rules allowing the creation of efficacious subjects and countersubjects, and that, more generally, regulate the structure of a highly complex composition such as a Fugue, are among the most refined of all compositional techniques. Bach was one of the greatest masters of counterpoint and polyphony. He created constructions of an extreme complexity, such as the Canons of the Goldberg Variations, of the Musical Offering, of the Art of Fugue, but also those found in many other compositions for the organ or other instruments. Typically, Bach gives shape to the most complex contrapuntal architecture seemingly effortlessly, and without revealing the quantity of the rules he respects, and of the self-imposed limits.
Each of the twenty-four pairs of Preludes and Fugues in each book is written in a different key; all major and minor keys are employed once in each of the two collections. The only seeming exception is represented by the wonderful Prelude and Fugue no. 8 in Book One, where the Prelude is in E-flat minor and the Fugue in D-sharp minor. This is however just a theoretical difference, in the case of keyboard instruments, since the two keys are enharmonically coincident, i.e. they share the same “notes”, which are called by different names.
At Bach’s time, it was not at all usual to compose in all keys, since, on some instruments, it was very hard, or even impossible, to produce some notes. Even on the keyboard, which would seem to pose no problem under this viewpoint, not all tonalities were “equal”. And here some ink must be spilled on the collection’s name. Its original title is Das Wohltemperirtes Clavier, i.e. the keyboard with a “good temperament”. The word “temperament” refers to the need to adjust the tuning of keyboard instruments. In fact, in music theory, the difference in pitch between two notes (an “interval”) is expressed through numeric ratios. The interval of octave, separating two notes by the same name (e.g. C1-C2), is expressed by the ratio 2:1; fifths are 3:2. If we move from C1 and ascend by octaves up to C8, the ratio will therefore be 28, i.e. 128. However, if we start from the same C1 and ascend by fifths, we will reach C8 after twelve fifths. In this case, the formula will be (3:2)12, i.e. the abstruse number 129,7463. There is therefore a difference between this number and 128. How does this impact on tuning? In order to tune an instrument, we need to have a reference sound on the basis of which we derive the pitch of the others. Proceeding by octaves, however, we will be able to tune only the notes by the same name. Proceeding by fifths, instead, all notes are touched in turn, and therefore keyboard instruments are tuned employing the interval of fifth. Still, the problem of the difference between the seven octaves and the twelve fifths remains: this “error” is called Pythagorean comma. And here comes the “temperament”, i.e. the attempt to “adjust” the fifths’ tuning so that the result may coincide with the 128 of the perfect octaves.
The technique normally employed nowadays is called “equal temperament”: here, the twelve semitones have a perfectly equal value. But this value is as difficult to calculate as it is complex to reach “by ear”. At Bach’s time, instead, many different “temperaments” had been created. They represented tuning techniques, whose goal was always that of “balancing the books”, but through different ways. “Larger” and “narrower” fifths were created, in order to create an empirical but pleasing tuning. Actually, however, some keys “sounded better” than others, and all had their own specific, different colour. Today, to play a piece in C major or D major sounds different only in the ears of those having absolute pitch; for all others, one key is as good as another. For a long time, it was assumed that Bach’s “good temperament” coincided with equal temperament, and that he had written Preludes and Fugues in all keys in order to demonstrate their equality. But this is a patently absurd statement: why should one write pieces in all keys if, in the end, they are all the same? One could just write in C major and A minor! Vice versa, recent studies remonstrated that Bach’s “good temperament” could also be a technique of tuning developed by Bach himself, whereby the differences among the keys were exalted rather than suppressed. The “secret” of Bach’s temperament, as has been argued, may be hidden in the very titlepage of Book One, and in particular in the ornaments which might represent a code for deciphering this temperament.
In any case, what remains is a masterful proof of Bach’s extraordinary creative gifts and of his tireless labour. The variety of musical styles, techniques, expressive characters, compositional devices, atmospheres found in the Forty-Eight is unequalled. Frédéric Chopin played them constantly, and modelled his own collection of twenty-four Preludes on Bach’s Book Two: Chopin even copied the proportions of the bars of Bach’s Preludes into his own, as a supreme homage to the composer. Robert Schumann, in his Rules for young musicians, recommended that Bach’s Forty-Eight become the daily bread of budding pianists and composers. Giuseppe Verdi reportedly had that score permanently on his music stand. Dimitri Shostakovich evidently inspired his own collection of twenty-four Preludes and Fugues to Bach’s, and the same (via Chopin) applies to Claude Debussy’s two series of twelve Preludes each. And Pablo Casals, the great cellist (!), used to play a Prelude and Fugue every morning; he said that this gave him the strength needed to face the day.
For three centuries, in brief, the Well-Tempered Clavier has represented an immense, magnificent repository of compositional wisdom, of technical challenges, of musical ideas, open to all those who wish to learn and to enjoy some beautiful music. And this was precisely the purpose stated by Bach himself on the titlepage: “For the edification and use of young musicians who are eager to learn, and for the recreation of those who are already skilled in this study”. So be it.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
Soraci, Pietro (Pianist) born in Catania, Italy, showed his extraordinary natural talent in playing the piano since he was three years old, gaining the interest of the national press and televisions. He performed first when he was eleven, with the Orchestra of Bellini Opera Theater. He graduated with the highest score, cum laude, and honored with a special award of appreciation. After experiencing different approaches to the piano music and techniques through the contact with some of the major teachers he was awarded of several prizes in national and international piano competitions and in particular he was recognized as the best Italian pianist by the international piano competition “Frederic Chopin” in Varsaw (Polen) in 1985. Currently, he performs all over Europe and Italy by the main Music Institutions and Concert Seasons both as soloist and in ensembles. Moreover he is full Professor for the major degree in piano music by the Conservatorio di Milano “G. Verdi”. Has recently undertaken (by Da Vinci classics) the complete opera recording of Bach keyboard on critical edition with Barenreiter patronage.
Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.