Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier

Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685-1750

The Well-Tempered Clavier (Book I and II)
48 Preludes and Fugues
48 Jewels

“The two Books of The Well-tempered Clavier of J. S. Bach, commonly known in English as The 48 Preludes and Fugues, are at the centre of European civilisation, and are the beloved property of generations of people all over the world. If all of western art music were to be lost and only one work survive, this would be the first choice of many. The achievement of the music at an intellectual level alone puts Bach among the leading intellects of European history. Yet his ability to explore and develop musical materials is fully matched by the scope and power with which he explores moods, emotions and characters, and this is what has made his music so beloved by so many. His own contemporaries remarked how, in spite of the formidable complexity, his mastery of ordering materials and of the arts of rhetoric was such that he could reach out and touch the hearts even of those with no special knowledge of musical techniques.
David Ledbetter


My father belonged to the Musical Heritage Society, a mail order record company. He received the automatic feature LPs on a monthly basis for years. He accumulated many records that I am sure he never heard though I am sure he was quite pleased to build a marvelous record library which he hoped to learn eventually. I had fun reading all the titles of the relatively plain white album covers; it was my first casual lesson in music history: here was a vast set of catalog cards, with composers’ names, dates, genres, periods what to speak of conductors, orchestras, pianists, and always the sumptuously rich liner notes. But what a daunting encyclopedia of music! If this was “Classical music”, I had serious work to do. The names were quite foreign, as were the musical styles, as were the events and ideas that seemed to blur in crisply flowing ink from bright and very specific academic appreciators. Get out the highlighters. Taken in their vast entirety, the dull, uniform, monochrome album covers looked exactly as an old, complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays from the Book of the Month Club, dusty bricks of classic literature that lay mute like slowly decaying dry leaves in a pile. Or like shimmering jewels, hidden in the rough.

Bach was I name I knew. And the plain white box entitled “Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1″ was a double-record set. (Oh, perhaps there is a Book 2?). This looks important, or, at least comprehensive. I noticed immediately that the “work” was neatly divided into 24 pieces, one for every possible key in the practical music system dominant in Western Music for 300 years, and, that each of these was divided into two more pieces: each was a prelude and fugue. Best of all, I immediately noticed (thanks to the meticulous and always complete information clearly presented in the liner notes from the Musical Heritage Society) that each piece was relatively short, essentially, on the order of a modern pop song. Ok. Here was a place to begin. I could sample small selections, one at a time, presumably even in random order, listen multiple times to each, since they were short, and work my way throughout the two records, which, arranged as they were, must be a comprehensive catalog of something. Bach! And I knew, through general cultural osmosis that “fugue” was an important thing. I rolled up my sleeves, grabbed the handle of a sharp mental commitment, and I took my first blow at that pile of bricks.

I have been listening to at least one selection from the Well-Tempered Clavier (there are two books, 48 preludes and fugues, 96 individual miniature masterpieces) nearly every day for over 25 years. I have never tired of it. I have never stopped learning from it. As sheer musical delight, it has never stopped being a supreme entertainer. With 96 individual songs each unique, beautiful, playful, profound, expertly crafted, infinitely detailed, and so emotional across a vast range of diversity, the Well-Tempered Clavier is a great and very close friend, as well as a teacher, a master, a storyteller, an exquisite singer, and ultimately, a challenge to the listener to cultivate and sustain their finest earsense. Or a least remain engaged in life long practice.

The Well-Tempered Clavier—A Brief Historical Perspective

As a general statement of historical fact and cultural regard, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is a towering and singular masterpiece of immense influence in the history of Western Art Music or “Classical” music. Though book 1 and book 2 combined comprise around 250 pages of written music, or, an approximate average playing/listening time of about 4 hours, the density, comprehensiveness, longevity and sheer beauty of Bach’s musical expression in this work alone (Bach was one of the most prodigious composers of all time) something . . .As but a pebble dropped in the pool of Western musical culture, it has rippled out and onward through time creating a vast network of awareness, appreciation and hard work. The history of cultural dialog about the Well-Tempered Clavier is, itself, much like one of the many fugues contained therein, its own drama of call and response, subject and answer.

Mozart studied the Well-Tempered Clavier, transcribing several of Bach’s preludes and fugues from the keyboard to a string chamber ensemble. Beethoven played the Well-Tempered Clavier, and “recomposed” it by hand copying several parts so that he might learn and internalize the structure and the process of Bach’s counterpoint. Mendelssohn was instrumental in reintroducing Europe to the treasures of Bach and his own works bear the strong imprint of Bach’s counterpoint and fugue. Schumann offered that the Well-Tempered Clavier should be your daily bread. In the 19th century, Chopin was directly inspired by it to compose his own monumental catalog of 24 preludes for piano. 20th century composers such as Hindemith and Shostakovich have taken direct inspiration from Bach as well to write their own comprehensive sets of preludes and fugues. Shostakovich’s Op. 87 is itself a singular masterpiece with many of the superlatives attributable to Bach. It was a concentrated and relatively immediate response to hearing a performance of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and has much of the same grace, beauty, drama, profundity and genius. Academic music books on sight singing, melody, counterpoint, fugue and piano pedagogy in general rest on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier like a church upon its foundation, like a holy city on its sacred ground. Excellent commercial recordings abound including an array of novel treatments: jazz, vocalese, moog synthesizer, string quartet, as well as the traditional clavichord, harpsichord and piano. There are popular books and numerous web resources as well. Why so much? As a general study in music and counterpoint, it is par excellence and inexhaustible For the study fugue, it is essential and essentially complete. As ear, mind, heart and spirit training, it is a lifelong practice with profound rewards. It is worth your time. You too can engage in the habits of the masters. You can let it become part of your life. Yes, you can try this alone at home!

The Well-Tempered Clavier has much to teach, and the details of its construction are as complex as any mind could desire, but this must always be counter posed with the phenomenon that it is simply beautiful music. It is very accessible. To apprehend it, you need only your ears and quality attentiveness. But for most of our contemporary listening habits, it is a different and older style of music, and it may take some acculturation to enter its charms. The music is written in a specific style with an implied awareness and set of expectations in the listener. To deepen your sense of the narrative and sharpen your perception of the musical characters, earsense offers a vocabulary of concepts, and a presentation of essential details for each piece including words, images, musical notation and sound clips. A network of relationships enable you to link different pieces with a variety of associations, furthering your exploration, sharpening your sense of similarity and difference, deepening your relationship with the unique character of each piece, guiding you through all of the terrain. But the key, in the end, is repeated listening, spending time with the music itself. This is the goal and the never ending quest combined in the same experience. It is hoped that the earsense feature will nurture your listening discipline and thereby your listening pleasure.

Intersecting Patterns – the Origin of 48 Jewels

The idea for an earsense web-based presentation of the Well-Tempered Clavier was germinated by the intersection of four sources. First came the Musical Heritage Society recording. The music spoke for itself. Next, came the written music, the score for the Well-Tempered Claiver from Schirmer. Following the printed musical notation along with the sound of the recording yielded great insight, confirming aural perceptions, revealing details of craftsmanship that first evaded but then informed the ear, providing an aesthetic experience that was unique to the fascinations of the notation all by itself. But I was captivated overall by the summary page of the printed volume showing, for each prelude and fugue, the key, the number of voices, and primary musical quote. I began to use this for my primary notes, augmenting the table with labels for my own discoveries such as “countersubject”, “stretto” and “double fugue”. The summary table was in fact the table of contents, like a hypertext table showing thumbnail images and a link to the detail “page”. What about a web presentation? The snippets of notation could be playable! Perhaps the navigation could be based on the circle of fifths.

After quite some time of listening, notating, wondering if my own experience could become something more, I stumbled upon a third source in a favorite used bookstore. The spine read Bachinalia. What a title! The cover showed a whimsical picture of Bach winking his eye. The entire book was all about the Well-Tempered Clavier. What a book! It joined me, the recordings and the scores in a happy conference of commentary and reflection. It too was full of tables, sidebars, cross-references and marvelous little essays. Each prelude and fugue had a commentary, a field guide, a DJ! I continued my multi-media meditation.

The fourth and final source that ignited this project began with the notion I encountered somewhere that Bach’s music was often considered absolute music, music whose integrity and beauty was essentially independent of the manner in which it might be performed. Did clavier mean specifically clavichord or harpsichord or perhaps piano as well? And what about synthesizer, vocalize, string quartet or any other sort of transcription? How about something purely computer generated? It was then that I remembered the technology of MIDI files, a simple and reasonably flexible way to “encode” music as a compact computer data file which could be played as well as conveniently exchanged over the internet. A query for Bach MIDI files revealed a gold mine on the web. They really worked just fine. Soon, earsense featured a simple table, with images of music notation, links to detail pages and a link to play the music using a MIDI file. We owe a debt of gratitude to Yo Tomita for enabling earsense to feature his excellent technical work in the form of all 48 preludes and fugues, the entire Well-Tempered Clavier in the form of MIDI files.

As the earsense feature began evolving from a simple table of links to a larger gallery of notes, reflections, a vocabulary and a network of relationships, a further serendipitous trip of a favorite used book store revealed the astounding four volume work of Siglind Bruhn, J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier: In Depth Analysis and Interpretation. In Bruhn’s comprehensive academic analysis, earsense found the technical resources necessary to validate, correct and even supplement the presentation of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Bruhn provided a safety net, giving us the courage to find our own creative interpretation. In addition to the thorough analysis, Bruhn’s books provided a crucial missing piece required to consummate a fully multi-modal presentation of Bach: visual representations. Through her generosity, earsense is able to reproduce her diagrams, which, as the adage goes, are worth 1,000 words.

A More General Perspective: Texture and Counterpoint

The chief focus of earsense musical appreciation is Chamber Music, most specifically, the vital tradition of the string quartet. Given this, it might seem odd that earsense should be so preoccupied with earlier music of the Baroque era what to speak of a very specific and singular collection of fugues. Is a detailed look at Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier just an elaborate “sidebar” to an emerging emphasis on Chamber music? Just as the Baroque fugue requires a certain kind of cultivated listening quite outside the modern experience of popular music, so it is with Chamber music of the Classical era. One of the key aspects of composition, performance and the listening experience in Chamber music is texture, the qualities of blend and independence exhibited by an ensemble of essential and equal partners. Among other things, the string quartet is a medium par excellence for polyphonic and contrapuntal texture as realized by four stringed instruments sharing a common timbre, balanced across a broad range of pitch, and each tasked with an individual part of awesome integrity and equally awesome responsibility to ensemble. It is not surprising to realize that string chamber music itself frequently indulges in the exacting arts of fugue and fugato, canon and imitation, just as naturally as it blends into profound, homophonic unity. As such, a study of Well-Tempered Clavier is more prerequisite than sidebar. An alert appreciation of the techniques and resulting musical expressions of counterpoint is required to begin to unlock the treasures of all chamber music. With prelude and fugue providing a foundation of texture, the earsense features of the string quartet can build a more elaborate presentation, focusing on the next layer of design: form and harmonic rhythm.

As the string quartet represents an exquisite ensemble for contrapuntal texture, so the keyboard prelude and fugue represent a similar ensemble in miniature. With fugues in three and four parts, a single keyboard performer must assume the role of a multi-part ensemble, partitioning the fingers, the heart and the mind of a single musician into a kind of virtual chamber ensemble, a string trio or quartet transcribed for the keyboard. While the forms and expressions of string chamber music are often quite different than a Baroque keyboard fugue, the essential spirit is not. Familiarity with and appreciation of texture in the keyboard fugue will enhance your appreciation of string chamber music, and certainly visa versa.

In the most general sense, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is simply great music of the highest order. Its aspects of melody, harmony, rhythm and form and its even more general affects of continuity, development, tension, release and full artistic expression apply to all music, chamber of otherwise. Bach has something to offer on all qualities of music. And the sheer aesthetic satisfaction of his music is, regardless of any didactic benefit, a supreme end in itself.

Induction – Looking for a Second Example

Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is certainly a unique phenomenon in musical history. Its existence immediately raises the question of whether anyone other than Bach created such a thing: a comprehensive encyclopedia of preludes and fugues in all 24 keys, exercising all the chief technical features of counterpoint yet producing successful music as music itself, an equally comprehensive collection of diverse aesthetic experiences whose sheer range is another metric of artistic accomplishment. Any study of merit takes into account the basic principle of induction: the deepest comprehension of a subject must involve more than a single example; it must move beyond the peculiarities of a first instance and deal with a comparison and contrast to a second example. In the case of the Well-Tempered Clavier, is this possible?

Dmitri Shostakovich, a 20th century Soviet composer, wrote his own modern collection of 24 preludes and fugues (on in each key) which was directly inspired by Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Written in 1951, his Op. 87 for piano is a towering master both for its own unique qualities as well as its intimate relationship to the Well-Tempered Clavier. It is a perfect second example, full of classic contrapuntal technique, comprehensive in range and experience, conceived of as an awesome unity. In some cases, Op. 87 seems to have come directly from Bach. In other cases, it is indisputably Shostakovich. It to is both infinitely instructive as well as a fully satisfying end in itself. As a second chapter in the art of contrapuntal texture, it powerfully demonstrates that Bach’s ancient art is viable in a modern voice. As another set of fugues, it expands the earsense exploration to 72 keyboard fugues spanning some 230 years, a much broader view than most other extant resources provide. Op. 87 clearly shows that Shostakovich was a brilliant contrapuntalist, somewhat unusual and certainly refreshing for his time. You will find the work of Shostakovich in the companion earsense feature, 24 Jewels.

A Final Personal Note

There is something personally quite satisfying about “finishing” 48 Jewels to the extent that all 48 of the fugues from both books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier are well-represented on earsense. For me personally, it is a kind of trophy representing the hours and the years that I have spent trying will all my faculties to absorb this supreme art of musical expression. It is, of course, with tremendous pleasure, pride and hope that earsense offers the presentation to others, enabling them to build their own personal relationship to this great music. There is something very comforting that, within the volatile, volumnous and occasionally crass maelstrom of overwhelming content on the web, there is a place with a bit more order, a bit higher quality content, and a relevance and utility that will never diminish. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is eternally enduring. One could only dream that a creative web-based presentation of Bach might endure as well.

There is only one slightly nagging problem: every time I sit to listen to prelude or fugue with the intention of checking the corresponding earsense page, I always want to add something new. Each page captures some things about a fugue, but most definitely not all things. A characteristic of great art is that it never tires and it always has something new to say. This is a supreme understatement when it comes to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. And this is a good thing, though, in the end, there is something downright mysterious or even mystical about it. The inexpressible musical eloquence of the Well-Tempered Clavier gives us all space and time to enjoy it again and again, even to find something new or different with each experience. This is very much part of its charm and its challenge. While my own appreciation of the Well-Tempered Clavier has vastly grown far beyond my initial curiosity with the plain, white box of LPs from the Musical Heritage Society, I still approach the music every time with an awareness of its purity and the demand to cultivate a fresh and blank sort of beginner’s mind to receive it, as though, with all of its treasures still hidden, it is still like an untouched, plain white box.

One Response to “Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier”

  1. Dearest Kai, I am in awe of you and your ability to express many of the same thoughts and ideas I have had (and continue to have) for most of my life about this great anthology! Thank you so much for sending me the link. Now, I truly feel it was fate which designed our "chance" meeting, and we are for SURE, contemporary kindred spirits on this planet!
    I am so lucky to have you as my webmaster and friend!
    much, much, MUCH more later….