The Supreme Lesson -Bach’s Wohltemperirte Clavier…1722
The Well-tempered Clavier, Or Preludes, and Fugues through all the Tones and Semi-tones, both with the major third or Ut, Re, Mi, and with the minor third or Re, Mi, Fa. For the use and practice of young musicians who desire to learn, as well as for the particular diversion of those who are already skilled in this study; made and composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, Kapellmeister for the time being to the Duke of Anhalt-Cöthen and director of his chamber music, Anno Domini 1722.
The early 1720’s were years of profound change and re-assessment for Bach. At the beginning of this decade we find him well positioned as court ‘Capellmeister’ to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. In a letter from Bach written in 1730, he recalls “There I had a gracious Prince, who both loved and knew music, and in his service I intended to spend the rest of my life”. The possibilities for music-making were first rate – the professional core group of instrumentalists and a few singers were of the finest caliber. Also, the demands of his office were not exhausting, leaving him time to pursue other interests. He had four young children, the two older boys, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp aged nine and five respectively, were already showing musical promise – three other children had died as infants. When Bach left with the Prince in late May 1720 for a summer visit to Carlsbad, his life was comfortable and in good order. It is impossible for us to imagine the shock and bewilderment for Bach, only 35 years old, arriving back in Cöthen sometime during the second week of July to find his wife Maria Barbara dead and buried. There is no record of what killed her, but its speed allowed no warning or preparation in advance for Bach. This personal bombshell can only have made Bach look at his life and priorities. In the coming two years further changes may have added to Bach’s view of conditions in Cöthen. From the summer of 1721 Bach became involved with a young soprano who we find employed at the court, Anna Magdalena. They married on December 3rd that year. Eight days later Prince Leopold married a less-than-musically-interested 19 year-old princess, Friederica. After this Bach noticed a definite change in courtly musical attitudes. The following year, 1722, brought court money problems, Leopold’s health declined, religious fueds, and problems with his children’s schooling. All these, plus Anna Magdalena’s pregnancy, surely began to draw Bach’s attention to more secure and generous employment possibilities. The attractions of the position of Cantor at St.Thomas in Leipzig, only forty miles away, must have been more than interesting to Bach. After a long and drawn-out audition process Bach, his 21 year-old wife, and family (including the new arrival, Christiana) settled for good in Leipzig.
The emotional whirlwind of Bach’s life during these years had a deep effect on the focus of his activity. Suddenly the family became the focus of his attentions, both in reality and musically. On January 22nd of that fateful year 1720, Bach created the Clavier-Büchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann. What an amazing little book for the nine-year-old son to enjoy and learn his keyboard craft. Too little attention is given to the contents of this volume – it has invaluable information about keyboard approach in both fingerings and ornamentation. After three pages of simple preliminary review of musical notational marking, there follows a feast of musical treasures, including the earlier versions what later became Aufrichtige Anleitung or Inventions and Sinfonias of 1723, and preludes that found their ultimate home in The Well-tempered Clavier…1722. The other ‘family’ book, the Clavier-Büchlein for Anna Magdalena from 1722, produced early versions of the first five ‘French’ suites and the Partitas in a minor and e minor.
Although not directly dedicated to Wilhelm Friedmann, the first volume of Das Wohltemperirte Clavier would be the natural follow-up volume for his now prodigiously gifted 12 year-old. The title of this work alone continues to raise discussion and sets temperatures at a high level in musicological circles, as it throws up two very specific questions: what is the meaning of ‘Wohltemperirte’ and which ‘Clavier’ should we use for this music. Quite honestly I see little problem myself. The concept and tuning of an ‘equal’ tempered system were fully understood and known well before Bach’s time. Bach clearly called his book ‘well’-tempered, not ‘equal’-tempered. It is amazing to me that hugely respected musical reference publications can in 2007 still describe this collection in the following way: “Presumably Bach brought [the Preludes and Fugues] together for convenience, partly to serve as the last step in his keyboard course, partly to exhibit the advantages of equal temperament.” The search as to which ‘unequal’ system Bach had in mind was something of a ‘holy grail’ until Bradley Lehman ‘decoded’ the ‘decoration’ that adorns the title page. His conclusions have now been thrown around the Internet and hugely debated, resulting in the seemingly inevitable opposing camps of believers and non-believers. I am a believer. The tuning system’s simplicity and brilliance lends an amazing yet perfectly balanced set of colours to each of the keys within the cycle – the world’s first musical cycle to climb steadily through all the keys, major and minor.
The word ‘Clavier’ itself is non-specific. It can refer to pretty much any ‘keyboard’ instrument. There are certainly many preludes which exhibit very ‘clavichord’-friendly qualities, and any of the fugues would be perfectly acceptable on the organ. Conversely, organ renderings of certain preludes are not out of the question, and the gentler fugues have a transparency on harpsichord that would be difficult to translate to the organ. It seems to me therefore that the message of the music is the most important matter. For myself I prefer to present this amazing musical collection on harpsichord. Although not as intrinsically expressive as the Organ or Clavichord, it forces the player to listen and express to the best of their ability.
This magical book of preludes and fugues represents the final stage in the refocusing of Bach’s life on his family and future, and particularly on his role as ‘teacher’. Both with his sons and other pupils, after a basic knowledge of signs, scripting and musical grammar learned by copying music, Bach continued with practical examples for furthering both musical and physical technique. Carl Philipp tells us that “in composition he started his pupils right in with what was practical…,” having to “begin their studies by learning pure four-part thorough bass…In teaching fugues he began with two-part ones, and so on…As for the invention of ideas, he required this from the very beginning.” A fascinating and important conformation of this teaching process, a real inside account of Bach’s lessons, comes from Heinrich Gerber (born 1702), who studied in Leipzig from 1724-7. These reports were related to Heinrich’s son Ernst and published by him in Leipzig in 1790. We find that “Bach accepted him with particular kindness….At the first lesson he set his Inventions before him….there followed a series of Suites, then the Well-tempered Clavier.”
There are so many analyses and technical descriptions of the nuts-and-bolts that make up this amazing book. It is, of course, essential to know the structures, both small and large, within such a monument. It can only help, for example, to take note, at which points in the whole Bach places the ‘old-style’, 5-voice fugues, or the lonely (but attitude driven) 2-voice fugue. So are the tiny seeds and figures that connect preludes to their fugues – the final flourish of the c minor prelude has the musical DNA of the opening of its fugue. I will spare the reader from any more of this, and rather focus attention on the personal nature of this music – its varied and wide-ranging emotional world through which the player and listener are taken during their journey. The distance covered from the calm harmonic purity and textural simplicity of the first prelude, to the craggy, bleak brooding world of the final chromatically charged and unstable fugue is immense.
This work is unmistakably intended as a single journey. In that respect it connects with Bach’s later single great cycle – The Goldberg’ Variations. The journeys serve very different purposes and take entirely different roads. Based within a single tonality, the “Goldbergs” exhaustively explore a path around a single country, the traveler ending up where he began, although somehow totally changed. The Well-tempered Clavier is a much more comprehensive road, long reaching and through all possible landscapes – ending with little sense of resolution. With this work, perhaps the only resolution is to begin the journey again for further “particular diversion” and instruction. Ernst Gerber’s reporting also makes two things very clear: the special nature of Das Wohltemperirte Clavier for Bach as a hands-on teacher, and its conception and presentation as a single work. The younger Gerber writes:
“This work Bach played altogether three times through to him with his unmatchable art, and my father counted these among his happiest hours, when Bach, under the pretext of not feeling in the mood to teach, sat himself at one of his fine instruments and thus turned the hours into minutes. What a supreme lesson that must have been.
Copyright 2008 by Richard Egarr
Mr. Egarr will perform:
Das wohltemperierte Clavier, BWV 846-869
(‘The well-tempered clavier’, Book 1)
J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750)
Prelude I BWV 846, in C major & Fugue I BWV 846, in C major
Prelude II BWV 847, in C minor & Fugue II BWV 847, in C minor
Prelude III BWV 848, in C-sharp major & Fugue III BWV 848, in C-sharp major
Prelude IV BWV 849, in C-sharp minor & Fugue IV BWV 849, in C-sharp minor
Prelude V BWV 850, in D major & Fugue V BWV 850, in D major
Prelude VI BWV 851, in D minor & Fugue VI BWV 851, in D minor
Prelude VII BWV 852, in E-flat major & Fugue VII BWV 852, in E-flat major
Prelude VIII BWV 853, in E-flat minor & Fugue VIII BWV 853, in D-sharp minor
Prelude IX BWV 854, in E major & Fugue IX BWV 854, in E major
Prelude X BWV 855, in E minor & Fugue X BWV 855, in E minor
Prelude XI BWV 856, in F major & Fugue XI BWV 856, in F major
Prelude XII BWV 857, in F minor & Fugue XII BWV 857, in F minor
Prelude XIII BWV 858, in F-sharp major & Fugue XIII BWV 858, in F-sharp major
Prelude XIV BWV 859, in F-sharp minor & Fugue XIV BWV 859, in F-sharp minor
Prelude XV BWV 860, in G major & Fugue XV BWV 860, in G major
Prelude XVI BWV 861, in G minor & Fugue XVI BWV 861, in G minor
Prelude XVII BWV 862, in A-flat major & Fugue XVII BWV 862, in A-flat major
Prelude XVIII BWV 863, in G-sharp minor & Fugue XVIII BWV 863, in G-sharp minor
Prelude XIX BWV 864, in A major & Fugue XIX BWV 864, in A major
Prelude XX BWV 865, in A minor & Fugue XX BWV 865, in A minor
Prelude XXI BWV 866, in B-flat major & Fugue XXI BWV 866, in B-flat major
Prelude XXII BWV 867, in B-flat minor & Fugue XXII BWV 867, in B-flat minor
Prelude XXIII BWV 868, in B major & Fugue XXIII BWV 868, in B major
Prelude XXIV BWV 869, in B minor & Fugue XXIV BWV 869, in B minor
Richard Egarr appears by arrangement with David Rowe Artists
Richard Egarr records for Harmonia Mundi USA.
Harpsichord used in this performance – Flemish double based on an instrument by Ruckers (early 17th century) by Gerald Self of San Antonio, 2005