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The Well-Tempered Clavier

by Paul Griffiths


In the presence of this consistently contrapuntal music, we may find ourselves listening contrapuntally, the music’s lines carrying us effortlessly forward while also referring us back, the succession of preludes and fugues rising step by step to present us with new things and remind us of old ones. We are listening to a collection that was studied by Mozart and Beethoven, and by virtually every composer since – to a collection that surely will have more to offer to composers yet to come. And we are listening to a performer who has spent his life here.

We are listening to a compendium, or pair of compendia, whose origins go back to 1720, when Bach notated pieces into a little book he was using in training his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, then a boy of ten. Two years later he reinscribed some items from that teaching material into a new volume of preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys, and called it The Well-Tempered Clavier. His purposes were manifold – fugal, one might say. There was the matter addressed in the title, that of finding a temperament (and we cannot be sure exactly what he had in mind) in which it would be possible to play the entire contents without retuning the instrument. Then there was the educative function, to offer something, to quote the title page, “for the use and profit of young musicians desirous of learning as well as for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.” It is also possible, given the date, that Bach presented the book as a showpiece when he went to Leipzig in February 1723 to be interviewed for the position of cantor, which was as much a teaching post as a liturgical appointment.

Around 15 years afterwards he decided to revisit the project and put together a whole new survey of keys and practices, which he seems not to have brought to a definitive conclusion and not to have given a title, hence its long and thoroughly just association with its predecessor as the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the two together forming “the Forty-Eight.” His aims this time may have included that of catering for a new generation, the generation of his own younger children, among them two more who were to make their lives as composers: Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian.

Conceivably he could also have been catering for a new instrument, since by this stage he had some familiarity with the piano – which, however, needs no such justification for its fitness here. Bach’s great inquiry into so many nuances, of touch, of interplay between hands and between contrapuntal lines, of character and of expressivity, has helped form keyboard technique as we know it, and his music belongs to the instrument of Beethoven, of Chopin, of Debussy, of Kurtág – especially when that instrument is played with the mastery and sensitivity for which András Schiff is renowned. Bach’s is supreme finger music, and from beginning to end Schiff makes no use of the pedals, using his hands alone to hold notes down and control resonances.

Schiff is also an artist to make us recognize how so much of Bach’s music is song or dance. Grandeur and intimacy are also here. Wit, too.

Things in The Well-Tempered Clavier always come in pairs, but pairs that, unlike butterfly wings, display an essential asymmetry, if an asymmetry that will sound inevitable, even natural. Prelude and fugue are gate and path. The gate leads to the path, allows us to sense the path beyond it. Striding the path, we remember the gate that allowed us through. Gate, because a prelude generally has a consistency of substance, a sameness, a repeating figure, a regular rhythm of chord change. Path, because in a fugue we follow the subject as it travels from one voice to another, from one tonality to another.

Part of the wonder of The Well-Tempered Clavier is, of course, in the variety of gates and paths, the former showing astonishing diversity of character. Consider, for example, the characters of the following preludes as gates: The Country Gate (I: E major, with its folksong air, sunlit but with clouds passing), The Swinging Gate (I: G major), The Feather Gate (I: A minor), The Dancing Gate (II: C-sharp minor), The Trumpeter’s Gate (II: D major), and The Labyrinth Gate (II: A minor).

In the first book only the E-flat-major and E-minor preludes are notably longer than their fugues, whereas in the second book more than half the preludes exceed their fugues in length. Wholesale repetition – in, for example, the G-sharp-minor prelude from the second book – provides an opportunity for the performer to try a subtly different approach. Other preludes are similarly in two sections, each repeated, a type introduced with the last prelude in the first book and reappearing ten times over in the second. The two-section forms also signal a greater nearness to dance in the later book – though by no means every such prelude is a dance, and there are dances, too, among the other, non-repeated preludes.

Every prelude, whatever its nature, is a beginning. Every prelude comes, of course, to an end, and that end is always the same – tonic harmony, tweaked into the major if necessary. But something, we know, will come after, and in that respect listening to a prelude has an element of listening forwards. Similarly, our listening to a fugue is to some degree a listening back. And there are many instances where Bach appears to have been writing for such directed listening. For example, an intensely affecting prelude with a wild close (I: E minor) is answered by a different kind of skirmish, with falling chromatic scales, in its fugue, which in its two-part texture, unparalleled anywhere else in the whole collection and collapsing frighteningly to one part (in octaves) at crucial junctures, has a wildness of its own. If a fugue could ever be described as savage, it would be this.

Striking as this pairing is, though, there are many others (perhaps, indeed, there are 47) that encourage expectant listening in the preludes and recollective listening in the fugues. Poignancy has its response in chromaticism again, but quite otherwise, in the next minor- mode pair (I: F minor), the fugue here touching all twelve notes in its first 16 beats. To mention a few other examples, there is a fugue seeming to take up from its prelude’s close (II: F-sharp major), and, equally binding, there are contrasts of stateliness with the rugged (II: G minor) or of extraordinary wandering with decisiveness (II: A minor).

Another way to imagine how prelude and fugue are dissimilarities allied might be in terms of a stream or river, where listening to a prelude is like keeping one’s eyes on a stone or other object through the coursing water, while a fugue gives the experience of moving with that water. Then again, some of these fugues suggest not so much an outdoors of paths and rivers but more an interior tranquility, of like-minded companions in a small room joining to sing – to sing, as it might be, a chorale, for many of the fugues are on subjects that have the stout presence of such melodies (e.g. I: C-sharp-minor, I: B major, II: C major, II: E major), though the exercise could alternatively be a folksong (I: F-sharp major, I: G major; II: G-sharp-minor) or an exuberant round (I: E major, I: F major, II: E-flat major, II: G minor).

Some of the preludes have more the nature of solo arias, but others, like the above-mentioned fugues, evoke a close vocal gathering, and all are quite as contrapuntal as the fugues to which they lead. The fugues themselves are normally in three parts or four, except for the already noted two-part example and a further two, also from the first book, in five parts (I: C-sharp-minor, I: B-minor).

Bach’s organization of the first book, in particular, is evident: the volume culminates in that first of the preludes to have two repeated panels, followed by what is by far the longest fugue – a fugue that, moreover, models the endless staircase that has brought us this far, and that could now take us on, by the same step, back to the C major of this book’s opening or on to the C major of the next. It is no accident, then, when a prelude not only prepares its own fugue but also recalls the last. The resemblances, however, go beyond immediate neighbors, as do the contrasts. They are there for us to discover as we listen along and across, down into and up at, these threads of time in which the humanly made could be – can be – at once marvelous and rational, cheerful and profound, domestic and sublime.


Paul Griffiths is the author of, among many other books, The New Penguin Dictionary of Music.