Johann Sebastian Bach
The Well-Tempered Clavier
Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method
Duration: Approx. 270 Minutes
Genre: Preludes and Fugues
Time of Creation: Until 1722 (Part I), Until 1742 (Part II)
World Premiere: Unknown
Table of Contents
Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier in 5 Sentences
The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach consists of two parts/books, each containing 24 pairs of preludes and fugues for a keyboard instrument in all common major and minor keys. The pair of opposites “free-strict” is characteristic, as a prelude is a free musical form, while a fugue is an elaborate polyphonic composition in imitative style. The importance of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is immense, for on the one hand, later composers referred extensively to the work (and continue to do so to this day), and on the other hand, Bach heralded the triumph of the well-tempered tuning of music theorist Andreas Werckmeister. Less glamorous, however, are the circumstances of its composition: Bach may well have written the first part of the Well-Tempered Clavier as an application for the post of Leipzig’s Thomaskantor (a post he got!) and possibly – here’s where it gets curious – while he was in prison in Weimar.
4 Highlights from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier
Highlight 1: Prelude and Fugue in C Major (Part I)
It’s nearly impossible to pick just four highlights from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, because each piece is special in its own way. I’ll start with the piece that everyone probably knows – it’s the very first prelude and fugue:
Highlight 2: Prelude and Fugue in E minor (Part I)
This pair is special because the fugue is the only one in Bach’s complete works that is only in two voices:
Highlight 3: Prelude and Fugue in A-flat major (Part II)
In the second part of the Well-Tempered Clavier (which was probably written almost 20 years after the first), a change in style can be observed. Bach now writes more often gallant, majestic pieces. An example of this is the A-flat major pair:
Highlight 4: Prelude and Fugue in B minor (Part II)
Bach concludes his monumental work with this pair. Those expecting a climactic finale, however, will be disappointed. Instead, Bach ends with only a two-part prelude and a light-footed fugue, writing a similarly jocular and tongue-in-cheek ending as he did with his Goldberg Variations:
3 Questions and Answers about Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier
Question 1: Why did Bach write The Well-Tempered Clavier?
Bach wrote The Well-Tempered Clavier to demonstrate practically that one could compose and play in all keys. This was not a matter of course until then: it was not until 1681 that Andreas Werckmeister had invented the well-tempered tuning, which made it technically possible for all keys to be equally “dulcet”.
Question 2: For which instrument is Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier intended?
In Bach’s time, the word “Clavier” was a collective term for all keyboard instruments. In particular, the clavichord as well as the harpsichord are conceivable. Today, The Well-Tempered Clavier is mostly played on the modern upright or grand piano, but also on the harpsichord.
Question 3: Which works are predecessors of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier?
Predecessors of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier are earlier combinations of preludes and fugues, which existed for example with Dieterich Buxtehude as well as Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer.
2 Recommended Recordings of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier
Recording 1: Paul Barton (Studio, 2019)
I admire Paul Barton not only for his piano playing, but also for his great commitment to music and beyond. In his recording studio in Thailand, he has completed one of his biggest projects, a complete recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier with sheet music and a bird’s eye view of the keyboard:
Recording 2: Kimiko Ishizaka (Studio, 2015)
Kimiko Ishizaka realizes similarly impressive projects. There is also a recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier by her (here Book I):