JS Bach: ‘The well-tempered clavier’ Book 2: Prelude and Fugue No 1 in C major  [2’50” / 1’54”]

Masaaki Suzuki, harpsichord

06-07 Cartoon of JS Bach (artist unknown)

JSB caught off guard

If ‘Couperin le Grand’ and Scarlatti the younger are both in the front rank of harpsichord composers, there’s no argument about who was top of the shop.  Daddy of the greatest musical dynasty of the lot (and of 20 offspring on his own account), Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) was even more than that, having an extremely strong if not irresistible claim to being the greatest western musician (composer–performer–theoretician) of all time.  Here, moreover, we glimpse him through what might be his greatest single work (it gets my vote), and one of the highest summits of music: Das wohltemperierte Clavier, aka The well-tempered clavier (or keyboard), more informally ’48 preludes and fugues’ or, when you get on friendly terms, simply ‘The 48’ or ‘WTC’.  Take your pick; Bach gave his masterly collection no title at all.

Certainly this can be claimed as his most influential creation.  An accident of history led to Mozart becoming a fan, though probably not to him making some transcriptions for string trio as used to be believed.  Beethoven, despite Bach’s general obscurity in his time (no early music in those days), was presented with it by his early mentor Neefe aged 12 and used it as a calling card on his arrival in Vienna a decade later as the new keyboard virtuoso in town.  Mendelssohn, Chopin (who wrote 24 preludes of his own), Schumann, even some you mightn’t expect like Rossini and Verdi – its devotees form a very long and distinguished line.  In the twentieth century Paul Hindemith (Ludus Tonalis) and Dmitri Shostakovich (see Tracks 37–8 of this playlist) both wrote major piano cycles partly in homage to Bach’s scheme.  To this day, a pianist such as András Schiff wouldn’t dream of having breakfast before playing a well-tempered prelude and fugue.

‘Well-tempered’ refers not to mood, of course, but to the concept of equal temperament (as distinct from just intonation).  By tuning a keyboard according to slightly tweaked rather than 100% ‘natural’ intervals, fooling the human ear, composers in this great age of discovery found they were able to write music that sounded ‘in tune’ in any key, rather than fine in one but distinctly off in others.  This wasn’t Bach’s discovery, but as the late, great Charles Rosen summed up the matter: “Bach’s music is the first to make consistent and continuous use of the complete range of expressive modulation that comes from the falsification of just intonation [i.e. from the innovation of equal temperament].  The Well-tempered keyboard is the celebration of this new-found ‘unnatural’ power.”  The celebration initially took the form of 24 preludes and fugues, one in each major and minor key, being completed in 1722.  As though the demonstration had not been sufficiently impressive, he did the same all over again, without the slightest hint of sequel-dropoff, 22 years later.

The quality of both books is in fact so uniformly high that literally any prelude and fugue could have been chosen here, though to split a pair would be sacrilege.  In the end I went for the first diptych of Book 2, whose scale and seriousness, from that first chord of the prelude, is entirely typical of the gateways to Bach’s mightiest monuments (cp the Matthew Passion, B minor Mass etc.).  The majestically inevitable procession of the prelude gives way to a three-voice fugue.  The archetypally fugal ‘subject’ of its very opening – if we know Bach, we know immediately that this is a fugue – is joined by the first entries of the higher and lower voices at 0’06” and 0’11” respectively.  The rest is essentially a spell woven from this simple, supremely assured invocation (try this interesting attempt to elucidate the structure visually).  It doesn’t get any better.

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