August 2007 sees the start of Angela Hewitt’s Bach World Tour in which she will bring her celebrated performances of The Well-Tempered Clavier to twenty-five countries on six continents. This tour will celebrate the wonderful voyage she began in 1994 when she undertook to record all of Bach’s major keyboard works for Hyperion Records—a project that took eleven years to complete. Concurrently, Hyperion are releasing a limited edition box set of Hewitt’s iconic recordings of ‘The 48’—held by many critics to be the definitive piano version of Bach’s incomparable masterpiece.
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The six years that Johann Sebastian Bach spent as Capellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen (1717–1723) were some of the happiest of his life. The young prince (only twenty-three years old in 1717) was a viola da gamba player of great skill and had an eighteen-piece orchestra of excellent calibre. Bach was delighted to work for someone who both ‘loved and understood music’. On taking up his new duties, Bach relinquished the composition of organ and choral music that had occupied him previously in Weimar. Only a few cantatas were composed to celebrate royal birthdays and special occasions. Cöthen was in Saxony where Calvinism predominated at the time, and there was little music in the local churches (with the exception of the Lutheran Agnuskirche where Bach worshipped and went to practise the organ). He was now expected to produce secular instrumental music, and he did so, as was his custom, with great energy and all his heart and soul. From the Cöthen period date the Brandenburg Concertos, the four orchestral Suites, the Partitas, Suites, and Sonatas for solo and accompanied violin and cello, and the French Suites for keyboard. Bach and the prince became close friends, and he often accompanied the latter on his journeys. Upon returning from a trip to Karlsbad in 1720, Bach was confounded by the news that his wife, Maria Barbara, had died and was already buried. With four children ranging from the age of five to twelve to bring up, he could not remain a widower for long, and within a year had married Anna Magdalena Wilcke (other spellings of her name being Wilcken, Wölcken, Wülcke, or Wülcken), sixteen years his junior and a fine soprano. Their marriage was celebrated on 3 December 1721 with four barrels and thirty-two carafes of wine—almost a hundred litres!
As his duties at court were not totally time-consuming, Bach was able to devote himself to the musical education of his family. In 1720, when his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann was nine years old, he presented him with a notebook in which they began to compile pieces that contain, among other things, first drafts of what we know today as the Little Preludes, the Two- and Three-Part Inventions, and eleven of the first twelve Preludes from The Well-Tempered Clavier. It was always Bach’s aim to develop musical intelligence from the very beginning along with technique—something which is often overlooked today. Many of the pieces in the Clavierbüchlein are in Wilhelm Friedemann’s own hand, as he was undoubtedly learning how to compose.
It is impossible to give exact dates of composition of many of Bach’s works, as they were often compiled from already-existing material. In the case of The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, Bach wrote the date 1722 on the title page of the fair copy:
The Well-Tempered Clavier or Preludes and Fugues through all the tones and semitones including those with a major third or Ut Re Mi as well as those with a minor third or Re Mi Fa.
For the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study composed and prepared by Johann Sebastian Bach at present Capellmeister to His Serene Highness the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, and director of His Chamber Music. Anno 1722
To satisfactorily explain the adjective ‘well-tempered’ is to tread on dangerous ground. Treatises have been written on the subject, and even today the debate continues. Tuning a keyboard instrument always has to be a compromise, because the intervals of a perfect fifth and a perfect third are incompatible with each other and with a pure octave. In Bach’s day, the common practice was to use the meantone system, which retained the purity and sweetness of the major third. This meant, however, that it was impossible to play in all twenty-four keys because of ‘errors’ that would occur in the more remote ones. As musicians became more and more dissatisfied with these restrictions, they turned to equal temperament which favours the interval of a perfect fifth, and which makes each key tolerable (although inevitably one can argue that much is lost by making everything uniform, especially as regards the character of each key). In between these two systems there can be many modifications, and it is thought that Bach must have used his own method of tuning. The only, rather vague, testimony we have on the subject comes from his obituary, written by his son C P E Bach and his pupil J F Agricola, where it states that: ‘In the tuning of harpsichords he achieved so correct and pure a temperament that all the keys sounded pure and agreeable. He knew no keys which, because of impure intonation, one must avoid.’ In 1715 Johann Caspar Fischer had composed a set of preludes and fugues in twenty different keys called Ariadne Musica. Four years later, Johann Mattheson wrote a user’s manual in figured-bass playing that gave two examples in each of the twenty-four keys. It was left to Bach, however, to give us the first real music in keys like C sharp major and E flat minor. Twenty-two years later, in 1744, he compiled another twenty-four preludes and fugues to complete what is now known as the ‘48’. It is an inexhaustible treasure trove of the greatest possible music, combining contrapuntal wizardry with his immense gift for expressing human emotion in all its forms. Bach amazes us by absolutely never running out of steam. In The Well-Tempered Clavier, we find a piece to suit every mood and every occasion.
In Bach’s time the word ‘clavier’ did not denote any keyboard instrument in particular but meant either harpsichord, clavichord, spinet, virginal, or even the organ. An inventory taken at the time of his death lists many different instruments, but gives no details beyond their size and value. Bach reportedly preferred the clavichord for its ability to produce shadings and even vibrato, although surely its extreme delicacy must have made anything but the quietest pieces rather frustrating. Perhaps for this reason, Bach’s friend, the great organ and harpsichord builder Gottfried Silbermann, set about working on a fortepiano (following the first attempt at one by Cristofori) which Bach tried before his death. It is said that he found it interesting, but weak in the high register and too hard to play (complaints often voiced by pianists today about some modern grands!). His music requires great sprightliness, clarity, rapidity, warmth, strength, and subtle shadings that have to be matched by both instrument and player. If Bach’s music sounds ‘wrong’ on the piano, then surely most of the blame must lie with the pianist. The instrument itself is, I find, ideal as it can be made to sing and dance as Bach demands. The difficulty is in making it sound easy.
The year after Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the date 1722 on the title page of his first set of twenty-four preludes and fugues, The Well-Tempered Clavier, he left the court of Anhalt-Cöthen to take up his duties as Kantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. During the next twenty-seven years until his death in 1750, he wrote a breathtaking amount of music—mostly sacred and secular cantatas, motets, Masses, Passions, and oratorios. Also from this time date the six keyboard Partitas, the completion of the French Suites, the Clavierübung II and III, the ‘Goldberg’ Variations, another set of twenty-four preludes and fugues and, in the last few years, The Musical Offering and The Art of the Fugue. It is therefore not surprising that he left us with no fair copy of what is now known as Book II of the ‘48’. Time must have been scarce! He also had to direct the Collegium Musicum, train and discipline unruly choirboys, play at weddings and funerals, and deal with the town authorities who were a constant source of annoyance. On top of all that, he and his wife Anna Magdalena added thirteen more children to their family—only six of whom survived infancy.
Bach did, however, leave us a composite manuscript, probably built up between 1739 and 1742. Each prelude and fugue is written out separately on a folded sheet of paper (prelude on one side, fugue on the other to avoid page turns), and several are copied out in Anna Magdalena’s hand. There is no title page, and three of them have been lost. Many corrections and revisions are visible, done at different times. After Bach’s death, this autograph probably went into the hands of his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, and we know that Muzio Clementi owned it in the nineteenth century. In 1896 it was acquired by the British Museum, where it remains today.
It would be easy if the story ended there. It does not. Bach continued to make revisions in copies belonging to his pupils right up until 1748—perhaps never giving us his final thoughts on the subject. The most important of these sources is the complete manuscript in the hand of Johann Christoph Altnickol (1719–1759) who became Bach’s son-in-law in 1749. It is dated 1744 and bears the title page:
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Second Part,
After Bach’s death, individual preludes and fugues were published in various theoretical treatises, but it wasn’t until 1801/2 that not one but three complete editions of the ‘48’ appeared. In the case of Book II, however, none was based on the British Library autograph which was then unknown. We have had to wait until the 1990s for editions to appear that take into account all of the available sources (the new Associated Board edited by Richard Jones, and the Neue Bach-Ausgabe edited by Alfred Dürr). The first English edition (a copy of which was passed down to me through my father’s family) was done by Samuel Wesley and C F Horn, and published in instalments between 1810 and 1813 (with a different price for subscribers and non-subscribers). In their introduction, Wesley and Horn make the following claim:
The 48 Preludes and Fugues, the first 12 of which are here presented to the Musical World (in a more correct manner than they have ever yet appeared, even in the Country where they were constructed) have always been regarded by the most scientific among scientific Musicians, (the Germans) as matchless Productions.
They give detailed recommendations on how to study them (slow practise, beginning with the less complicated ones), even advising the avoidance at first of those in C sharp major, E flat minor, and F minor ‘because they are set in Keys less in Use in England than upon the Continent, and therefore are at first puzzling’. Myriad signs are used in the text to mark each entry of the subject, its inversions, augmentations, and diminutions.
This complex history of Book II is the reason why so many variants appear in the editions we now have. In the end, of course, that is not the most important thing (bringing Bach’s music alive should be uppermost in the mind of the interpreter) but it is fascinating to see how his musical imagination was constantly seeking to embellish and improve. Indeed, several of the pieces survive in early versions probably dating from the 1720s and ’30s. For their inclusion in The Well-Tempered Clavier II they underwent extensive revisions, enlargements, and often transpositions.
It is futile to even attempt to say which book of the ‘48’ is the better. Both contain jewels of many colours. There are certainly differences, especially in the preludes which, in the second set, are on a much bigger scale (accounting for the extra half-hour playing time). Whereas in Book I only one prelude is in binary form (two sections both repeated), there are ten examples of this in Book II. The beginning of what was later called ‘sonata form’ is apparent in many of the preludes, with substantial amounts of thematic material being partially recapitulated—usually with a different distribution of parts and often in a key other than the tonic. There are no two- or five-part fugues in The Well-Tempered Clavier II, but some of the three-part ones are among his most ambitious. Certainly there are more pieces in Book I that are immediately familiar to us, making them more approachable to the listener and student, but undoubtedly Bach’s maturity and mastery of the genre is nowhere more brilliantly displayed than in this final set.
What does playing a prelude and fugue mean to a pianist these days? For most piano students it is a necessary part of an exam or an international piano competition—to be got through as best one can and, hopefully, without going wrong! Often they are approached too soon—long before a good grounding is established in the easier pieces of Bach. It is impossible to play a four- or five-voice fugue if you cannot already play cleanly in two or three voices. For many teachers it is perplexing, as Bach never wrote any tempo or expression marks in the score, and edited versions give conflicting opinions. For professional performers it is a great test of their abilities (and nerves!). Many prefer to play Bach transcriptions (by Liszt or Busoni, for instance) where it is easier to hide behind more notes and add the sustaining pedal. Artur Schnabel, one of the great pianists of the twentieth century, preferred not to perform The Well-Tempered Clavier in concert halls because he considered it too intimate. To become familiar with the complete ‘48’ is to discover the endless variety within them where no two preludes are alike, and every fugue is constructed in a different fashion.
The Well-Tempered Clavier has never ceased to be a source of inspiration, fascination and wonderment to professional musicians and music lovers. We have been told many times that, after his death, Bach’s music fell out of favour and that it was only ‘revived’ by Mendelssohn. That is partly true, of course, but Mendelssohn was introduced to it by his teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter, who himself had been a pupil of Johann Kirnberger, who in turn was a pupil of Bach. Zelter, the director of the Berlin Singakademie, counted among his friends the poet Goethe who often heard the young Mendelssohn performing Bach’s Fugues. Late in his life, Goethe made the following remark:
It was when my mind was in a state of perfect composure and free from external distractions, that I obtained the true impress of your grand master. I said to myself: it was as if the eternal harmony was conversing within itself, as it may have done in the bosom of God, just before the creation of the world.
Angela Hewitt © 2007
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