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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

The Well-tempered Clavier

John Butt (harpsichord)
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Recording details: July 2013
St Martin's Church, East Woodhay, Berkshire, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: November 2014
Total duration: 212 minutes 26 seconds
 

Prize-winning Bach specialist John Butt performs Das wohltemperierte Klavier, his first solo recording for Linn. Bach's seminal Well-Tempered Clavier is a work whose influence on composition and performance, as well as keyboard technique, remains as strong today as ever. This new performance has all of the insightful scholarship and musical excellence we have come to expect from Butt's feted recordings with his Dunedin Consort.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.

Reviews

'[John Butt's] account of Bach's 48 preludes and fugues is illuminating and thought provoking' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

‘John Butt's Olympian traversal is destined to be remembered … as a significant and enduring musical landmark. Be under no illusions—this is a colossal and revelatory feat, and a major addition both to the current Bach discography and to contemporary performance scholarship' (International Record Review)» More

'The basics of familiar gesture are utterly unexpected but also feel instinctively right' (Limelight, Australia)» More

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The influence of the Well-tempered Clavier has been remarkably continuous for a large-scale work of JS Bach; its reach has been widespread, if sometimes hidden from the glare of publicity. It has often proved seminal for later pioneers in composition and performance, providing a variety of models both for musical design and the honing of keyboard technique. But it is also true that many music lovers, musicians, composers and scholars of all levels have consistently found something worthwhile within it. This remarkable breadth of application seems to have been part of Bach’s intention, if his title page for the first volume is anything to go by: ‘For the profit and use of musical youth desiring instruction, and especially for the pastime of those who are already skilled in this study’. In other words, Bach himself designed the collection as something to be both supremely instructive but also enjoyable. The lexicographer Ernst Ludwig Gerber recalled that his father had heard these pieces first hand: Bach apparently played through the collection three times in all during the course of their lessons after both had tired of more formal study. On the other hand, the existence of numerous sources of individual pieces and groups of pieces suggests that the collection was compiled from a vast reservoir of preludes and fugues, not all of which were originally designed to be presented or played in sequence.

Much of Bach’s later output seems to have been designed to provide authoritative examples for professionals, pupils and interested amateurs, thus counteracting the growing taste for music that catered primarily to ephemeral fashions. But, almost paradoxically, many aspects of the WTC collection pointed as much to the future as to the past. Most obvious is Bach’s comprehensive survey of all the keys available within the tonal system. Although these had been theoretically possible for over a century, it was only relatively recently that keyboard instruments had been tuned in such a way as to render the less familiar keys more usable. Further, the very technique of keyboard fingering (and the standard proportions of keyboards) had hitherto excluded keys employing a large number of sharps or flats. A few composers before Bach had come close to covering most keys in a single collection (JC Fischer’s Ariadne musica of 1702 was an obvious influence) and the theorist Johannes Mattheson gave short examples in every key, but certainly not fully fledged pieces. The complex genesis of Bach’s collection shows that he experimented with several ways of grouping pieces by key before settling on the final scheme of covering the entire chromatic scale, from C, with the pieces presented in the pairing of major mode followed by the minor.

The very genre of ‘prelude and fugue’ might not have become so firmly established without Bach’s two encyclopaedic cycles. He inherited from older generations the genre of the ‘praeludium’ (alternatively ‘fantasia’ or ‘toccata’), a loose amalgam of free and fugal elements that can alternate in unpredictable ways. Although there was an increasing tendency to distil these two elements into two separate pieces, this remained only one option among several. What probably appealed to Bach about the pairing of prelude and fugue was the fact that the two corresponded to the two main sides of his musical personality. On the one hand, he was renowned well beyond his homeland as a supreme virtuoso performer who could improvise with total spontaneity (a fact that is all too easily forgotten today, when he is often labelled as a ‘composer’s composer’); on the other, he was undoubtedly the greatest musical thinker of his age, someone who could see inventive potential in any theme and who relished working out his thoughts on paper. The prelude–fugue pairing thus encapsulates Bach’s spontaneous, performative urge together with his more abstract, compositional thought. But it would be a mistake to suggest that all the preludes are ‘free’ and light-hearted, and all the fugues serious and ‘strict’. Indeed, having made the initial distinction, Bach positively delighted in mixing up these categories: a fugue might sound as characterful or carefree as a prelude, and a prelude might contain the complex musical devices that would normally be associated with fugue. One of the greatest aspects of Bach’s achievement as a composer was his ability to explore and ‘research’ a genre to a depth well beyond the norms of the day.

While it is customary to believe that Bach’s reputation plummeted in the latter half of the eighteenth century, that is really only true of his outward public image. For works such as the WTC had tremendous influence behind the scenes: Beethoven could play large sections by the age of 11 and Mozart kept the collection close to hand throughout the last decade of his life. The fact that such seminal figures had access to the work before it was available in print (the first editions appeared over 50 years after Bach’s death) is testament to an extremely healthy network of manuscript copies. The concept of grouped preludes, often with pedagogic intention, soon became commonplace: witness the wealth of preludes (or ‘studies’) from composers such as Czerny, Chopin, Debussy, Hindemith and Shostakovich.

Why did such seemingly complex and ancient music rise to fame in the age of Romanticism? Schumann viewed the WTC as a collection of ‘character pieces’, thus aligning them with his own value system. But many of the pieces are indeed ‘character pieces’, in that they grasp a particular affect, compositional device or quality of movement, and explore it in the finest detail. If each piece is bound by ‘rules’, those rules are developed for that piece alone, often in the course of its individual progress. What to Bach may have been an exploration of the implications of a single inventive complex seems to have struck the Romantic generation as the manifestation of a certain refinement of spirit accessible only through the greatest music, where an individuality intimates a broader universality. Bach’s seemingly archaic musical world, steeped in an all-embracing religious order and sharing concepts of music that stretch back to Pythagorean times, was born afresh in the new era of Romantic aesthetics and has remained an indispensable element of Western culture ever since.

Book I
Although legend has it that Bach composed Book I of the Well-tempered Clavier during a time of discontent and boredom, and without access to an instrument, many of the pieces were in fact drawn together from a variety of earlier sources and the process of composition and compilation was relatively protracted (the volume reached its present form in 1722, just before Bach moved to Leipzig, but was still being revised thereafter). Certainly the notion of compiling a collection of pieces in every possible key must have required some thought. Early versions of some of the preludes are found in the Klavierbüchlein that Bach prepared for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, in 1720–21. What is immediately clear about that collection is the fact that Bach’s primary aim was to facilitate the acquisition of keyboard technique and also acquaint the nine-year-old with the basics of composition. Many of the pieces are based on an arpeggiation or motivic development of simple progressions of chords. The C major and D major Preludes contain relatively simple sequences of chords, yet by casting one as an arpeggio piece and the other as a moto perpetuo for the right hand, Bach produced movements that are clearly distinct. The young Friedemann would thus have learned that composition can begin with a simple rearrangement of pre-existent patterns, and that by exploring some of the standard figuration one simultaneously exercised one’s keyboard skills. Much of the basis for composition was thus, literally, ‘in the fingers’.

It is clear from other sources that Bach decided on the prelude–fugue pairing early on in the process. Later he settled on the notion of covering every single key, in chromatic order. He also devised a pattern of sorts by which every fourth fugue (e.g. C sharp minor, D sharp minor, F minor and so on) is more extensive and exploits specific fugal techniques (this aspect has been discussed in great detail by David Ledbetter). The earliest surviving version of the first book is preserved in a copy made some 50 years after Bach’s death, and here the preludes are sometimes shorter and simpler in construction. Bach’s biographer, JN Forkel, writing at around the same time, believed these to reflect Bach’s ultimate intentions (rather than—precisely the opposite—his earlier efforts): the composer had apparently removed everything that was ‘superfluous’ and ‘tasteless’, thus producing a finer perfection than before. This is a revealing insight into how the tastes of any particular age not only colour one’s opinion of a composer but also one’s belief about his development and maturation. It now seems clear that Bach tended to lengthen pieces (of all kinds) over time, to draw more implications out of the material and to develop it as far as possible. This reflects the same urge that is evident in his lessons for Friedemann: every pattern or idea can be developed, and any extant piece can be reused and reworked. Indeed, the date of the autograph manuscript, 1722, is not the end of the story: Bach kept tinkering with the pieces for at least another 20 years. Here was a composer who was constantly striving for perfection; yet there is also a way in which the pieces are ultimately open-ended, as if absolute perfection can never quite be achieved in this world. Were Bach to have lived a few more decades, one might predict that he would still have been working on many pieces that today seem so ‘finished’ and established.

Given the relative novelty of the binary conception of prelude and fugue, it is remarkable how well Bach ‘knew’ the genre and was able to explore every possibility within something that he was simultaneously inventing. The traditional conception of the ‘praeludium’ (i.e. one that presents an alternation of free and fugal elements) survives in the Prelude in E flat major—often assumed to be one of the earliest pieces in the collection—a weighty amalgam of fugue and loose imitative fantasia that stands in striking contrast to the levity of the fugue itself. It is almost as if Bach were reversing the connotations of the two genres, ‘seriousness’ devolving to the prelude and lightness and simplicity to the fugue. Other preludes work like ‘inventions’, where both hands have similar melodic material and thus cultivate independence of line and hand (e.g. Preludes in F major and F sharp major). The B flat Prelude develops the fingers in another way, combining an arpeggiated idiom with fast virtuoso passages. This texture—with its rhetorical chordal interjections—recalls the free, quasi-improvised toccatas of Bach’s youth and the fearsome cadenzas of his concertos for solo harpsichord.

Bach, on the title page to his Inventions and Sinfonias, referred to the need for the keyboard player to develop a ‘cantabile’ style of playing: in other words, a singing manner that is intuitively harder to accomplish in the keyboard medium than the vocal. The WTC I is replete with pieces that cultivate melody (quite contrary to common perceptions—both then and now—that Bach lacked a basic melodic facility): particularly striking is the haunting Prelude in E flat minor, an intensely expressive melody over a strumming chordal ccompaniment; the C sharp minor Prelude combines the idea of aria with polyphony, by which the melodic line is shared between the hands. The cantabile style encompasses both the relatively relaxed, lyrical aria (E major) and the lament (B flat minor). Perhaps most striking in terms of keyboard style are those pieces that adopt other recent instrumental idioms, such as trio sonata (B minor Prelude) or concerto (A flat Prelude): in the latter, Bach manages to create the impression of a larger texture (paradoxically, using relatively few notes) with a striking ‘tutti’ opening and hints of ritornello form.

While some fugues look backwards to the severity of Renaissance counterpoint (e.g. B flat minor, in five voices), all encapsulate a particular mood or character and the compositional technique is usually directed towards dramatic effect. The episodes (i.e. those sections where the subject is absent) are particularly well profiled in the C minor Fugue, where a sense of expectation for the next entry is continuously cultivated (sometimes by a false—that is, incomplete—entry of the subject). Episodes are also an important element of the E flat Fugue, in which the mood alternates between fleet brilliance and levity. The G major Fugue—one of the longest—sets up a pattern of perpetual motion in a dance-like metre, and, with a touch of the minor mode towards the end, drives towards a dramatic conclusion that recalls something of the ‘public’ genre of the concerto. Despite its outwardly dramatic nature, this is in fact one of the most complex pieces: the subject is presented in inversion (i.e. where the direction, up or down, of every successive note is reversed) and stretto (where the subject chases itself at a closer distance than usual). In other words, Bach often relishes hiding his skill as a contrapuntalist, the most sophisticated ‘tricks’ often serving a more dramatic or affective end. Most ambitious in this respect is the very extensive A minor Fugue, which exploits different manipulations of the subject in almost unrelenting succession. Again, Bach seems keen to capitalize on the dramatic potential of his material, particularly through the frequent pedals and the dramatic pause towards the end. Conversely, as Laurence Dreyfus has observed, he also contrives to make pieces that are relatively simple in construction sound particularly impressive and ‘formal’ (most obviously the D major Fugue).

The opening C major Fugue is one of the most complex for its use of stretto: the main theme combines with itself at a variety of distances, yet we hear the piece as a real narrative event, not as a mere academic exercise. It also has a noticeable binary nature, with a strong cadence and resumption of movement near the centre; this notion of balanced sections lying behind an intensification of narrative is common to many of the WTC fugues. We therefore gain a sense of both cyclical and progressive time. Some of the fugues in the minor mode are among the most severe (particularly those coming in fourth place throughout the collection): of these, the G minor is the most dramatic while the B minor is the most monumental. The latter pleased Schoenberg two centuries later, for including all 12 notes of the chromatic scale in its subject; however, we still hear the piece as unmistakably tonal, each chromatic step grounding the home key with a greater depth of colour and expression. Bach undoubtedly felt this to be a fitting end to a collection that, in its sequence of keys, had itself covered every note of the chromatic scale.

Book II
Bach may well have thought he had finished the Well-tempered Clavier on completing the manuscript of what we now call Book I in 1722. In the event, the collection continued through various stages of revision; and while he was still completing that process in the early 1740s, Bach compiled a second set of pieces, which had doubtlessly arisen out of his teaching and performing over the intervening decades. It would be a mistake to suggest that this is a mere ‘overflow’ from the earlier collection. Many of the pieces went through a long gestation and Bach transposed a number to fit the sequence of keys in the new collection (as he had also done for Book I). In all, Book II represents the largest and most varied collection of Bach’s later years and reflects his increasing interest in the breadth of music history as he saw it, ranging from pieces harking back to the severe contrapuntal restrictions of the late sixteenth century (the so-called stile antico) and those in the most modern galant idiom, some of which display the characteristics of the fledgling sonata form. It is interesting here that Bach intuited a sort of dramatic potential in the polarities of the tonal system that was to become absolutely central to the ‘Classical style’.

An autograph of most of the preludes and fugues of WTC II survives (in the British Library: one of the finest Bach manuscripts outside Germany), but it does not present every pair in its most finished state. Rather it is a component in a relatively long process of compilation stretching from c1738 to 1742, one that was subsequently continued in later copies and (lost) autographs. As with the first volume of the WTC, there is a sense in which the project as a whole is open-ended and that Bach found it difficult to stop refining his work. One particularly notable feature of the London manuscript is the fact that some pieces are written out by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena. Sometimes (e.g. the F major Prelude), Bach takes over the copying halfway through, perhaps because her calligraphy was too broad for her to complete the piece on the same side of the sheet. More often than not, Bach seems to have delegated the copying of pieces that required the least compositional attention, those that he considered most finished in their basic structure (although he would add details and revisions in his own hand). This gives a fascinating insight into the way Bach notated and copied some of his music: the husband-and-wife team often produced manuscripts as master copies, or even for sale (as in Anna Magdalena’s score of the cello suites), in a sort of cottage industry that allowed Bach to prioritize his work according to the degree of input required.

Some of the most interesting pieces with respect to the development of Bach’s composing career are the ten preludes cast in binary form (i.e. in two halves, each of which can be repeated). While he had written binary pieces since his earliest years, most of these were dances with more-or-less predictable phrasing and rhythms appropriate to each type of dance. Less common in his earlier career was the concept of a ‘free’ (i.e. non-dance) texture in binary form: WTC I contains only one such piece (the B minor Prelude). But by the time he came to compile WTC II, his sons were already catching on to the newer idiom. Typically, the older Bach not only adopted the new format with gusto but also managed to demonstrate considerable variety in the form, as if he had been using it for years. Some examples follow Bach’s typical ‘invention’ style, where the two hands constantly alternate with matching figuration (C minor, D sharp minor, E minor). The E major Prelude presents one of the most subtle textures among the binary movements. We sometimes hear the upper voices as a single line with certain notes sustained and, conversely, each voice sometimes implies more than one line of music. Herein lies the essence of Bach’s ‘cantabile’ style, a sure sense of direction or ‘line’ that cannot necessarily be pinned down to a single melody; perhaps this is what Debussy alluded to as Bach’s sense of the ‘arabesque’.

The most ambitious binary prelude is that in D major, which presents a concerto-like—almost orchestral—texture, a ‘recapitulation’ of the opening in the last third of the piece, and a contrast of mood (and indeed division of the beat) in the very first bars. This last, not uncommon in Bach’s later pieces, represents a modification of the traditional Baroque idiom of exploring a single affect exhaustively in the course of each movement. The Preludes in F minor and G sharp minor are among the most ‘modern’ pieces Bach ever composed (in the sense of being up-to-date by the tastes of Bach’s later years). The texture is simple, paired ‘sighing’ voices responding to a regular bass, alternating with repetitive motivic patterns. Here we have an even more overt sense of alternation of ideas (one reinforced by dynamic markings in the G sharp minor Prelude—a unique occurrence in the entire WTC). But, typically, Bach integrates these in the course of the piece, his urge for counterpoint working in the sense of combining various styles and allusions as well as actual musical lines. We could imagine the ambiguous reaction of a modish, galant composer of Bach’s time. One might feel flattered by the old composer’s adoption of the new fashion; but was he perhaps sending it up? or did he fundamentally miss its essence of airy simplicity? or, perhaps—worst of all for his contemporaries—did he simply not care what anyone thought?

The interest of WTC II hardly lies exclusively in its ‘sonata’ movements: from the very opening we get a sense that Bach was trying to encompass ever more variety, to write on a grander scale than he had in WTC I. The C major pair went through several revisions that show Bach attempting to increase the scale of the piece and extend the depth of musical argument. The prelude, like its partner in the first collection, makes a striking opening, adopting a mood of untroubled confidence: yet here the writing is more ambitious, the counterpoint more delineated. A similarly rich sonority occurs in the F major Prelude, which combines old-fashioned features—a four- or five-part texture, and the stile brisé of French harpsichord music—with the modern sonata and its recapitulation of the opening gestures. The arpeggiated ‘beginner’s style’ makes only the occasional appearance in the later collection. But the first example, the C sharp major Prelude (which, in harmonic shape, is very much like the C major Prelude that opens Book I), contains a surprise, when the texture breaks into a short, triple-time fughetta. These two parts originally formed a prelude and fugue in their own right, but in the context of the grander proportions of the WTC as a whole, they here form a single prelude. The brilliant finger-work of Bach’s youth also returns in the later collection: the D minor Prelude was one movement that Bach lengthened and elaborated in the course of compiling the collection. In direct contrast, he also adopts a lilting, pastorale style in some preludes: those in C sharp minor and E flat major (both in the relatively rare metre of 9/8), and the Prelude in A major.

The fugues, like the preludes, extend the variety already evident in the first collection. While there are fewer fugues in a large number of voices (although the four-part fugues are among the most impressive of the entire collection), many of the fugues match the scale and complexity of those in Bach’s late contrapuntal collections (Bach was actually preparing the early version of The Art of Fugue at around the time he was finishing WTC II). The subjects on which the fugues are based are often very characterful (e.g. the F major Fugue), and sometimes ‘modern’ in their contrast of motives. The D minor Fugue couples easy-going triplet motion with a descending chromatic phrase (thus presenting an antithesis of moods in its opening gesture); likewise, the E minor Fugue presents a contrast of triplets with duple divisions and dotted rhythms. The A minor Fugue opens with a figure that was common property in the eighteenth century (see, for instance, ‘And with his stripes’ from Handel’s Messiah and the ‘Kyrie’ of Mozart’s Requiem), yet Bach develops it in a way that would have been impossible in a choral setting: building on the intensification of movement in the subject, the countersubject introduces demisemiquavers that render this one of the most fiery pieces in the collection. Most enterprising in terms of compositional effort are the double and triple fugues (i.e. fugues that present more than one subject in succession, then combine them later in the piece). In the C sharp minor Fugue we soon hear the subject presented in inversion against itself (usually more than enough to demonstrate a composer’s skill), but later on what sounds like a chromatic countermelody becomes a subject in its own right, one that effortlessly combines with the main subject. The F sharp minor is the only triple fugue in WTC II; here the later subjects give the impression of increasingly light musical styles, and the entire texture is transformed by the continuous semiquavers of the third subject. What begins as a relatively solemn piece in a ‘learned’ style thus progressively gains a narrative and dramatic character. Most impressive of all in terms of fugal technique is the B flat minor Fugue, which reprises much of the systematic exploitation of fugal devices found in the A minor Fugue of Book I. But—in perhaps a rare example of Bach’s abilities improving between the two collections—here the overall progress is less relentless and uncompromising; there is an ease and new-found sonorousness.

One particularly satisfying device in the fugues of WTC II is augmentation, whereby a subject is sounded against itself at half speed; in the C minor Fugue it is readily audible, as if to remind us of the correspondences between different levels in the natural world, or in mathematics. Indeed, the more conservative thought of Bach’s age would have seen resemblances between things that we might consider quite distinct; part of fugal technique lay in developing and manipulating music in order to reveal those resemblances. Bach doubtless considered much of his compositional activity to be more a process of discovery than of entirely original invention.

Most strict of all in its adherence to quasi-Renaissance rules is the E major Fugue (Bach—ever the student—acquired Fux’s seminal 1725 contrapuntal treatise in the late 1720s). This ‘late’ adoption of an ‘early’ idiom generates a resonant, supremely vocal style that seems to transcend the qualities of any keyboard instrument. But by no means do all the fugues capitalize on the seriousness connected with the genre: the C sharp major Fugue is an extremely light-hearted affair that seems almost to parody the technique of overlapping successive entries of the (brief and seemingly inconsequential) subject. Comedy and light-heartedness also play a large part in the F major Fugue, which, as Donald Francis Tovey observed, became the bane of textbook writers since it fulfils so few of the requirements demanded of an ‘academic’ fugue. Other fugues, such as those in F minor and F sharp major, adopt some of the sighing gestures of the galant, the idiom that was perhaps most antithetical to fugue in the 1740s. To Bach this was probably a demonstration that even the trivial and transitory could be rendered profound; to many of his contemporaries this would have been a lamentable show of bad taste, a total perversion of the ‘natural’.

John Butt 2014

Approaches in this recording
This recording sets out, in particular, to explore two aspects of the entire WTC collection. First, it is based on recent editions that present the latest possible stage of Bach’s thoughts for each book (Richard Jones’s Associated Board Edition of Book I and Yo Tomita’s Henle Edition of Book II). Most editions and virtually all recorded performances present at least some versions of passages that reflect earlier stages. It should be stressed, however, that Bach seems never to have drawn a line under the collection, particularly Book II. Moreover, it is clear that he often developed pieces in different sources and therefore did not always pursue a consistent line of ‘improvement’. In other words, the ‘Fassung letzter Hand’ approach, which I take here, is not necessarily the only justifiable one; but it is certainly worth exploring.

The second—and more substantial—aspect of approach relates to tempo and tempo relationships, and draws on and develops the work of Robert Marshall and Don Franklin, as well as some of my own earlier research. There is very little that is absolutely certain about Bach’s attitude to tempo and tempo relations, and, if a system seems to emerge at some points, it is not consistently applied or necessarily applicable to a broader range of cases. Therefore, my approach to this issue in performance can only claim to use historical evidence as a starting point for some new ways of cultivating relationships and continuity in performance today.

When we think about issues of tempo in music before 1800 we might sometimes be led to aim for a specific metronome mark, one that could not have been easily established in Bach’s age, but one towards which we might assume the original performers were aiming. But perhaps the various shards of historical evidence and thought that we can find suggest rather that this is substituting an end result for a much more productive process; in other words, the actual speed seems to have been a by-product of several other considerations. Here then, history might inspire us to think of several dimensions simultaneously—say, pulse, notation, genre, mood, harmonic rhythm, range of note values—rather than aiming for a specific, ideal tempo. While we can never recreate the thought processes of another age, we may at least be able to share in some of the ways in which performers might have combined ideas and parameters.

In the absence of any metronomic absolute, the most common historical reference to any standard—a tempo ordinario, as it is sometimes called—relates to the human pulse. The connection of the tactus to the human pulse already had a history of several centuries, so it is tempting to abstract from this some sort of consistency with Renaissance practice. For JJ Quantz, writing in the middle of the eighteenth century, the association between music and pulse is more one of convenience than of spiritual connection; but it is from multiples and divisions of the human pulse that he derives four basic levels of speed. What other writers, most importantly JG Walther, also suggest is that the pulse itself is very prone to variation according to age, gender, temperament, mood and illness. So, we might imagine, the relation of the pulse to something between 60 and 85 beats a minute is only a sort of standard measurement and not to be applied in every possible case. The background pulse seems to relate to the broadest range of the human experience, but not, say, to the animal world, or to the type of pulse possible with the machinery of the industrial age. What Quantz’s system suggests is that all tempi can relate to the human pulse at some level, but that there is quite a variety within this. Moreover, there is clearly the possibility of a proportional relationship between different metres.

JP Kirnberger, writing a little later, claimed to codify all he had learned from Bach. He relates tempo to manifold aspects of mood and representation and recommends that each metre is best learned through associated dances. He suggests that we imagine tempo like different forms of water-flow, from the gentlest stream to the wildest sea. Not only this, but each metre brings with it a ‘natural tempo’—its tempo giusto, which is itself modified by dance style. Having this as a starting point, one next looks at the shortest prevailing note value, which will normally moderate the tempo, the shorter the value. Only then does Kirnberger mention Italian terms, suggesting that they can make the estimate of both tempo and expression more precise: they might point to something that one would not otherwise have guessed from the metre, genre and shortest note value. In all, what is attractive about Kirnberger’s system is its multiplicity of factors, all mutually inflecting, which together generate a tempo. Like Quantz, he suggests that each metre implies a sort of tempo giusto, or tempo ordinario, which is the starting point for gauging speed, although he does not specifically relate this to the human pulse.

Among several rules of thumb, Marshall usefully adapts Quantz’s practice to suggest that Bach’s ‘normal’ relation of duple simple time to compound is to preserve the beat in simple time as the hemiola of the compound (i.e. one beat of a simple time, like 2/4, becomes two-thirds of a beat in 6/8, so that each compound beat gains a half value—an extra quaver); to put it simply, the quaver in simple time would be the same length as a quaver in compound. For faster tempi, on the other hand, the compound unit would equal the beat of the simple (i.e. the three quaver subdivisions in compound time would fill the space of two in simple time). Franklin’s hypotheses, based largely on Kirnberger, are more elaborate and suggest that pieces belonging together can actually relate to one another and that Bach will often employ a fermata at the end of a piece or subsection to indicate that the prevailing tempo giusto is to be cancelled and reset.

In studying Bach’s Mass in B minor, I have summarized several approaches to the relation between successive sections. In short, if certain continuities or proportions of pulse are observed, there can be a 1:1 or 1:2 relation between the durational lengths of certain successive sections (most of these are explored in my recording of the Mass, which also observes tempo connections where Bach omitted fermatas between movements or indicated some form of ‘sequitur’). So far as tempo indications and the placing of fermatas are concerned in the WTC, it is unlikely that Bach’s practice was completely consistent across the quarter century involved, and no one source provides unequivocal evidence of his final, refined thoughts. Furthermore, it is absolutely clear that individual components of the WTC were composed at different times and that any relationship between successive pairs (and sometimes even within the pair) was not necessarily determined at the point of composition. Moreover, the loose double-sheet structure of the London autograph of Book II suggests that the individual pairs could be taken out and played separately (each is designed so that the prelude was on one side and the fugue on the other, although recomposition and extensions often meant that one of the movements had to spill over on to the other side of the sheet). While the collection could clearly be used for many purposes, ranging between pedagogy, performance and private pleasure, the approach here is to consider how tempo relations might be established between certain pieces in the collection. I shall briefly describe these relations in five categories.

Category 1. Where does a tempo relation seem to be excluded by Bach’s use of fermatas? Here, we might presume, a new tempo giusto is set for the fugue, without reference to the prelude. One example of this might be the D minor Prelude of Book I, for there is a fermata on both the last chord and over the final barline (coupled with the direction ‘verte sequitur Fuga’). Here, then, a huge gap does not seem to be implied, but the tempo is basically reset.

Category 2. Where does a consistent tempo between prelude and fugue seem implied? In Book I the F major Prelude contains 18 bars of 12/8 and the fugue 72 bars of 3/8: so if the pulse is indeed identical, the two pieces are of the same duration.

Category 3. Where might there be a direct 1:2 or 2:1 proportion between prelude and fugue? An obvious example here is the B major Prelude and Fugue of Book II, where the prelude is in 4/4 time, the fugue proceeding with the same beat transferred to the minim (Bach’s very careful notating of rests at the end of the prelude, without fermata, seems to imply a precise connection).

Category 4. Where might there be a more complex relationship between prelude and fugue? One example could be the C sharp minor Prelude and Fugue of Book I, where (given the evidence that triple metres are often faster than duple) the 6/4 bar of the prelude might equal a 4/4 bar of tempo giusto. Then, assuming the stroke in the C time signature of the fugue carries its traditional implication of halving the pulse (and thus doubling the speed), one bar of the latter piece would be equal to half a bar of the old (thus three crotchets of the prelude would relate to two minims of the fugue).

Category 5. If already much of this suggests a degree of speculation that is justified only to the extent that it generates relatively integrated connections between prelude and fugue, what about potential relations between pairs? These would obviously only pertain if one decided to perform the pieces in succession. In Book I, the C minor Fugue sets up a pulse that can be modified by the addition of a quaver in the C sharp major Prelude (thus the fugue’s pulse is essentially the hemiola of the succeeding prelude), or for a faster performance, following Quantz, this could also be done with the 3/8 metre squashed into one beat of the fugue. In Book II, the C sharp major Fugue could set up the crotchet pulse of the C sharp minor Prelude (which, with the addition of a quaver, is thus slower). From here the quick pulse of the C sharp minor Fugue can be abstracted directly from three semiquavers of the prelude and, finally, the D major Prelude returns to the pulse of the C sharp minor Prelude, but with the prominent falling gestures, beginning in bar 2 with a duple division of the beat, the pulse of the C sharp minor Fugue, just past, is also integrated. In all then, the D major Prelude would function to sum up the two types of pulse from the two previous pieces.

I have to stress that all the decisions based on tempo relations are starting points rather than precise goals; the actual relationships may be quite imprecise at times. The intention is to reveal some sort of connection between different pieces, even if it is a connection that leads to a marked contrast of mood or embodied movement. It is well known that Gottfried Leibniz frequently used music as a metaphor—but also an analogue—for the coherence of the world and our part in it. Its beauty and emotional power are, to him, precisely calculated in the pre-established harmony and all sounds we hear relate to mathematical ratios. Leibniz further asserts that our souls somehow intuit the calculations involved, relating to the beats and vibrations behind harmony, and that we experience this as pleasure. He extends this idea towards the progression of beats in time: the rhythms that make up the pulses of individual notes are part of a plenum of pulses that includes the rhythm, metre and overall order of music. The general enlightenment imperatives towards empathy and harmony according to universal principles represent what one might call a ‘one-world worldview’. The enlightenment was most concerned with the world in which we live and one in which the human is the central point of interest.

In short, the sorts of tempo relation I have been suggesting, together with the central analogy with the human pulse, relate to what I would describe as the ‘one-world’ view, a world with its own immense variety and regularities, and one in which the human seems meant to feel ‘at home’, since both the variety and the regularity have analogies with our own bodies and their functioning. Thus I would distinguish my ‘one-world’ performance from the ‘multi-world’ style of many WTC performances. The latter are absolutely authentic to a world in which human capabilities, indeed the human imagination itself, are extended beyond any possible experience on the part of a single person. In the ‘multi-world’ view there is both wonderment at super-human possibilities and horror and alienation at our tiny place in such a daunting scheme. So are my one-world tendencies here simply naïve, just like Leibniz’s view of our inhabiting the most perfect of possible worlds? Certainly, there is the danger of this, but perhaps there are great advantages in being reminded of the one-world view in our own multi-world state. After all, the basic workings of our bodies have not changed that much since the eighteenth century, and our being grounded in the possibilities and variations of our own pulse, and the type of embodiment that this may imply, is hardly just wishful thinking.

John Butt 2014

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