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No 01 in C major, BWV846. Movement 1: Prelude
No 01 in C major, BWV846. Movement 2: Fugue
No 01 in C major, BWV846a. Movement 1: Prelude
No 02 in C minor, BWV847. Movement 1: Prelude
No 02 in C minor, BWV847. Movement 2: Fugue
No 03 in C sharp major, BWV848. Movement 1: Prelude
No 03 in C sharp major, BWV848. Movement 2: Fugue
No 03 in C sharp major, BWV848: Prelude & Fugue
No 04 in C sharp minor, BWV849. Movement 1: Prelude
No 04 in C sharp minor, BWV849. Movement 2: Fugue
No 05 in D major, BWV850. Movement 1: Prelude
No 05 in D major, BWV850. Movement 2: Fugue
No 06 in D minor, BWV851. Movement 1: Prelude
No 06 in D minor, BWV851. Movement 2: Fugue
No 07 in E flat major, BWV852. Movement 1: Prelude
No 07 in E flat major, BWV852. Movement 2: Fugue
No 08 in E flat minor, BWV853. Movement 1: Prelude
No 08 in E flat minor, BWV853. Movement 2: Fugue
No 08 in E flat/D sharp minor, BWV853. Movement 1: Prelude
No 08 in E flat/D sharp minor, BWV853. Movement 2: Fugue
No 09 in E major, BWV854. Movement 1: Prelude
No 09 in E major, BWV854. Movement 2: Fugue
No 1 in C major, BWV846. Movement 2: Fugue in B flat major
No 10 in E minor, BWV855. Movement 1: Prelude
No 10 in E minor, BWV855. Movement 2: Fugue
No 11 in F major, BWV856. Movement 1: Prelude
No 11 in F major, BWV856. Movement 2: Fugue
No 12 in F minor, BWV857. Movement 1: Prelude
No 12 in F minor, BWV857. Movement 2: Fugue
No 13 in F sharp major, BWV858. Movement 1: Prelude
No 13 in F sharp major, BWV858. Movement 2: Fugue
No 14 in F sharp minor, BWV859. Movement 1: Prelude
No 14 in F sharp minor, BWV859. Movement 2: Fugue
No 15 in G major, BWV860. Movement 1: Prelude
No 15 in G major, BWV860. Movement 2: Fugue
No 16 in G minor, BWV861. Movement 1: Prelude
No 16 in G minor, BWV861. Movement 2: Fugue
No 17 in A flat major, BWV862. Movement 1: Prelude
No 17 in A flat major, BWV862. Movement 2: Fugue
No 18 in G sharp minor, BWV863. Movement 1: Prelude
No 18 in G sharp minor, BWV863. Movement 2: Fugue
No 19 in A major, BWV864. Movement 1: Prelude
No 19 in A major, BWV864. Movement 2: Fugue
No 20 in A minor, BWV865. Movement 1: Prelude
No 20 in A minor, BWV865. Movement 2: Fugue
No 21 in B flat major, BWV866. Movement 1: Prelude
No 21 in B flat major, BWV866. Movement 2: Fugue
No 22 in B flat minor, BWV867. Movement 1: Prelude
No 22 in B flat minor, BWV867. Movement 1: Prelude in G minor
No 22 in B flat minor, BWV867. Movement 2: Fugue
No 23 in B major, BWV868. Movement 1: Prelude
No 23 in B major, BWV868. Movement 2: Fugue
No 24 in B minor, BWV859. Movement 1: Prelude
No 24 in B minor, BWV859. Movement 2: Fugue
No 24 in B minor, BWV869. Movement 1: Prelude
No 24 in B minor, BWV869. Movement 2: Fugue
No 8 in E flat minor, BWV853. Movement 1: Prelude in D minor
Much of Bach’s later output seems to have been designed to provide authoritative examples, counteracting the growing taste for music that catered primarily to ephemeral fashions. But, almost paradoxically, many aspects of The Well-Tempered Clavier 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. Moreover, the very technique of keyboard fingering (and the standard proportions of keyboards) had hitherto excluded keys employing a large number of sharps and flats. A few composers before Bach had come close to covering most keys in a single collection (J C Fischer’s Ariadne musica of 1702 was an obvious influence on Bach) and the theorist Johannes Mattheson gave short examples in every key, but not fully fledged pieces. The complex genesis of Bach’s collections 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 first the major and then the minor mode.
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. Certainly, there was an increasing tendency to distill these two elements into two separate pieces, but, in Bach’s youth, this was still only one option among several. What probably appealed to Bach about the pairing of prelude and fugue was the fact that these 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 labeled 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 all the fugues are serious and ‘strict’. Indeed, having made the initial distinction, Bach positively relished mixing up these categories: a fugue might sound as characterful or carefree as a prelude, and a prelude may 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, this is really only true of his outward public image. For works such as The Well-Tempered Clavier had tremendous influence ‘behind the scenes’: Beethoven could play large sections by the age of eleven, and Mozart kept it 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 fifty years after Bach’s death) suggests that there must have been an extremely healthy network of manuscript copies. Soon after The Well-Tempered Clavier entered the public field at the outset of the new century, the concept of grouped preludes, often with pedagogic intention, became commonplace: witness the plethora 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 Well-Tempered Clavier 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, exploring this to the finest detail. If each piece is bound by ‘rules’, these are rules developed for this 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 of music, an individuality intimating 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.
Although legend has it that Bach composed The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I during a time of discontent and boredom, without access to an instrument, many of the pieces were drawn together from a variety of earlier sources and the process of composition and compilation was relatively protracted (reaching the present form in 1722, just before Bach moved to Leipzig). 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 Clavierbüchlein that Bach prepared for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, in 1720–21. What is immediately clear about this collection is the fact that Bach’s primary aim was to facilitate keyboard technique and also acquaint the nine-year-old with the basics of composition. Many of these 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 pieces that are clearly distinct. The young Friedemann would thus have learned that composition can begin with a simple re-arrangement of pre-existent patterns and, 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. The earliest version of the first book is preserved in a copy made some fifty years after Bach death, and here the preludes are sometimes shorter and simpler in construction. Bach’s biographer J N 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 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 twenty years. We gain the sense of 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 on earth. 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, exploring 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, a weighty amalgam of fugue and loose imitative fantasia that lies 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. the Prelude in F sharp minor). The B flat major 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 toccata of Bach’s youth or 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 melody that is intuitively harder to accomplish in the keyboard medium than the vocal. Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier is replete with pieces that cultivate melody (quite contrary to common perceptions—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 accompaniment; 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 major Prelude): in the latter, Bach manages to create the impression of a larger texture (paradoxically, with relatively few notes) with a striking ‘tutti’ opening and hints of the ritornello form.
While some fugues look backwards to the severity of Renaissance counterpoint (B flat minor) 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 the sense of expectation for the next entry is continuously cultivated (such as with a ‘false entry’ of the subject). Episodes are also a major element of the E flat major Fugue where 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, recalling something of the ‘public’ genre of the concerto. Despite the outwardly dramatic nature of this Fugue, this is in fact one of the most complex pieces, presenting the subject in inversion (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. 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 in that its main theme combines with itself at a variety of distances (stretto); yet we hear it as a real narrative event, not as a mere academic exercise. More severe are some of the fugues in the minor mode: of these, the G minor is the most dramatic while the B minor is the most monumental. This latter pleased Schoenberg, two centuries later, for including all twelve notes of the chromatic scale in its subject: however, we still hear the piece as unmistakably tonal, each chromatic step grounding its 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.
from notes by John Butt © 2009