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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

The Well-tempered Clavier Book 2

Jill Crossland (piano)
2CDs Download only
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: August 2004
West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Ying Chang
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: May 2008
Total duration: 156 minutes 52 seconds

Completed by 1742, Book 2 was intended as a complement to Book 1, not as a replacement. It is generally far more difficult than Book 1 however, with greater technical and structural difficulty for the performer. It was the ultimate workbook, open to constant change and refining by Bach himself. In Jill Crossland’s own words, ‘No other music is so perfect an integration of emotional expression and intellectual rigour’. Jill first performed the complete Well-tempered Clavier from memory as a student in Manchester.


'At its best, Crossland’s Bach is intimately scaled and sensitively nuanced, abetted by engineering that reproduces her dulcet sonority in the loveliest light' (Gramophone)
Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier Book 2
Book 2 is complex. Long, harmonically advanced, chromatically fascinating, it is less accessible to listen to and forbiddingly demanding to play. No wonder that Bach’s contemporaries sometimes found him hard to follow, so ferociously was he prepared to think about and develop the implications of genre, counterpoint and structure in his work. Although Book 2’s intellectual riches and emotional depth are inexhaustible, in popularity it has always been the poor relation to its predecessor.

Moreover, if Book 1 was the apotheosis of the keyboard primer, safely preserved in Bach’s own fair copy, Book 2 was the ultimate workbook, open to constant change and refining. No single definitive text can be established; Bach was constantly experimenting and perfecting, and it is easy to imagine him playing different versions on different days. Busoni’s aphorism, that Book 1 was for performers and Book 2 for composers, is true in two senses, as a description of the two Books as instruction manuals for Busoni’s own contemporaries, and as an enactment of how the manuscripts functioned in Bach’s own teaching life.

Book 2 of the Well-tempered Clavier was collected from 1738 and probably completed by 1742, about twenty years after Book 1. We know it was intended in some way to acknowledge its predecessor simply because the title page of most copies includes the words Zweiter Teil ('Part Two', though English usage is generally ‘Books’ 1 and 2), but it is a separate collection.

Book 2 was written during a period of Bach’s life when many keyboard works appeared, the Clavierübungen Parts 2 and 3, the 'Goldberg' Variations of 1741 and the first version of the Art of Fugue. As with these other works, it exemplifies Bach’s inexhaustible musical appetite for different styles, old and new, French, German and Italian.

Unlike later composers, Bach did not write either confessional letters or explanations of his compositions. So much Bach scholarship is a mixture of detective work and deeply informed speculation, although the recollections of his pupils are a generally reliable source of evidence.

From research done on the sources, there is good evidence that in general, the preludes and fugues in the commoner keys, the ones with fewer sharps or flats, were written first, probably by 1738-9, and also that a few (No 2 in C minor and No 17 in A flat) were written at the end to complete the collection. As before, there is no necessary connection between each prelude and its fugue, and some pieces have been transposed from the key in which they were originally written.

Why Book 2?
We know that the Well-tempered Clavier was extensively used as the most advanced text in Bach’s teaching. He may simply have wanted a change after fifteen or more years using Book 1, and certainly he would have wanted to incorporate pieces in the latest styles. He had had further musical gifted children born to him in the 1730s, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian, and may have also been thinking of their education.

Moreover, we know that Bach had come under attack for his difficult, over-contrapuntal style, and this may have been a double riposte—a chance to show he could write in the most fashionable way, and yet explore his own personal interests in a specialised field. Prelude 12, for example, is probably the most ‘trendy’ galant piece, and its accessible style is probably the reason it is the only part of Book 2 that is at all well known. Conversely, Fugues 22 and 23, say, are demonstrations of extraordinary contrapuntal complexity in fugal writing.

But above all, we see in the last years of Bach’s life a tendency to collect and systematise, and in the details of his compositions and composing habits, what Christoph Wolff describes as an impulse to 'perfectability' and 'elaboration'. So both the idea of revisiting the terrain of a collection in twenty-four keys and what we know about Bach’s working methods in composing, assembling and revising Book 2 are consonant with his preoccupations at the time.

How is Book 2 different from Book 1?
Book 2 is clearly intended as a complement to Book 1, not a replacement. For example Bach had a ready-written Prelude 1 generically similar to that of Book 1 in being based on broken chords, but he chose to transpose it into C sharp and begin the book with something very different. In Book 1, Fugue 24 is the longest and grandest work of the set, almost certainly consciously so. Instead, Book 2 ends with a light, witty and ironic fugue. The pastorale-like Prelude 21 is the longest and most elaborated of the whole book, in contrast to its brief, quicksilver equivalent in Book 1.

Ten binary movements among the preludes (double bar in the middle, with repeats and written in the new ‘sonata form’) form the most obvious innovation in Book 2, though ‘sonata’ here is close to Scarlatti’s conception, not Mozart’s. This gives the preludes much greater size and stature on average than they had in Book 1. The forms used for preludes in Book 1 are still present, however, though of course there are fewer (No 3 is practically the only one based on arpeggios, No 2 is a rare invention type). In general, Book 2 shows very clearly Bach’s integration of European styles, in particular between the Italian tradition for display and French dance forms, that we see also in the Partitas.

In writing the fugues, Bach, even more than in Book 1, had the best of both worlds. Fugues were going out of popularity. In writing dance-fugues using newer, popular dance rhythms, such as No 12, a bourrée, No 13, a gavotte, or No 21, a minuet, or ‘character-fugues’ such as No 24, Bach showed he could be modern, light, interesting without abandoning his loyalties to the fugal form. Gigue rhythms though, such as in No 11, had long been associated with fugue writing; their use cannot be seen as so individual or polemic. At the same time, in his own pedagogic kingdom, Bach could develop his affection for the traditional, serious, stile antico and write magnificently successful set-pieces such as No 9.

In fact, Book 2 is generally far more difficult than Book 1 in every way. It is far longer (with all the repeats it only just fits on two CDs), more complex in writing, and not least of greater technical and structural difficulty for the performer.

Had the term 'Well-tempered Clavier' changed by 1742?
It is likely that Bach was open-minded about both temperament and instrument, simply because in a climate where such issues were so widely debated, any unusual or even highly specific views would surely have been recorded. We do know that Bach was highly capable of tuning himself, and that by the 1740s equal temperament was more widespread. More specifically, those organs where Bach had some influence in the temperament were tuned to equal or near-equal temperament. We have, however, no views from Bach himself, and barely even any reports of his views; the main one being that he thought 'barbarous' a particular very non-equal temperament used by Silbermann.

Silbermann was of course in fact the builder of the fortepianos Bach is known to have played in Potsdam, on his famous visit to King Frederick the Great of Prussia in 1747. To say, however, that Bach incorporated characteristics of the fortepiano into Book 2 is completely speculative. There are certainly instances, such as the trumpet and flute atmosphere of Prelude 5, where ‘pianistic’ dynamic variation seem implied. But equally (such as Fugue 7), Bach can appear to be evoking organ effects for the keyboard instrument; in other words, for the one keyboard instrument the term ‘clavier’ is likely to have excluded.

What is the right text?
Unlike later composers, Bach did not regard letting a work be published as the sign it had passed the test of quality. There is every reason to suppose he thought the size and difficulty of Book 2 made other works a more practical (and financially rewarding) proposition.

Conversely, it appears that Bach made most, maybe all his pupils from the 1740s copy out the whole of Book 2. Composition would have been part of Bach’s syllabus for advanced pupils; studying completed works, especially in counterpoint, one valuable means of doing so.

For Book 1, though that was also not published till fifty years after Bach’s death, we have Bach’s own fair manuscript copy, re-copied many times by pupils and therefore a more definitive text than for much for the composer’s work. Reconstructing Book 2, in contrast, is something of a minefield, since Bach seems to have worked on two separate sets of manuscripts more or less simultaneously. There are two independent ‘masters,’ to use a metaphor from recordings, from which a number of pupils, notably Kirnberger and Altnickol, made copies. Each prelude and fugue occupied one piece of paper (the prelude on one side, the fugue on the other), which saved page turns, but has allowed some individual manuscripts to be lost in the course of history.

Moreover, that set which is partly in Bach’s own handwriting (and partly, we think for the earlier pieces, in his wife Anna Magdalena’s) is not quite complete and must be filled out by copies of the lost original items. Altnickol’s fair copy (dated 1744) is complete, but it is of the other 'master', which is completely lost. Ironically, there is some evidence this lost set in general (but not always) represents a later state of the pieces.

On the individual manuscripts, and also on the various copies that exist, there are later changes that Bach made, whether he wrote them in himself or his pupils transcribed them. There even seems to be evidence that at least Altnickol (who became Bach’s son-in-law) had Bach’s authority to make alterations on his own initiative.

All this is illuminating for our knowledge of Bach as a composer and a teacher, one of many demonstrations that he carried on amending and thinking about pieces after they were ‘completed’, and that his pupils were intimately involved in this process. But none of it, of course, helps today’s editor or performer; it is not practical to play all the possibilities in a variorum edition or even the two parallel editions (each based on one 'master') issued by the Neue Bach Ausgabe. And although one could in theory record variant versions, Book 2 is already immensely long, over half an hour longer than Book 1. Modern editors of Book 2 are therefore required to try and determine which of several readings might be Bach’s best, or failing that, last, thoughts, and often to use scholarly-aesthetic judgment to choose.

It is impossible to embark on a coherent reading of Book 2 without some awareness of Bach’s musical and musical-historical context. But, as David Ledbetter states in his synoptic survey of the Well-tempered Clavier, the debates about instruments, tunings and editions are an effect of modern interest in historical performance practice, and of modern standards of academic precision. They are not discussions Bach’s contemporaries would have had in the same terms.

Rather, Bach would have meant what he wrote on his title page, that the Well-tempered Clavier was for pedagogic purposes for students and for the ‘particular delight’ of advanced players, an idea linked to the Lutheran tradition whereby music had a purifying function. Bach was indeed a perfectionist, but also someone who was clearly open to the function of spontaneity, improvisation and organic development in his own work.

Likewise, the justification for playing Bach on modern pianos cannot reside in the thin argument that an instrument roughly resembling the piano existed by the time Book 2 was written, but must depend on the performer’s communicative abilities.

For the many scholarly issues surrounding Book 2, its sources, and performance issues, grateful thanks are due to the published writings or our correspondence with Paul Badura-Skoda, Yo Tomita and David Ledbetter. Dr Tomita kindly made his edition for Henle Verlag available to us ahead of publication, including its very valuable critical apparatus, but it should be made clear that by no means all Jill’s textual readings are his. Scholarly issues with a bearing on both Books are briefly considered in the notes to the companion Signum CD issue of Book 1.

Ying Chang © 2008

Bach’s music represents the richness of both the everyday and the devotional, its sense of vitality and life as important as its all-absorbing, cerebral complexity. For me, no other music is so perfect an integration of emotional expression and intellectual rigour.

Bach is often spoken of as the father of Classical music and I originally owe my discovery of Bach to my own father, who, despite having no musical training, deeply appreciated how great and indeed sacred, Bach’s music is. As a small child, I played much Bach, including the more popular preludes, but I wondered how all the voices in the fugues could be played with just two hands. Later, my teacher Mr Bakst saw how much I loved Bach and was insistent I should study the Well-tempered Clavier in its entirety.

Words will always be inadequate for me when trying to encapsulate Bach’s complexity. Bach’s solidity gives me what I can only describe as spiritual nourishment and solace, lifting me above the mundane yet remaining absolutely rooted. He is the only composer to whom I can return infinitely often.

This recording is dedicated to my parents Audrey and Norman.

Jill Crossland © 2008

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