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Prof. Christoph Wolff

Harvard University

The Well-Tempered Clavier
Johann Sebastian Bach writes music history

The first collection of 24 Preludes and Fugues in all major and minor keys

(BWV 846-869), to which Johann Sebastian Bach gave the title The Well-Tempered Clavier, is the composer’s first major historically significant and, simultaneously, momentous work. Bach must at that time have been aware that this opus represented an idea which at that time had attained music-historical ripeness and was, so to speak, in the air, although there were no parallels of any kind showing a consistent realisation at such a high level.

The baroque title of the extant autograph fair copy of 1722
(housed today in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin) is remarkable in every sense:

The Well-Tempered Clavier, or preludes and fugues passing through all the tones and semitones, both as regards the tertia major or Ut Re Mi, and as concerns the tertia minor or Re Mi Fa.  For the use and profit of the musical youth desirous of learning as well as for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.

The elaborate wording alludes to the contents (preludes and fugues in all keys), its double function (textbook and playing repertoire for the advanced), and—as indicated by the first line of the title—to the progressive perspectives of the well-tempered tuning for keyboard instruments of any kind. The quasi revolutionary basic idea of the work intended to do justice to the requirements of an increasingly demanding harmony and more flexible modulations since in traditional mean tone temperament triads like B and F-sharp Major or A-Flat and E-flat Minor sounded extremely dissonant and therefore were hardly used. The term "well-tempered" originated with the organist and mathematician Andreas Werckmeister who around 1680 developed the theoretical foundations for the still unequal tunings that, nevertheless, enabled gapless play in all major and minor keys. German composers in particular, among them Dietrich Buxtehude as one of the first, but after 1710 Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer and Johann Mattheson, made more systematic use of the expanded possibilities. However, it was reserved for none other than Bach to set the still valid standard for the notation of the key signatures and to explore exhaustively for the first time the full array of 24 keys in extended individual compositions, and thereby to increase many times the possibilities for expression in keyboard music

It remains unknown, however, which of the many variant well-tempered tunings Bach preferred, and which modifications over more than three decades he may have made. The obituary of 1750/1754, for example, notes: "He knew how to temper the tuning of the harpsichord so purely and correctly that all keys sounded beautiful and pleasing. He knew of no keys which one would have had to avoid because of impure tuning." Additionally, Johann Philipp Kirnberger reported that his teacher Bach "expressly demanded of him that all major thirds should be sharpened." It is not possible to deduce any precise temperament from this information, but it suggests that Bach's pragmatic well-tempered tuning was clearly on the way to equal temperament that eventually was to become the norm. However, he obviously preferred an unequal temperament solution in which the different characters of the keys, although significantly weakened, were nevertheless retained.

Unfortunately, it is unknown when Bach began working on the Well-Tempered Clavier because a composing score has not survived. But the print of J. C. F. Fischer's "Ariadne Musica" (published in 1715) with 20 short preludes and fugues in as many keys probably provided the decisive incentive. Bach's four-week detention toward the end of his Weimar employment in November 1717 gave possibly a further impetus. However, concrete traces show up in the early versions of eleven preludes entered in the "Clavier-Büchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach." At any rate, the work was finally completed after a number of revisions at the end of 1722 and it would function for nearly twenty years Bach's arguably most important textbook for his numerous Leipzig students. Sure enough, the work should not just serve to further mastery of all keys and to generate a new understanding of tonal harmony but also, on the basis of preludes and fugues, to study the various structures and performing modes of free and strict composition.  

Apart from a modest retouching, Bach passed on revisions of the work from 1722. Instead, he chose to prepare a second collection of preludes and fugues in all keys (BWV 870-893). This collection mainly comprises newly composed pieces in addition to some extant and reworked items; the whole was completed between 1739 and 1742. The so-called London Original (housed today in the British Library in London), an incomplete fair copy involving the participation of Anna Magdalena and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach as well as some other scribes, has no title leaf. However, a complete copy of the work made in 1744 by Bach's pupil and later son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol, which also contains autograph corrections, features the following title:
The second part of the well-tempered clavier, consisting of preludes and fugues throughout all tones and semitones.

This formulation leaves no doubt that the composer considered the two collections, originating at an interval of some twenty years but dedicated to the same fundamental concept, as belonging together.

In terms of extent, Part II tops Part I by about a quarter, for it contains substantially longer preludes and fugues that frequently also require a more demanding playing technique. The preludes of improvisatory character are motivically no less unified and focused than those of Part I but show a more current stylistic design and a more differentiated expressive approach, at times resembling the sensitive style of the younger generation. The fugues are generally more expansive and often based on unusually long themes, but demonstrate the same contrapuntal density as those of the first part. Moreover, Part II contains only 3 and 4-part fugues whereas Part I includes one 2-part and two 5-part fugues.

Whereas the preludes and fugues in both parts strictly follow an ascending key order (major before minor), they apparently seem to be more strongly conceived as paired structures in the second part. This is expressed not least by the fact that in the first part "Praeludium 1" and "Fuga 1", etc., are juxtaposed, while the pieces of the second part are designated "Prélude e Fugue 1", etc. The choice of the Latin and French languages, respectively, plays no role in this, but the numbering shows that in Part I Bach emphasizes the compositional contrast between free and strict style in the form of the two fundamentally different genres of prelude and fugue, and in Part II raises the paired order to the principle.

The Well-Tempered Clavier is the only work by Johann Sebastian Bach that exists in two parallel parts from different periods in his life, containing altogether 48 preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys—a fact which clearly reflects the significance the composer attached to the work's idea. Both collections demonstrate Bach's ambitious and innovative pursuit of musical advancement as they originated in the experimental workshop of the composer-performer firmly grounded in the realms of theory and practice. The Well-Tempered Clavier documents on the one hand his striving to elevate instrumental technique to a previously unattained level in what could be called an unfettered use of the white and black keys of the keyboard; and on the other to sound out systematically, within the framework of an extended harmonic and tonal horizon, the art of free and strict composition in the form of preludes and fugues. In this sense and unlike any other work in the history of music, the two parts Well-Tempered Clavier opened up entirely new territories for both performance and composition.


KEITH HILL  -  Musical Instrument Maker    
J. S. Bach and the Cantabile Style of Playing

It is extremely interesting how so many performers of Bach's keyboard works, especially, since the 1940's, have managed to ignore what Bach himself wrote in the preface of his Inventions about how to play his music, that is, "above all to achieve a "cantabile style in playing.”
Even CPE Bach, in his Treatise on Keyboard Playing, explicitly tells aspiring keyboard players to "Play from the Soul, not like a trained bird."  And to make absolutely sure that his readers do not misunderstand him, CPE Bach adds this injunction, "Endeavor to avoid everything mechanical and slavish."  In musical performance, the art is in maintaining a flow of musical thought that is both unpredictable and uninterrupted.  Bach clearly understood how predictable metrical playing quickly wearies the listening Soul and drives the attentive mind to boredom.

How then are these direct quotes, from the most important family of musicians and composers the world has ever witnessed, to be interpreted? This present recording seeks to resurrect the Cantabile style of playing. The question remains: How is that to be accomplished?

Fortunately, the great-grand-student of J.S. Bach, Friedrich Griepenkerl, famous for being the first to publish the complete organ works of Bach, wrote a letter dated 1840 that gives us the clearest and most precise description of how Bach played: "Bach himself, his sons, and Forkel played the masterpieces with such a profound declamation that they sounded like polyphonic songs sung by individual great artist singers.  Thereby, all means of good singing were brought into use.  No Cercare, no Portamento was missing, even breathing was in all the right places...Bach's music wants to be sung with the maximum of art."  Up pops the word Cantabile but here is a still clearer description of what that style had to sound like.
So what exactly is a Cercare?  The technical Italian term comes from the 17th century Cercare dela nota, which translated means, “to seek out the note.”  But what exactly does that sound like in real life?  In Riemann’s Musiklexicon from the mid-19th century the Cercare dela nota is defined as a 17th century Italian ornament in which the upper or lower auxiliary note sounds rapidly and silently to the main note.  This also happens to describe perfectly the sound human beings make when they recognize or understand something in conversation, specifically, the utterance “un-huh."  Analyzing that utterance, “un” sounds low in pitch to begin and rises rapidly and silently to the higher main pitch “huh."  What is fascinating about this utterance is that it is universal because all humans produce some form of this utterance when they recognize, understand, follow, agree with or comprehend something they hear.  
And what about Portamento???  How is a slide in pitch, which is how the dictionary defines a portamento, treated by singers today? Griepenkerl wrote: “No Cercare, no Portamento was missing…” to  describe the playing of keyboard music. Here is the reality:  Like the word cercare, the word “portamento” is also a 17th century Italian term that, according to a 17th century Italian dictionary, means “the manner of managing tones on the organ.” When using the original definition of portamento, the word portamento must mean any technical means whereby musical meaning is communicated efficiently.  Why? Because there are ultimately only two possible derivations from the original Latin roots: porto, portare meaning to carry, and next, here is where the two possibilities stem, 1) mentum meaning “like unto or similar to” (battlement, apartment, basement, cement, demolishment); and 2) mens, mentis meaning “the mind”. The second meaning here seems the most likely as it suggests the placing of ideas in the mind, such as in encouragement, development, chastisement, disagreement, enlightenment, and hundreds of other words ending in ment.  Portamento then actually means to carry or transfer to the mind.  This means that any technical means that efficiently conveys one mind’s intentions or meaning to another mind is a Portamento technique.  This way of understanding the word actually fulfills the original 17th century Italian dictionary definition: “the manner of managing tones on the organ.” (The method of using a mechanical sound-producing device and turning it into singing.)

Because, as cited earlier, Griepenkerl clearly states that Bach himself played the organ in such a way as it sounded like “polyphonic songs sung by individual great artist singers." it is safe to conclude that this is exactly how his music must be played.

The question might arise, how do we know how singers sang in the Baroque period????  The truth is we don’t, we can only proceed by the evidence we have. The evidence can be found in the recordings of the following singers: Maria Callas, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf, Anna Moffo, Prince, Louis Armstrong, and Barbara Streisand. These singers are models of cantabile singing for the reason that they are extremely convincing, which any attempt at a cantabile style playing of Bach’s keyboard music needs to emulate.  Besides using the cercare technique, these singers also use a technique called vacillare, one in which the singer endeavors to sing before the beat and after the beat. This technique is one of the most beautiful effects in singing because it creates a feeling of the music being free yet always being in time.

In a true cantabile style, it is impossible for two singers to convincingly sing the same music in exactly the same way.  Likewise, no two keyboardists playing in this style will ever play the same music at all similarly, and therein lies its beauty.  It heralds and rejoices in being different, not for the sake of being different, but to express Beauty’s endless diversity). Just as nature makes sure that no two Souls are alike, the cantabile style ensures a way of playing or singing music that naturally and most closely relates to how the Soul, not the intellect, sings music.

September, 2016

KEITH HILL  -  Musical Instrument Maker                  

Harpsichords, Clavichords, Viennese Fortepianos, Violins, and other stringed



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