Thoughts on J. S. Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier
he Well-Tempered Clavier is an anthology published in two volumes, containing forty-eight pairs of extraordinary pieces called Preludes and Fugues. Prelude is a cover word for almost any musical form which precedes something else, in this case, a fugue. The fugue is a piece of a more formal nature, written in contrapuntal style with two to five voices. This remarkable collection (unpublished in Bach's lifetime) contains most of the musical forms that were popular in Bach's time. There was no one else who consolidated these forms into keyboard notation with the skill, imagination and passion that Bach gave to these two volumes. In this anthology, you will perhaps recognize some of the more familiar forms: trio sonatas, arias, an "orchestral" piece in French style, and large, choral-style fugues (think Messiah choruses), to name a few.
Many great composers after Bach held this collection in the highest regard: Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann, to name a few. Why? I have given this a lot of thought in the course of my own study. Bach was the ultimate master of combined harmony and polyphony. By polyphony, I mean two, three or more flowing melodies, each with its own shape and character, occurring simultaneously in layers—think string quartet, for example. The wondrous thing about Bach's gift is how these fugal melodies combine vertically to form glorious harmonic progressions, never before heard in such elaboration! This harmony is what moves us: it contains the heart and soul of Bach, and would be particularly compelling to the budding composers of future periods whose teachers had them playing from the Well-Tempered Clavier from a very young age. Influences from this work can be found throughout keyboard literature of the Classical and Romantic periods—a testament to the timelessness of Bach's art. Because his vision encompassed so much, these pieces are not always comfortable to play on the keyboard. However, the polyphonic texture, which is developed in three main layers at once (melody, rhythm and harmony), is particularly well-served by the harpsichord, because the volume is constant, and all elements are allowed to emerge equally. There is a transparency to the sound which lets us hear "inside" the music, as it were, without the distraction of volume differentiation on top of all the other complexities.
Many people are intimidated by the complexity and "cerebral" nature of the fugues. As you listen to this music, I would ask that you try to keep your ears and hearts open, so that you may marvel at how the soulful Bach combines all the parts to make a beautiful and unified whole. The key to the fugue occurs at the beginning, when a theme is heard in a solo voice all by itself. Try to hold onto that theme; it will continually be woven into the fabric of the entire piece. And try to notice the beautiful contrast and balance contained in a single Prelude and Fugue.
Finally, I would like to say that learning this anthology has been the most rewarding experience of my artistic life. It is with great reverence and humility that I attempt to communicate the awesome breadth, not only of Bach's compositional skill, but the power of his emotional and spiritual expressions.