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The Well-Tempered Clavier at 300

Accessibility of knowledge was crucial to the Enlightenment. That ethos was embodied in the celebrated Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert, the first of its seventeen volumes appearing in 1751, the year after Johann Sebastian Bach’s death. Yet that great French undertaking was dwarfed by its German predecessor: Johann Zedler’s Großes vollständiges Universal Lexicon (Grand and Complete Lexicon), which ran to nearly 70 volumes published in Leipzig between 1731 and 1754. The project spanned two decades of Johann Sebastian Bach’s tenure as Director of Music in the same city.

Bach’s name does not appear in Zedler’s Lexicon, but the word Clavier (keyboard) does, defined in a modest paragraph of five lines in volume six from 1733 as “the part of an organ, harpsichord, or clavichord made from wood, bone, or ivory and played with the fingers so that the strings or pipes bring forth their tones.”

The accessibility of the encyclopedists and the wikipedists increasingly dominates our days and nights, not just as a philosophical precept but as a practical way of knowing the world. At smartphone or computer keyboard our fingers feed our brains—or, so the more skeptical might claim, enfeeble them. The digital revolution may have increased facility with the digits while the brain atrophies under the monogram not of JSB (Johann Sebastian Bach) but GTS: “Google that Shit.” Bach’s admirers and students praised what they saw as his revolutionary inclusion of the thumb as an equal partner at the keyboard: his first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, wrote that “in Bach’s method the thumb was made a principal finger, because it is absolutely impossible to do without it in what are the difficult keys.” How fascinated—or, more likely, perplexed—Bach would have been by the silent symphony of thumbs playing at tiny flat keyboards made not of bone or wood but of glass.

Pizza-boxed sized containers of knowledge to be hefted from their shelves and leafed through with all the fingers, the individual volumes of Zedler’s Lexicon were a lot bigger and heavier than phones or laptops. The books were lavish and expensive, the print run around 1,500 copies. But it was available in the Leipzig library and accessible to students. Only the city’s wealthy patricians had the money—and space—to have these weighty folio volumes adorn the bookshelves of their mansions.

While on occasion Bach made music in some of these mansions, it was almost entirely out of public view that he had set about creating his own keyboard encyclopedia, one that ranged across many volumes, myriad styles, far-flung geographically and historically.

The composer was certainly aware of the lasting importance and practical value of his massive and sustained research project in the art of keyboard elaboration. Yet only a fraction of it appeared in print: four parts of his Clavierübung (Keyboard Practice) were published in his lifetime. One of the most ambitious was a systematic survey of composing and performing preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys, its titlepage penned three hundred years ago in 1722. This first collection was followed in the early 1740s by a second, longer volume also of twenty-four preludes and fugues.

The most recent precedent for Bach’s collection had been published just three years before, in 1719. The Hamburg musician, theorist, prolific man of letters Johann Mattheson had in his Exemplary Organist’s Trial (Exemplarische Organisten-Probe) assembled two sets of bass lines in all keys that were then to be harmonized by the keyboardist in a range of styles.

With his own towering compendium, Bach clearly wanted to supersede his colleague’s more modest, and certainly more pedantic efforts. In his publication, Mattheson had proceeded from the safe, euphonious keys associated with the ancient church modes and then progressively on to the most remote and challenging. His first set concludes in C-sharp Major, the second in its enharmonic equivalent, D-flat Major. In 1711 Bach’s friend, Johann David Heinichen, had published a keyboard fantasy that proceeded almost circumspectly through all keys, the piece making its way through tonal areas a fifth apart.

Bach by contrast ascends systematically, one might even say ruthlessly, through the chromatic scale. After the familiar and welcoming keys of C Major and C Minor, Bach confronts the hard realities of C-sharp major with—depending on the tuning chosen—its much more active, even antic home triad. Bach faces the aural and digital challenges of accommodating all keys—of well-tempering the keyboard—right near the start of the journey.

In launching his encyclopedic volume of preludes and fugues, the compose-performer-teacher Bach had not only tackled the problem of playing in all keys but had also placed unprecedented demands on his own powers of invention: the preludes present an authoritative, yet gracious catalog of figuration and mood, technique and expressive possibility; new approaches are discovered and explored, while familiar modes are illuminated by Bach’s unique insights and the unexpected turn.

These freely conceived pieces introduce fugues of tremendous scope, from the buoyant and untroubled to the introspective, stern, and searchingly complex where themes devised by Bach can afford the combinatorial techniques of erudite counterpoint: stretto (the overlapping of the subject with itself), melodic inversion, temporal augmentation or diminution (these doublings, halvings, and quarterings of the pace could even occur simultaneously).

Bach drew on some preexisting pieces in compiling the Well-Tempered Clavier, on occasion transposing a piece into a new key to fill out the roster of tonalities. Yet Bach’s commanding sense of control imbues the collection’s kaleidoscopic diversity with palpable cohesion, the grand scheme brought to a close with magisterial melancholy in the final fugue in B Minor whose sighing theme includes all twelve tones of the chromatic scale surveyed in the preceding pieces.

It might strike us as odd, even eccentric that this keyboard compendium, exploring the musical arts with such single-minded purpose, should not have been published during Bach’s lifetime: an encyclopedia of preludes and fugues pursued in the shadows of Enlightenment. This is especially apparent when we bask in the ubiquitous accessibility of the Well-Tempered Clavier in 2022: the dozens of modern editions; the plethora of eighteenth-century sources, including the manuscript in Bach’s own hand, available through Bach Digital that can be scrutinized in high-resolution detail that in some ways surpasses the information available to the naked eye when examining the original autograph in the State Library in Berlin; the numerous published editions, manuscripts, and recordings are also available on the International Musical Library Score Project. This is not to mention the myriad streamable performances of on keyboards ancient and modern, as well as transcriptions for anything from mandolins to harmonicas—all of this available at our fingertips.

By contrast Bach kept close guard on these compositions so central to his pedagogical program. Philipp David Kräuter, who studied with Bach in Weimar some years before the compilation of the Well-Tempered Clavier, reported back to his sponsors in the City of Augsburg 250 miles to the south, that his teacher had asked 100 thaler a year. Kräuter got him down to 80: “for this he will give me board and instruction. He is an excellent, and also conscientious, man both for composition and clavier, and also for other instruments. He gives me at least 6 hours of instruction a day, which I badly need particularly for composition and clavier, but also for other instruments. The remaining time I spend doing my own practice and copying, since he lets me have all the music I want.” A decade later the Well-Tempered Clavier would be among the manuscript volumes made accessible to those ready for its challenges; copying it out by hand in Bach’s house from the original represented a milestone for his students.

One of those later students was Heinrich Nicolaus Gerber, who came to study with Bach in 1724. The first question Bach asked his new charge was whether he played fugues. Within a year the young man began copying out the first six preludes and fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier, a beautiful manuscript now held at the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio. By the time Gerber left Bach’s supervision he had the entire volume among his effects.

Gerber also meticulously copied out the title page, even dating it November 31st [!], 1724. Just as in the original, it reads:

“The Well-Tempered Clavier or Preludes and Fugues through all the tones and semitones, both the major 3rd, or Ut Re Mi, and with the minor 3rd, or Re Mi Fa. For the use and improvement of musical youth eager to learn, and for the particular amusement of those already skilled in this discipline / notated and fashioned by Johann Sebastian Bach while Capellmeister to the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, and Director of his Chamber Music.”

These words make clear that this was advanced material, not the easy fare served up to amateurs targeted by the burgeoning market in printed keyboard music.

Gerber also says that Bach himself played through the contents for him no fewer than three times, though it is unclear whether any or all of these performances were at a single sitting. Whatever the case, those presentations in Bach’s home set a legendary, unrecreatable precedent for subsequent performances of the collection in its entirety.

Gerber’s son, writing some seventy years after his father’s time with the master, tells us that “according to a certain tradition, [Bach] wrote his Tempered Clavier (consisting of fugues and preludes, some of them very intricate, in all 24 keys) in a place where ennui, boredom and the absence of any kind of musical instrument forced him to resort to this pastime.”

How alluring is this vision of a Bach temporarily without access to his own musical library and keyboard instruments, languishing in his cell and having to rely on only his own stores of experience and knowledge to produce this work of limitless imagination and erudition.

Various possibilities have been proposed for the place of isolation that spawned this epoch-making collection. One attractive if perhaps fanciful locale is the prison at the Court of Weimar into which Bach had been thrown by his employer Duke Wilhelm Ernst, displeased at Bach’s departure for the nearby court of Cöthen where he would hold the prestigious title of Kapellmeister, one that the Well-Tempered Clavier title page proudly brandishes. It is a mythic scenario of Enlightenment: the incarcerated Artist’s Reason illuminates the dark dungeon. Liberty of thought cannot be taken from him, and his personal victory over confinement results in an epoch-making advance for the arts and for the lives of his fellow human beings down through the centuries. The world had changed before the first note has been sounded on harpsichord, piano, or clavichord.

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