Lecture on Johann Sebastian Bach
by Frau Dr. Christine Blanken (Bach Archive, Leipzig)
at Hotel Piz Buin, Alte Bahnhofstrasse 1, 7250 Klosters
The “alte Testament der Klavierspieler” (Old Testament of Clavier Players), the “musikalische Bibel” (Musical Bible) and the “Evangelien für jeden ernsthaften Künstler” (Gospels for Every Serious Artist) are called Bach’s collection of 24 Preludes and 24 Fugues by his colleagues. He completed the first part of the “Wohltemperierte Klaviers” (Well-tempered Clavier) in 1722 as Thomaskantor. He completed a second collection in 1742, which is often called the second part of the “Wohltemperierte Klaviers” (Well-tempered Clavier) by contemporaries and posterity, without the composer himself having ever chosen this title.
The “Well-Tempered Clavier” is the first cycle for keyboard instruments in which all playable keys of the circle of fifths are consistently worked through. Bach wrote the 48 pieces specifically for clavier, which at that time included harpsichord, clavichord and organ. The complete title of the first volume, which is still preserved today in Bach’s artistic manuscript, is as follows: “Das Wohltemperirte Clavier oder Praeludia, und Fugen durch alle Tone und Semitonia, So wohl tertiam majorem oder Ut Re Mi anlangend, als auch tertiam minorem oder Re Mi Fa betreffend. Zum Nutzen und Gebrauch der Lehr-begierigen Musicalischen Jugend, als auch derer in diesem studio schon habil seyenden besonderem Zeitvertreib aufgesetzet und verfertiget von Johann Sebastian Bach. p. t: HochFürstlich Anhalt-Cöthenischen Capel-Meistern und Directore derer CammerMusiquen. Anno 1722.” A cyclical performance of the work met with some controversy. But Bach’s 48 pieces are so imaginative and musically diverse that a complete performance, despite its proud length, promises a varied and impressive listening experience.
A prelude, in its original function, was intended as a playful introduction and preparation for a subsequent movement. But hardly any of the artistic preludes of the Well-Tempered Clavier meets this criterion. Those that do correspond most closely to this type were already included in an early version in the “Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann” (Little Clavier Book for Wilhelm Friedemann) of 1720. The other preludes cannot be assigned to any particular form or are composed on the basis of intervention, trio movement or concert movement. Hardly any of the two- to five-part fugues resembles one another in terms of structure and the way the themes are handled. Bach’s skilful use of counterpoint, a highly concentrated density and a playful lightness allowed him to create fugues in all imaginable emotional colours.