Not about books, but certainly about creative genius. Plus, an incalculable number of books have been written and read with Bach playing quietly in the background.
This year marks the 300th anniversary of J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, the most audacious and influential volume of music ever written for keyboard. Even if you’re not a diehard baroque fan, you’ve no doubt heard selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier in the background of your life—in movies scores, at Starbucks, and choppy iterations through the wall as the neighbor kid practices her piano lesson. You’ve also heard it remixed by other composers. The famous “Ave Maria,” a meditation on The Well-Tempered Clavier’s opening piece, the Prelude in C Major, was penned by French composer Charles Gounod a hundred years after Bach’s death. The theme was repurposed yet again by Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin in the 1992 album Hush. Or maybe you’ve heard the opening of Lady Gaga’s 2009 hit “Bad Romance,” which quotes the final piece in the book, the Fugue in B minor.
The Well-Tempered Clavier is a set of preludes and fugues, that is, forty-eight short pieces in all twenty-four keys, major and minor. Although these pieces are regularly performed in professional settings, Bach originally presented his collection as a pedagogical work for advanced students, “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study,” as he wrote on the title page for Book One, which he completed in 1722. Twenty years later, he wrote a second complete set of preludes and fugues in all keys, Book Two. Both volumes were hand-written, hand-copied, and widely circulated during Bach’s lifetime, but they weren’t published in printed form until fifty years after his death.
What’s so “well-tempered” about this clavier? And, what’s a “clavier,” in the first place? Is it a sort of old-fashioned piano on Prozac? If you’ve been wondering, you’re in good company. For more than a century, early music specialists have been sparring over these very questions. The second is easier to answer than the first: Over the years, partisans for various ancient keyboard instruments have tried to claim The Well-Tempered Clavier for themselves, including the Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni, who misnamed the collection “’Das Wohltemperierte Clavichord,” and the famous twentieth-century Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who insisted the pieces were meant for her instrument, only. There’s now consensus that when Bach wrote “Das Wohltemperirte Clavier,” he meant “clavier” to signify any musical keyboard—harpsichord, clavichord, organ. He did not mean the modern piano as we know it, the very instrument upon which The Well-Tempered Clavier is played most often now, because modern pianos had yet to evolve. (More on that later.)
As for what Bach meant by “well-tempered”— a clue is in the structure of the volume. To modern sensibilities, a systematic book for aspiring keyboard students seems like a sensible pedagogical project sprung from an orderly mind: start in C major with prelude and fugue. Next, a prelude and fugue in the parallel key, C minor. Then C# major and minor, then D and so forth, all the way through B minor. As they work their way through the book, students practice all the key signatures sequentially. Indeed, that’s how the book functions today for contemporary concert pianists and students of piano. But the simplicity of the concept belies the audacity of its origin. While completely playable on modern pianos, The Well-Tempered Clavier would have been impossible to perform on keyboards of Bach’s time—not without a radical new approach to tuning the very instruments it was written for.
To understand why the manuscript was so revolutionary back in 1722, and why 300 years later it continues to foment controversy among baroque music aficionados, we need to keep in mind that the baroque keyboards were tuned differently than today’s pianos. If you fancy a deep dive into the physics of music, check out the links below; you will not be disappointed. For the rest of us, in simple terms, the drama comes down to an unsolvable problem of math. Imagine the twelve tones of a true chromatic scale as clock, or maybe an oozy pizza, in which twelve slices almost, but don’t quite fit.
Link to the rest at JSTOR