J. S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I

Sometime around 1720, when Johann Sebastian Bach was in his mid- thirties, he completed a large-scale work for keyboard—a complete set of preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys; he entitled this The Well-Tempered Clavier.1 The work was not commissioned, and Bach never had it published. Rather, he used it as a teaching piece for his pupils and his musical children who had progressed beyond the Inventions and Suites. As genuine as Bach’s pedagogic intent was, it cannot help but make us smile today that perhaps the greatest single work ever written for the keyboard came from such modest aims.

The Well-Tempered Clavier is comprehensive in its affective and spiritual scope as well as in its contrapuntal technique, and was designed to inspire and require a great deal of devotion and dedication from the student and the listener to unwrap its mysteries. I believe it was intended as a musical “daily bread” or a devotional— to be approached each day with a sense of growing skill, understanding, and wisdom. If we were to translate it into the world of painting, The Well-Tempered Clavier might combine Vermeer’s sanctity of the everyday with Brueghel’s uncompromising and gnarled scenes of peasants, folktales, country life, and biblical drama and allegory. Idealism, pragmatism, craftsmanship, religious concentration, and the work-a-day world are all rolled into one. To Bach, as it was to Brueghel and Vermeer, beauty and moral truth are intrinsic—never does one preside over the other. They are symbiotic. Each is food for the other.

In The Well-Tempered Clavier, as in all his work, Bach presents life’s complexity as well as its profoundly fundamental purpose through a musical language of tonal counterpoint. This is a densely woven sonic fabric of simultaneous lines, each telling its own story while at the same time contributing to the greater societal story and structure—and the sense of key (tonality) is always present. What a wonder!

In order to realize “the world” of The Well-Tempered Clavier in actual sound, and to record it, I wanted to make sure several things were properly thought out and selected. The basic issues were: the temperament or tuning; the type of instrument; the approach to fingering, articulation, and tempi; the type of recording equipment; and the venue and nature of the recording sessions.

The Well-Tempered Clavier is the only great—or even near great—piece to include its tuning in its title. Bach put this out front because temperament in the eighteenth century was a volatile issue—as it should be yet today. There are so many interesting and valid ways of tuning a keyboard instrument, and the choice of tuning can have a significant effect upon the outcome of the music. Because of the mathematical laws of nature, it is not possible (nor perhaps is it even desirable) to have all the tonalities in a twelve-keyed system perfectly harmonious. The question is how and where to compromise or temper? In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before Bach’s era, meantone temperament was the norm. A Renaissance invention, meantone tuning involved tempering the fifths in the commonly used keys—C, G, D, A, F, Bb, and Eb—so that the thirds in those keys would be absolutely pure and perfectly harmonious, that is, without any beats. Consequently, in meantone tuning, the thirds in the rarely used keys (rarely used in the Renaissance)—such as E, B, F#, Db, and Ab—became wolf-type intervals, howlingly out of tune, but nevertheless expressive if used sparingly. In the eighteenth century, composers began to desire a wider field of modulation and therefore became interested in accessing—and de-wolfing—the rarely used keys at the bottom of the circle of fifths. But, because of the laws of nature, to do this required compromising the purity of the thirds in the commonly used keys.

Well temperament was this compromise. It is a particularly intricate tuning which permits modulation to all keys and yet preserves subtle but important differences among the keys. Well temperament is structured so that keys with few accidentals—such as C, G, and F major —are calmer and more stable than keys with many accidentals—such as F# B, Db, and Ab major—which are very high-energy and effervescent. In well temperament, if you play the primary thirds in all the keys, ascending chromatically (that is, play the notes C and E together to hear the primary color of C major, and then play the notes C# and E# together to hear the primary color of C# major, and so forth), you will hear dramatic shifts in the color of the sound, or beat-speeds, each time you change tonalities. Well temperament necessitates that the half steps in the chromatic scale, and thus the whole steps as well, are not evenly spaced. The result of this variegation is that no two major scales and no two minor scales have quite the same sound. These subtle variations in tuning produce a wealth of musical possibilities, and this is the playing field for The Well-Tempered Clavier. Finally, well temperament should not be confused with equal temperament, which came into widespread use early in the twentieth century. In equal temperament, the half steps are absolutely even in their spacing, the result of which is that there is no unifying structural presence or variety of sound color among the keys.2

The last word in Bach’s title, clavier, requires some explanation. In Bach’s day, clavier simply meant keyboard or keyboard instrument, but it was also the common name of the clavichord, a favorite and very quiet and nuanced keyboard instrument for home use. By the end of the 18th century, however, the meaning had narrowed so that clavier began to refer more exclusively to the clavichord alone.

As I am a traveling performer, I chose to learn The Well-Tempered Clavier not on the quiet-voiced clavichord (the tone of which carries to only a handful of listeners) but on the somewhat more brilliant sounding harpsichord, another very popular instrument of Bach’s era. I find that the harpsichord’s exquisite clarity of pitch and integrity of line allow Bach’s counterpoint to spin out in a crystalline and mesmerizing fashion. Also, the manner in which a harpsichord blends the mercurial and kaleidoscopic patterns of Bach’s harmonies is endlessly fascinating to the ear. Lastly, the sound of a good harpsichord seems to me idealistic and full of hope, quite in keeping with the inner spirit of Bach’s music.

My colleague and friend, Norman Sheppard, built a harpsichord specifically for the project. As an initial model, he studied a 1679 Dutch instrument by Couchet, which is now in the Smithsonian. After about a year of discussion and thought, Norman began work, interpreting the Dutch design. A year later, it was ready for me to string, install the jacks, and quill. I strung it with Malcolm Rose brass in the bass octave and his type A (un-carbonized) iron in the top three octaves—this soft wire produces a very pure tone. The jacks were made by William Groom of Wales. They are of beech wood with holly tongues, fitted with boar-bristle springs. The quilling—as it was done in Bach’s day—is entirely in crow feathers, which yields a rich, robust, and smooth tone. Tones on the harpsichord should simply appear, full of energy and magic, and I believe this type of sound is possible only if one uses an organic substance like crow or vulture feather. If plastic quills are used, no matter how expertly they are voiced, the tone will always tend to fracture. After the initial job of quilling the entire instrument, the time required for maintaining crow quilling ranges from a half hour to an hour each week, depending on the amount of playing.

The compass of this harpsichord is four octaves, an exact fit for The Well-Tempered Clavier. It still seems remarkable to me that a work of such magnitude ambulates within only four octaves—C to c3, with middle C right smack in the middle—a ship in a bottle. The benefit of playing a four-octave work on a four-octave instrument is that the highs seem very high, the lows very low, and the timbres in between are properly variegated. Thus, even the simplest melody, as it rises and falls, will pass through many different sound colors. Similarly, the counterpoint, with many melodies operating simultaneously in different registers, is also brought into keen relief by the rich timbral palette of the harpsichord. By comparison, the piano’s extremely homogenized sound from top to bottom actually diminishes the effectiveness of baroque line and counterpoint.

It is also interesting to note that in Bach’s time northern and southern European harpsichords differed significantly in construction and tone quality. Northern European harpsichords, like the Dutch instrument here, with their elongated scaling and thin, soft iron wire in the treble, have a ringing, snowy tone quality that is wonderful for Bach. Brueghel’s painting Hunters in the Snow depicts beautifully the link between the wintry climate and the northern aesthetic sensibility. This is in direct contrast to the sunny- sounding Italian harpsichords of the same period, with just scaling and brass wire throughout; these instruments, perfect for the spare, direct writing of the Italian style, make Bach’s richly layered music sound a bit notey.

The dense contrapuntal language of The Well-Tempered Clavier requires a special approach to fingering. In his manuscripts and published editions, Bach hardly ever indicated fingerings. He must have believed it was the student’s duty to learn this “almost secret art”3 for him or herself—aside from receiving instruction and pointers during lessons. I spent the first year of study on The Well-Tempered Clavier simply working out fingerings. There was great satisfaction in this, perhaps much like that feeling a painter has when learning how to control the brush stroke.

Indications of dots, slurs, and tempi in The Well-Tempered Clavier are also exceedingly rare. As with fingering, the student was expected to work out articulations and tempi through an ever- expanding grasp of style. Pacing and rhetorical grouping were considered such fine arts that written indicators—which were, and always will be, only coarsely approximate—could only dull the sensibility. For each piece in The Well-Tempered Clavier one needs to first find the relationship between an appropriate tempo and a basic tone of voice (the degree or shade of legato or non-legato). When this is balanced, the inner character of the work will begin to come into sharper relief. Beyond this, variations in character as the piece goes along must be properly executed through changes in touch (degrees of legato or non-legato), but these must also be considered and adjusted within the larger affective framework. Also, based upon the character, some pieces require performance in rather strict time whereas other pieces are more flexible in their tempo. Often, I found that the slightest hastening or slackening of tempo at the right moment could create a wonderful effect that sounded more natural than if I had continued to play in strict time. Likewise, connecting or disconnecting a phrase or a note or two here or there, pausing slightly or perhaps pressing on at a new idea, ritarding at the end of one piece but not at the end of another, all were powerful tools, which could add a great deal of charm or gravity as the situation demanded.

The high-energy pluck and ringing-wire sound of the harpsichord is difficult to record, and I have found that ribbon microphones respond best. For the sessions, I used a coincident pair of Coles 4038s. That signal was then amplified by a D.W. Fearn VT-2 vacuum-tube pre-amp and then boosted again by a Symetrix SX202 solid-state pre-amp before being digitally recorded at high-resolution settings (88.2Kz/24bit) on an Alesis ML-9600. This recording was then “number crunched” down to consumer CD level (44.1Kz/16bit) for commercial release. I recorded and practiced for about sixteen months in the living room of my home on our quiet, dead-end street in the Crestwood neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. Occasionally, an airplane passing overhead or a lawnmower firing up or a car rolling by would fry a take, but there were always plenty of other takes to consider. Whole takes on recordings are the last link to the magic of live performance; all selections on the CDs are complete and unedited.

One can open The Well-Tempered Clavier to any page—as with the Bible or the works of Shakespeare—and have a profound and rewarding experience. The Well-Tempered Clavier is often and rightly revered for its unparalleled variety of expression, but it is also an odyssey of the soul. The story begins so simply, sweetly in C major, with its soothing grace of repetition; Vermeer’s painting of the woman in blue opening the window to the light on yet another day. Goethe described this prelude as “the stillness in the breast of God before he created the world.” There are so many stories one can see. Perhaps the C major Fugue is light itself, or the joy and verdant splendor in the Garden of Eden; the C major Fugue seems like things growing for the first time, cells dividing; Bach is DNA in sound. Perhaps the C minor Prelude is the darkness separated from the light; or it may be the darkness incarnate, a serpentine figure twisting down the tree—then the apple’s crunch and the chaos of the presto. The C minor Fugue may be the eviction notice from the Garden—its subject, “I told you once, I told you twice, I told you three times, don’t eat of that tree.” And then up to C# major, and suddenly we’re at a village wedding dance (see Brueghel’s The Dance of the Bride). To the prayer at Gethsemane (C# minor Prelude) and crucifixion at Golgotha (C# minor Fugue); on to the D major Prelude, the bustle of a large family (like Bach’s!) trying to get a swarm of kids ready for an outing—and one of them is practicing the violin! And on . . . on through life to the B minor Fugue, the strange last planet, where tonality is stretched to its limit, as the body separates from the soul—and forgiveness, nostalgia, understanding, and the unfathomable undulate on the wave of the end.

Trevor Stephenson
October 2003
© 2001 Trevor Stephenson

1 We now refer to this work of the early 1720s as The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One since Bach completer another identically arranged set of preludes and fugues some twenty years later, c. 1742. The later work, however, now known as The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book Two, did not contain the term Well-Tempered in its title.
2 For a thorough discussion of well temperament see Owen Jorgensen’s Tuning (Michigan State U. Press, 1991).
3 This phrase is by one of Bach’s musically accomplished sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel.