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Johann Sebastian Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier
Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier is quite rightly considered the 'Old Testament' of the pianist as opposed to the 'New Testament' - the 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven. Indeed, there is no other work for the keyboard which has enjoyed such great and lasting popularity. The Well-Tempered Clavier is characterized by a technical and compositional mastery which had never been achieved before Bach, nor again since. This mastery is revealed not only in Bach's perfect control of polyphonic structure, in the absolutely logical leading and interplay of the individual voices - which had been natural for Bach since his years in Kothen - but even more in the treatment and development of the material, which is so full of fantasy and ideas. Not one piece seems even slightly similar to any other; every movement has its own unmistakable physiognomy and therefore its own unique character. No other 18th-century work is so deserving of the appellation "unity in diversity", which is so often used by music theorists, than this Bach collection. As a true compendium of the art of the keyboard of the baroque era at its peak, the most diverse forms of the era achieved their final shape in this work. At the same time however, Bach steps beyond this perfectly structured tradition into a new musical landscape, one which would determine the future direction of music.
Each part of the Well-Tempered Clavier consists of 24 preludes and fugues. They follow the order of the chromatic scale. Starting from C and C minor, there is a prelude and a fugue in both the major and the minor key in semitone steps, i.e. C-sharp, C-sharp minor, D, D minor, through to B and B minor. The combination of prelude and fugue had already often been used in the generation before Bach, and he followed this structure rigidly in the organ music composed during his creative time in Weimar. The pairing of recitative and aria in opera and cantata may have been the model for this dual approach. Questions about both the external relationships caused by the implications of the key and the internal connections between the prelude and the fugue have often been posed. And, although attempts have been made to discover motivic similarities between the two pieces, they are not very convincing, and today it is generally held that Bach could only have had a very loose connection in mind. Not unlike his organ music, thematic correspondences are only sporadically to be found. The lack of such similarities is more understandable when one realizes that Bach first composed eleven preludes for his son Wilhelm Friede-mann and added the corresponding fugues two years later. For the composition of a prelude, Bach chose from three main possibilities: the cyclical, the asymmetrical, or the toccata-like rhapsodic structure. In the first part of the work there is only one example of the toccata-like rhapsodic structure (in B-flat); this structure seems already obsolete. The asymmetrical structure is found far more often. It can appear as a prelude with full sound and harmonic development, as in the introductory piece (in C), in which a motif moves slowly downward without a single repetition though it may also appear as a motif which moves toward a peak at the end of the movement. For intensifying to a climax Bach uses a variety of means. Four preludes (in C, D, D minor and E minor) are based on a constant motif, which is presented in every possible variation as in an etude, until it finally peaks in the concluding measures in a free toccata-like and improvisational insertion. Performer and listener are led to experience and reconstruct the formation within themselves.
But to bring a prelude to its peak, free improvisation was not necessarily needed, for this could also be achieved through an increase in motivic activity, remote harmonic digressions or multiplication of voices. In the prelude in B-flat minor Bach increases the four-part texture to nine parts toward the end, according to strict rules, and remains on a dominant pedal point. One can find similar culmination points with the same expressive leading of voices in the movements in C-sharp minor, in E-flat minor and F minor. Cyclic structure, i.e. a return to the beginning, offers a kind of unity which imitates the then-popular A-B-A form of the Lied, the 'da capo' aria or the French overture. Bach used this construction very often and probably thought of it as modern, for it conveys a totally different, more human idea of music - "an acceptance of formed, beautiful music" (Besseler). How Lied-like a prelude may seem is revealed in the piece in E, whose recapitulation is introduced with an almost improvised little transition, while the movements in F-sharp and B are composed more in the style of an invention. Only the piece in B minor appears in the style of a suite movement in two parts with each half repeated, while the prelude in G minor conceals its two-part structure by the exchange of voices. The prelude serves as a preparation while the fugue seems to symbolize musical fulfillment. The first part of the Well-Tempered Clavier contains one fugue for two voices, eleven fugues for three voices, ten for four voices and two for five voices. But far more important than the number of voices is the theme. It carries within it the particular 'affect' which characterizes the entire work. Two groups of themes can be differentiated: one defined by tradition, and the other new and trend-setting. The traditional themes, which Bach seldom uses, have their roots in early vocal polyphony. One could call them "Ricerca themes"; they have an Adagio character, they sound solemn and serious, and the flow of the movement is even and peaceful (C-sharp minor, E-flat minor, F minor and B-flat minor). These fugues, like the one in C, are distinguished by their "presentation of the affect through inherent means of art" (Forkel), i.e. shaping the music with the greatest contrapuntal refinement. To these themes Bach opposes the "character themes" which do not follow any example or precident. They are completely new inventions, consist of contrasting motifs and quite often are inspired by the dance. Thus, the fugue in C-sharp is a disguised gavotte, and one may also recognize a minuet (F), a gigue (G) and other dances in some of the movements. In this way Bach managed to revive the fugue with the most modern and preferred means of his era, even though the younger generation already considered the fugal genre obsolete and out of date. With his rhythmic, sometimes Lied-like themes, often divided into two balanced phrases, Bach as an artist stands at the turning point of a new musical era.
- Lothar Hoffmann-Erbrecht
Well Tempered Clavier
About Well Tempered Clavier I on 'bach-cantatas.com'
About Well Tempered Clavier II on 'bach-cantatas.com'
исполнение WTK 1 (M.Pollini)
исполнение WTK 1,2 (S.Feinberg)
исполнение WTK 1,2 (V.Ashkenazy)
исполнение WTK 1 (G.Gould)
исполнение WTK 2 (G.Gould)
исполнение WTK 1 (K.Jarrett)
исполнение WTK 2 (K.Jarrett)
исполнение WTK 1 (V.Afanassiev)
исполнение WTK 2 (V.Afanassiev)