Andrew Dziedzic looks at the genius of J.S. Bach

Is it possible to write a brief article about Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, a seminal collection of 24 preludes and fugues in every major and minor key, for the 300th anniversary of its completion in 1722? It’s like being asked to mention the greatness of Shakespeare or of Van Gogh – the achievement is too great, too multi-faceted and so full of the summit of human genius that it defies adequate description. Surely the very attempt must involve a narrowing of focus, thus diminishing the complexity, richness, and subtlety of the whole? However, if these few words of mine pique the curiosity of even one reader enough to explore these works, that will be enough!

Why are these preludes and fugues described as ‘well-tempered’? And what is a clavier? What is the point of composing such a collection? What makes this collection fundamental for conservatorium courses all over the world?

In Bach’s time the tuning system for keyboard pieces wasn’t settled, and a satisfactory system that covered all 24 major and minor keys hadn’t yet been discovered. Although it had been tried before with only partial success, Bach’s achievement in composing works that could be played according to one system was significant – one which could then be described as ‘well-tempered’, that is, with a result that wasn’t too sharp (or flat). Yet we still don’t know the exact system that Bach employed

– some modern musicologists even interpret a scroll design at the top of Bach’s manuscript as the key (!) to the system Bach employed.

And when Bach refers to a clavier – at a time before the invention of the fortepiano – he indicates that these pieces could be performed on any keyboard instrument, including the harpsichord, clavichord, or organ.

Earlier versions of some of the pieces in this collection appeared in a collection of works composed for the instruction of Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann, and indeed Bach’s own foreword refers to these works as being equally instructional for students of the keyboard and those who are skilled. However, they are supremely instructional on the level of fugue composition, as well as instructional in the sense of posing many and varied challenges for the performer.

In Bach’s day, each key denoted a particular emotional effect which was meant to be stimulated and explored.  In doing so, Bach was also demonstrating his contrapuntal skills in the fugues, his ability to create overlaid variations on a theme or themes, weaving the fabric of the music together, forwards, backwards and upside down, often in several voices. At the same time, Bach was exploring each key, seeking to influence the listener towards various reactions that reflected the joy, sorrow, or reflection implied by that key. In other words, Bach might be said to be using music to discover what it means to be human, to laugh, to cry, to dance and to dream – and to contemplate the infinite like a prism of musical mirrors lined up beside each other into the distance.

No wonder music from The Well-Tempered Clavier was included on the golden record sent into space on the Voyager spaceship as part of the evidence of the potential of human genius!

Related program – Sunday 2 January 2022, 3pm