MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

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The Well-Tempered Clavier
In this unit we'll look at one of Bach's greatest achievements, an anthology of Preludes and Fugues called The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Assignment #27 asks you nine questions about all of this. Link opens in a new tab.

Preludes and Fugues in every possible key

The Well-Tempered Clavier presents pairings of Preludes and Fugues.

A prelude is supposed to be a short warm-up piece which gets us used to the sound of the key. Then the fugue is the very substantial, polyphonic kind of work that we were introduced to when we studied Bach's "Little" Fugue in G minor.

In The Well-Tempered Clavier Bach writes a prelude and fugue based on every major and minor scale. There are 12 different places on the piano where you can make a scale, and doing both the major and minor makes 24, and on top of that Bach made two volumes with the same encyclopedic approach, giving us a grand total of 48 pairs of preludes and fugues.

Some musicians like to just refer to the WTC as "the 48," and you are just supposed to know what that means. That's only a little pretentious. :P

What's a Clavier?

Clavier is just German for "keyboard," and Bach seems to have meant that his anthology was suitable for any keyboard instrument one would have at home. In the late Baroque there were two main options that he would have had access to.

The Harpsichord

We've already heard a lot of harpsichords in our Baroque music, since they are frequently playing in the background as part of the Basso continuo.

This guy from the internet is going to show us how a harpsichord works.

The Clavichord

Another common instrument in Bach's day was the clavichord, and I've got yet another guy from the internet to demonstrate that for us.

Remember the bit where he shows how multiple keys hit the same string? In his demo he talks about F, F-sharp, and G. That means that you can't ever play those notes simultaneously - it wouldn't work!

Some modern musicologists have tried to prove that the Well-Tempered Clavier was written for clavichord by looking at these close-together combinations of notes - if F and G never happen at the same time, maybe it was written for this particular model of clavichord.

The Modern Piano

While we are looking at the internal mechanisms of keyboard instruments, we might as well consider the piano, even though it is not invented yet in the Baroque. I have a slow-motion video of a piano key being pressed.

The piano has a few features that are more sophisticated than both the harpsichord or clavichord. It has metal strings and a metal frame which can support more tension - this makes it a lot louder.

What happens when you press a key is also a lot more complex. We saw that a harpsichord has "jacks" that pop up and twang the string, and the clavichord has hammers that whack the string in different places. The piano has a hammer that shoots up from the bottom and immediately retracts. It also has a damper that lifts up when you are pressing the key, but comes back down when you release it.

Even though The Well-Tempered Clavier was definitely not written for the piano, it is considered acceptable to perform it on one, and indeed this is the most common format you'll hear it in today. While it's not "authentic" I think most music fans agree that it sounds good, so they let it slide. :)

C Major Prelude and Fugue (Book I) on Harpsichord

In a nod to historical correctness, lets listen to the very first pairing of Prelude and Fugue in the Well-Tempered Clavier on harpsichord. If you studied piano you've quite possibly heard this prelude before, because it is very pretty and not hard to play.

What is "Well-Tempered"?

But wait, we never talked about the other part of the title. We know Bach is writing for some kind of keyboard instrument, but why does he call it "Well-Tempered"?

The short answer is that this means "well tuned." BUT, tuning a keyboard instrument was surprisingly difficult in Bach's day.

It's kind of a shocking fact that the different scales don't actually mesh together perfectly on a piano keyboard. Let's imagine that we are building an instrument and we start with the note C, and we tune it up so that everything sounds as good as it possibly can in C major.

I made a clip of a few chords played on such a keyboard.

(I used five-limit just intonation tuning, if you want to look at the math that is involved.)

Here every chord is acoustically "perfect" and it sounds pretty decent.

However, if I try to play in a different key on the same piano, the result sounds out of tune. Here are some chords in the key of E major.

It's subtle, but maybe you can hear how it's a little "off." These chords are out of tune!

If you tune your keyboard so that one scale sounds as perfect as possible, you'll damage the sound of other scales. Baroque musicians worked hard to find a good balance between the scales which they called the "temperament." Since they didn't have the tools (or even the math) we have today, this was more of an art than a science.

Equal Temperament

Today we've worked out how to tune a keyboard so that the notes are all the same distance apart and every scale is in a perfect compromise with every other scale. This isn't that hard when you have gadgets that can measure the frequency of notes and logarithms that can mathematically chop the octave into twelve equal parts.

So...the Well-Tempered Clavier

Remember that the WTC in an anthology that presents preludes and fugues based on every possible scale. Bach's title means that if you can play through all of this music and it all sounds good, you have a "well-tempered" keyboard instrument.

People have described the Well-Tempered Clavier as a "keyboard tuning manual" or a "keyboard demonstration book" but it's more than that. Bach makes every key its own universe. The various pairs of preludes and fugues have different personalities and convey different emotions.

To play through all of Book I and Book II would take about four hours - nobody does it all in one shot. Maybe if you were lucky you could hear somebody perform one book in concert. But I think it makes more sense to just dip in to the anthology and listen to a little bit at a time. You could do this every day and never get tired of it.

We are going to listen to two pairs of preludes and fugues, one in G major and one in G minor, and we'll see how different these sound. Our pianist is going to be Anne-Marie McDermott.

Prelude in G major (Book I)

The prelude in G major is a written to basically show off how fast the pianist can play. Bach often called this kind of piece a toccata (or "touch piece"). McDermott plays it very fast indeed, so buckle up...

Fugue in G major (Book I)

Now it's time for our fugue, and it will have the same structure that we've learned about. It has a subject that comes back over and over again, plus episodes that spin out fragmentary ideas.

Bach plays an interesting game with his subject in this fugue - he turns it upside-down (or inverts it), so that it goes up when it previously went down and vice-versa.

The "normal" version of the subject

The inverted form of the subject

As you'll see, this all flies by at lightning speed, and it is much harder to identify the individual entrances of the subject. I sometimes try to call out subjects and episodes orally in class, and I always fail, it's just too fast.

The complexity

As we heard in that G major fugue, a Bach piece can pack in a ton of information, more than you can possibly digest in one hearing. The upside of this is that you could listen to this fugue a hundred times and still hear new details with each repetition. And in my opinion this complexity never sounds gratuitous, it's not like some other composers who sometimes seem to be trying too hard.

The G minor Prelude (Book I)

All right, let's switch to a minor key, now. This prelude has a very different vibe than the G major one - it is more thoughtful and meditative.

What Bach is doing in this prelude is manipulating a short idea and turning it around in different ways.

The G minor Fugue (Book I)

Now we get the fugue, and this is very heavy and almost angry. Our subject sounds like someone is lecturing you and pointing a finger. The G major stuff was all written with two or three polyphonic voices, which kept it light, but this one has four lines going at once.

So, now we know these two pairs of preludes and fugues, plus we listened to the C Major prelude and fugue on harpsichord. There are only 45 more to go! This is really a lifetime's worth of music. If I were exiled to a desert island and could only bring one CD, this is what I would bring.

Assignment #27

Assignment #27 asks you nine questions about The Well-Tempered Clavier. Link opens in a new tab.

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