Return to Well-Tempered Clavier (thing)

[The Well-Tempered Clavier]
[Prelude]s and
[Fugue]s through all the [tone]s and [semitone]s
including those with a major third or Ut Re Mi
as well as those with a minor third or Re
Mi Fa. For the profit and use of
musical youth desirous of learning
and especially for the pastime
of those already skilled in
this study composed and prepared by
[Johann Sebastian Bach]
at present
Capellmeister to
His Serene
the Prince
of [Anhalt-Cothen],
and director
of His
[Chamber Music].

-Bach's inscription on the cover of Book I

The [Well-Tempered Clavier], composed in 1722 and 1744 and widely considered Bach's pinnacle of [keyboard] music, is divided into two books, each containing 24 preludes and fugues, with each prelude and fugue moving successfully upwards in key, starting with C major. The WTC are very important for several reasons; one, they pushed the boundaries of [baroque] keyboard method, and two, they encouraged [equal temperament], a system of tuning whereby the notes sound in tune regardless of which key the musician is playing; this is the reason why each prelude and fugue utilized one of the possible twenty-four key combinations. They are not so much [exercise] books as they are testaments to Bach's incredible creative genius.


The first book, which this writeup will be dealing with, was composed around 1722 during Bach's years at [Cöthen]. The years at Cöthen from 1717-1723 were extremely productive for Bach, as [Prince Leopold], Bach's patron, encouraged Bach to be creative and gave him all the tools he needed at his disposal. It is thought that these pieces were designed for the instruction of Bach's sons, since each piece stresses a different technique (Prelude 21 teaches runs of 32nd notes, whereas Prelude 10 deals more with [embellishments], for example).

It appears that most of the 24 preludes and fugues were written completely from scratch, as few "borrow" from Bach's past works, such as [coffee cantata|Cantata]s, [passion]s, etc. As well, there is reason to believe that Bach composed this while on a trip to a [Czechoslovakia]n [spa] with Prince Leopold, without access to a [harpsichord], proving Bach's amazing genius and apparent [perfect pitch] ability.

In general, each fugue is preceded by an [improvisation|improvisatory] prelude, in which a particular melodic motive is developed and embellished, often over a fixed harmonic pattern. The fugues are perhaps less academic that some of Bach's other contrapuntal music; they feature all of the complex fugal techniques one would expect, but the technical features of the fugue--[stretto], [augmentation], and [diminution]--are not overly apparent, as they might otherwise be in a more academic work. Bach also employs strong rhythmic figures, derived from dance music, to great effect in this work, in particular the 2nd half of Prelude 10.

[Equal Temperament]

The concept of equal temperament was extremely important. Before the mid-1700's, the common method for tuning harpsichords was [Pure Temperament], in which notes were tuned in perfect fifths, but because of the [Pythagorean Comma] (in which the sum total of fifths does not equal an octave) only a few [key]s could be played in perfect harmony. Equal temperament was a system of tuning in which a musician could play any key perfectly, so the 48 preludes and fugues were intended to give players a chance to work out their skills in any key signature without needing to completely retune the harpsichord/[clavichord].

Analysis of the Preludes and Fugues

The Preludes and Fugues of Book 1 are extremely interesting, both to listen to and to play, as they run the [gamut] of [baroque] style and technical ability; some, like Prelude 1, can be learned by young [piano] students, whereas some like Prelude 21 can take years to master. The following is a review of each prelude and fugue. Enjoy!

Preluude and Fugue 1

Key: C major
Fugue: Four voices (A4)

  • Prelude: This is a very simple prelude of repeating [arpeggio]s; it was developed to force youngsters to use their [thumb]s, since many musicians in the 18th century did not use their thumbs while playing. As well, it was composed in a simple yet elegant theme that would be appreciated by the less musically developed.
  • Fugue: The first note (middle C) must be played with guess what? Your right-hand thumb. However, the [fugue] is significantly harder to play than the [prelude]. The theme starts on C Major and is afterward developed on several Major and minor keys. Accidental sharps and flats are following as the changes of keys, as the first note of the recurring theme decides the key for the following bars.

Prelude and Fugue 2

Key: C minor
Fugue: Three voices (A3)

  • Prelude: This requires a precise synchronization of both hands, and as well many important notes should (must) be played by the thumbs and [little finger]s. This is among the most hauntingly beautiful of the preludes (or fugues), as the constant 16th notes morph into repeating keys, similar to the 1st prelude but in a minor key. At the end, a fast passage is complemented by a small run of [32nd note]s.
  • Fugue: This is easily the most recognizable fugue of the Book I, as it has a very clear [staccato] theme and countertheme, and appealing runs of ascending and descending sixteenth notes pre-empting further variations. This was, in fact, the first [Bach] song I ever learned to play, as it is not overly difficult to learn.

Prelude and Fugue 3

Key: C sharp major
Fugue: Three voices (A3)

  • Prelude: Written in 3/8 time, this prelude is possibly the first ever keyboard work written in C sharp major, which has seven [sharp]s in its key signature. The fast pace and huge amount of black keys are awkward for any [novice] pianist, but Bach had a different problem: C sharp major was difficult to tune even in equal temperament, so almost all of the notes are short and in [arpeggio] style, to mask any small mistunings.
  • Fugue: This utilized the arpeggios and staccatos of the prelude, and is meant to fully familiarize the keyboard student with the black keys.

Prelude and Fugue 4

Key: C sharp minor
Fugue: Five voices (A5)

  • Prelude: This is a very slow, beautiful piece, lasting around 3 minutes. It is the first of the slower preludes, and is intended to teach [timing], as it is more difficult for a keyboardist to accurately time a slower piece.
  • Fugue: This is only one of two five-voiced fugues in this book, and understandably it is slow like the prelude. The first note is a whole note followed by two half notes - again, the length of the first note determines the timing of the rest of the [fugue].

Prelude and Fugue 5

Key: D major
Fugue: Four voices (A4)
  • Prelude: For the popular key of D major, Bach decided to keep this prelude simple - it is a small, fast fugue, where the right hand creates a series of [sixteenth note]s, and the left hand keeps the rhythm with 8th notes.
  • Fugue: This is probably the second-most recognizable fugue after No.2. The opening theme is created with a series of 32nd notes, and the simple, pleasant fugue variates the keys depending on the key of the 32nd notes. Again, used as a tool for keeping proper rhythm.

Prelude and Fugue 6

Key: D minor
Fugue: Three voices (A3)

  • Prelude: Originally written as sixteenth note practice for Bach's son [Wilhem Friedmann], Bach later added a [chromatic] run of sixteenth notes to complete the prelude.
  • Fugue: Here, the three voices are clearly laid out - [bass] theme with sixteenth notes, 1st [treble] theme with eighth notes, and 2nd treble theme with quarter notes, acting as practice to clearly [enunciation|enunciate] each voice.

Prelude and Fugue 7

Key: Originally D sharp major, but changed to E flat major
Fugue: Three voices (A3)

  • Prelude: Originally, Bach wanted to use the key D sharp Major, which requires nine sharps, but there would have been two double sharps at C and F, so he had to change it to E flat major. This is the only prelude and fugue combination to have been previously composed, although the prelude stresses coordination in passing notes from the right to left hand.
  • Fugue: This fugue utilizes circling notes, so to speak, as the main theme is a turn of sixteenth notes, and as the fugue progresses the theme sort of [circle]s itself. Listen to it, you'll know what I mean.

Prelude and Fugue 8

Key: E flat minor
Fugue: Three voices (A3)

  • Prelude: This is another of Bach's long preludes (over 3 minutes). The first bar uses only black keys, and as well the entire [prelude] makes use of [arpeggio]s and regular half notes in the bass clef to keep the beat.
  • Fugue: Another slow fugue, albeit with a clear theme. This was originally written for D sharp minor and transposed to E flat minor.

Prelude and Fugue 9

Key: E major
Fugue: Three voices (A3)

  • Prelude: The first [bass] note is one and three quarter bars long, and this sort of note is repeated throughtout, as an exercise in sustaining notes on a [clavichord]/[harpsichord], which is much more difficult than a piano.
  • Fugue: This is one of the shortest fugues at just over a minute, yet it has one of the longest themes, 29 notes long, and Bach manages to rotate this lively theme seven times.

Prelude and Fugue 10

Key: E minor
Fugue: Two Voices

  • Prelude: Originally, this work was very simple, using a string of sixteenth notes for the left and playing basic [chords] with the right. However, a melody was added, along with a rapid [presto] part added at the end. As well, ornamentation is focused on heavily in this prelude.
  • Fugue: This is an unusual fugue for two reasons: One, it is one of the shortest fugues of Book I at 42 bars, and second, it is the only fugue to contain two voices. In fact, because of the low number of voices, in bars 19 and 38 the same thing is played with both hands in [unison], which is very unusual for a fugue.

Prelude and Fugue 11

Key: F major
Fugue: Three [voice]s (A3)

  • Prelude: This involves intense [trill] practice for both hands, whereby one hand trills and the other playes a series of [sixteenth note]s. At times, the usage of trills seems almost excessive, even for Bach.
  • Fugue: This is a simple fugue in a simple key, F major, which only requires one black key, B flat. This fugue also utilizes some of the [trill] techniques of the prelude, but not to the same degree.

Prelude and Fugue 12

Key: F minor
Fugue: Four voices (A4)

  • Prelude: The turning point of Book I, this prelude focusses mostly on transferral of sixteenth notes from hand to hand, though in a [moderato] fashion. The relative simplicity and ease of playing suggests that this was intended as a sort of "break" in the middle of the book.
  • Fugue: This fugue focuses almost entirely on [chromatic] notes; in the first half of the fugue, the chromatic [scale] starts on C, and in the second half it starts on F.

Prelude and Fugue 13

Key: F sharp major
Fugue: Three voices (A3)

  • Prelude: F sharp Major requires six sharps, and similar to Prelude 3 this was probably the first ever keyboard work composed for F sharp major, which is the farthest key away from C major. The prelude itself is short, simple and easy to play, using two quarter notes in the treble clef followed by one quarter note in the bass repeatedly in sequence.
  • Fugue: This is actually a transposition of a previous work written for [lute], [trumpet] and [cello]. Here, the task for the student is to enunciate each [voice] as though it were played in an [ensemble].

Prelude and Fugue 14

Key: F sharp minor
Fugue: Four voices (A4)

  • Prelude: Bach had actually written two preludes for this spot; one was used for Book I, and the second, slower one was [Lazarus|resurrected] for use in Book II. This is a fairly standard prelude, with no particular stress on a playing technique.
  • Fugue: Another slow fugue, though with some emphasis on slower trills. The first three notes are crucial to timing.

Prelude and Fugue 15

Key: G major
Fugue: Three voices (A3)

  • Prelude: Since this was written in G major, a popular and [ubiquitous] key, Bach decided to throw an unusual challenge to students, by putting the bass clef in 4/4 time and the treble clef in 24/16 time. As well, much of the prelude focusses on [triplet] sixteenths, but the perfect timing of notes despite two totally different time signatures points to [Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid|Bach]'s outstanding [mathematics|mathematical] genius.
  • Fugue: This is a basic, simple fugue dealing mostly with sixteenth notes. No timing shenanigans this time.

Prelude and Fugue 16

Key: G minor
Fugue: Four voices (A4)

  • Prelude: This focuses on two areas - another trill practice session, and as well the pairing of three 32nd notes at the end of two sixteenth notes occurs frequently throughout.
  • Fugue: Again, this is a very basic, [academic] fugue, intended for basic music study and practice.

Prelude and Fugue 17

Key: A flat major
Fugue: Four voices (A4)

  • Prelude: This prelude focuses on switching the [melody] from right to left hand, to dispel the notion that melody is [treble] and [accompaniment] is [bass].
  • Fugue: This fugue was intended as a [memory] lesson, since the rather convoluted theme and variations are difficult to memorize. This [contrast]s the easily memorizable prelude.

Prelude and Fugue 18

Key: G sharp minor
Fugue: Four voices (A4)

  • Prelude: This is the only prelude with a 6/8 [time signature], and as well the only [minor] tune with it also. This, like Prelude 15, is time signature practice.
  • Fugue This is technically a four-voice [fugue], though in most places it is only two voices. As well, Bach makes extensive use of double-sharp notes (notation: x), which can be tricky to sight-read.

Prelude and Fugue 19

Key: A major
Fugue: Three voices (A3)

  • Prelude: This is one of the more pleasant-sounding preludes, and certainly easy to play. It almost resembles a fugue, the way the main theme is taken and variated upon.
  • Fugue: This fugue is unusual for two reasons: One, it is in 9/8 time (another timing lesson, no doubt), and the main theme includes a rest of three eighth-notes; such a rest inside a theme was almost unheard of.

Prelude and Fugue 20

Key: A minor
Fugue: Four voices (A4)

  • Prelude: Although there are no [semitone]s in the key of A minor, Bach still throws in about 50, as practice in sight-reading [accidentals]. As well, the rhythm changes drastically from the second bar onward.
  • Fugue: This fugue has one of the longest subjects of 31 notes and 3 bars. The first part of the subject is terminated by nine degree fall (F, A flat, E), presumably to practice note transfer between hands.

Prelude and Fugue 21

Key:B flat major
Fugue: Three voices (A3)

  • Prelude: This is one of the most lively and spirited preludes of Book I, and accordingly it is also probably the hardest to play. It uses massive runs and triplets of 32nd notes for the right hand, with the left hand keeping the [beat] with [eighth note]s. As well, it makes extensive use of the tiny 32nd rest, to improve precision timing skills.
  • Fugue: In contrast with the lively prelude, this is a slow, drawn-out fugue with the longest subject, an amazing 38 notes. It is also unusual in that the first note is not B flat, in accordance with the key, but F, which is the dominant of B flat major.

Prelude and Fugue 22

Key:B flat minor
Fugue: Five voices (A5)

  • Prelude: Bach makes extensive use of short [interval]s here, giving the opening bars of the fugue an anticipatory, [dissonance|dissonant] sound. This is considered one of the most [elegant] preludes written for this book, considering its slow pace and simple theme.
  • Fugue: This, despite its slow pace, is among the most difficult fugues to play because of its five varied voices. Some musicians find it easier to play the lowest voice on a [pedal harpsichord], but if played straight it is excellent stretching exercise for the hands. It has been suggested that the opening theme was meant to sound like "[Christ Eleison|Chris-te e-le-i-son], e-le-i-son", in reference to a popular [hymn] at the time, though this is a fairly tenuous interpretation given the [secular] nature of these works.

Prelude and Fugue 23

Key: B major
Fugue: Four voices (A4)

  • Prelude: This is the second shortest prelude in Book I, at 19 bars, though it feels shorter than the 18-bar trill-ridden 11th prelude. This prelude uses a few [double sharp]s, but otherwise it is fairly standard, complementing the fugue well.
  • Fugue: This develops a final familiarity with black keys, as there are five of them in the key of B major. The slow pace of this fugue acts as an excellent precursor to the incredibly long 24th prelude and fugue.

Prelude and Fugue 24

Key: B minor
Fugue: Four voices (A4)

  • Prelude: More than anything, this prelude is an exercise in [patience]. It is no coincidence that Bach made the final prelude incredibly long - 94 bars, and going as long as ten minutes in some cases. It is incredibly easy to play, but most likely this was an exercise in keeping perfect time, even with [bland], lengthy music. Bach knew what he was doing.
  • Fugue: The opening theme of this fugue is very chromatic, and was intended to be used to tune the [harpsichord], as it utilizes almost every note in the scale. The whole fugue has a jumbled, strangely dissonant feel to it, as though it's just [spiral]ing into [infinity] (it nearly does, at over five minutes in length). Perhaps this thirteen-minute prelude and fugue is a fitting end to one of the greatest keyboards works ever composed.

"Das Wohltemperirte Clavier" - Urtext edition, published by Carisch
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