Work: Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1: Prelude
About This Work
The prelude in C major that opens the first volume of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier may well be his most universally recognized piece of music -- and yet, as fate would have it, many of those who know it have never heard the fugue for which it is a
prelude, and might in fact have no idea that it is part of a larger work that counts among the most significant and groundbreaking musical efforts ever penned. Because of the mathematics involved, the tuning, or temperament, of a keyboard instrument must necessarily be only an approximation of intervallic perfection. Various methods of arriving at a satisfying approximation were tried out during the Renaissance and Baroque, but none was really successful -- none produced a tuned instrument that could play in more than a small handful of keys without the result sounding grossly out of tune -- until the late seventeenth century, when several satisfying methods came into general use. Now a harpsichordist could play to good effect in each of the 24 keys, and around 1722 Bach decided to compose a prelude and a fugue in each of them. Historical considerations aside, the pages of the Well-tempered Clavier are felt by many to be the most flawlessly crafted, brilliantly designed music ever composed.
The C major prelude is on the surface a most simple piece of music: a series of chords unfolds, each arpeggiated in exactly the same way. But the cleverness by which that exact series of harmonies in that exact spacing with that exact arpeggiation was devised cannot be overestimated. In fact, Bach spent a great deal of effort on this seemingly effortless miniature, and it took him more than one try to get it right -- it is one of just a few Well-tempered Clavier pieces that exist in more than one version. The fugue is in four voices, and, interestingly enough, its subject is ever-present, which means that there are no episodes in the ordinary sense of the word, only a continuous contrapuntal elaboration of the subject (which is set against itself in the fugue's second half in a stretto of supreme elegance).
- Blair Johnston
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