J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier — A Video for the Curious

Bach’s music expresses joy, sorrow, excitement, and a profound beauty. But it is also very complex music, with many voices doing many things at the same time. Hearing and understanding everything that is going on is not straightforward, and it is not something that can be achieved just by listening, even after many repeat listenings. To fully comprehend how this music is crafted, it is necessary to read it.

Reading and listening to this Bach masterpiece just got easier with a new video that combines two open source scores with the piano playing of Kimiko Ishizaka to present you a complete performance of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

The Fugues, in particular, are quite special in this video. For each Fugue, the score separates the voices into their own lines, so you can see how all of them fit together. Take this example from the 5-voice Bb Minor Fugue to see how clearly the voices are shown.

Excerpt from Bach’s Fugue No. 22 in Bb Minor, BWV 867

Excerpt from Bach’s Fugue No. 22 in Bb Minor, BWV 867

Two sources for scores were used. For the Preludes, the Open Well-Tempered Clavier score from Musescore was used. For the Fugues, the public domain engraving by Kyle Rother using Lillypond software was chosen. As a consequence, you can easily compare the default engraving styles of Musescore and Lillypond, side by side.

The video is over one hour and forty-nine minutes long. Given that none of it repeats, and it is polyphonic throughout, that makes for some very dense listening (an attribute that you will grow to cherish as you build familiarity). But where to start, and how to listen if the music is totally new to you and you’re trying to get a toehold?

Fortunately, a lot has been written about The Well-Tempered Clavier. A growing number of the pieces are discussed on the Open Well-Tempered Clavier website. There is a nice video from Dave Conservatoire, “What is a Fugue?” that features a performance of the C-Minor Fugue by Kimiko Ishizaka. Finally, there is an outstanding set of analysis with illustrations and examples by Timothy A. Smith — highly recommended!
However, if you want to jump in and start listening here are some highlights to get you going.

The Prelude in C Major (the first piece)

This one is a beloved favorite. Technically easy enough for many piano students to get through, its apparent simplicity hides the fact that the piece is a miracle of uniqueness. It defies all of the rules and norms of the day, and you can’t really find other pieces like it (unless they’re based on it).

The Fugue in C Minor

It’s a wonderful example of a fugue, with three voices, and you can start to get a feel for the whole idea of a fugue, where an initial melody, or theme, is presented by each voice, offset by time and pitch.

The Eb Minor Prelude

This piece will teach you the meaning of sound colours on the piano. Listen to the repeated chords; each one sounds different from the previous, sometimes brighter, sometimes darker, always supporting the melancholic melodic lines.

The Ab Major Fugue

Joy. Pure joy. Much of music history was spent being sad, with upbeat music only serving to exacerbate the fall into emotional disarray (e.g. the entire Romantic period.) Bach, however, was capable of unfettered rejoicing, and this fugue rejoices quite merrily.

The A Minor Fugue

This is a monster. With four voices, the technical challenges to the pianist are enormous. What’s more impressive, however, is how Bach takes you on a whirlwind journey that ends big. Really really big.

The Bb Minor Prelude

The opposite of the Ab Major Fugue, i.e. no joy. None at all. Only sadness, yearning, and desolation.

The B Minor Fugue

There are no words left for what Bach did with this. The fugue theme uses all 12 chromatic tones, and the resulting harmonies and structures as he develops that material are so inexplicable that music historians and analysts are left scratching their heads trying to explain how he created such wondrous and radical music. Pay careful attention to the three magisterial sequences that punctuate the structure of the piece.

Here is the full video. Enjoy, and share with those who love music.

Prelude No 1 in C Major, BWV 846

In it's whole, the Well-Tempered Clavier delves into some of the most complicated and compelling counterpoint ever written. For example, the piece that ends the cycle of Book 1, the great B-Minor Fugue, is so chromatic and convoluted that it shocks the modern ear with its complexity. At the start of the cycle, however, Bach bluffs us with "simplicity". The C-Major Prelude, famous for its naive beauty, and for the fact that nearly every piano student takes a crack at it sometime in their studies, is actually an almost ironic outlier in a collection of polyphonic works. It is not immediately polyphonic (though it can be strongly argued that there are indeed five voices from start to finish), and it is even devoid of a theme. At first glance it is nothing but a series of arpeggiated chords around a nice, but not especially daring, harmonic progression in C Major. The subtle beauty of the music is undeniable, though, and it stands out through the whole of music history as distinctly recognisable and endearing, which is an excellent way to start off the monumental achievement of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Fugue No 1 in C Major, BWV 846 - Four voices

The first fugue in the Well-Tempered Clavier is a beautiful introduction to the world of Bach's fugues. A fugue is a style of musical composition where a Theme (melody) is introduced, and then repeated in one or more other voices. This is in contrast to modern songs which have a melody, usually sung or played by one voice, chords, and rhythm. This is what the theme of this fugue looks like:

Theme of Fugue 1 in C Major

In the first section of the fugue, each of the four voices introduces the theme, starting on a different note. In this section, the theme never overlaps itself. After all four voices have entered with the theme, Bach starts making things more interesting, and voices start playing the theme so that it overlaps with other voices. When the theme entrances overlap, this is called stretto. As you watch, you'll see that Bach uses stretto more and more, which heightens the tension of the piece.

The theme occurs 24 times in this fugue. That's no coincidence; there are 24 fugues in the cycle of the Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 1), two fugues for each of the twelve tonal keys -- once in major, once in minor (2 x 12 = 24). Bach loved numbers, symbolism, and symmetry, so this is very likely his way of showing that he intended to write 24 fugues altogether. See if you can hear each entrance of the fugue while you listen to Kimiko Ishizaka performing it.

Prelude No 2 in C Minor, BWV 847

The 2nd prelude, in C-Minor, is a dramatic, almost mechanical creation where tempo and articulation are the principal interpretive tools available to the artist. The piece has tempo indications from Bach, a rarity, in that bar 28 is marked presto, bar 34 adagio, and then allegro in bar 35.

This video and recording were made at the Bösendorfer factory in Wiener-Neustadt, Austria, when Kimiko Ishizaka visited to choose an instrument for the Well-Tempered Clavier recording that was to take place later in the Teldex Studio. While she was there, the management of Bösendorfer invited her to try a special creation that they were just finishing - the 50,000th Bösendorfer ever manufactured. She sat down and played through the C-Minor Prelude one time, and then continued on to the Bösendorfer showroom. Fortunately for us, filmmaker Anna Osipanova was also there, with her cameraman, and they filmed the run-through, as well other scenes from the Bösendorfer factory, and made this video from the materials.

You can also listen to the version of the Prelude No. 2 that Kimiko recorded for the Open Well-Tempered Clavier project in 2014:

Fugue No 2 in C-Minor, BWV 847

The C-Minor Fugue, in three voices, is textbook material for learning what a fugue really is. DaveConservatoire uses a live performance by Kimiko Ishizaka from 2013 to exemplify various fugal constructions in this video:

You can hear the later, studio recording of the same piece in this video. It is interesting to hear how Kimiko's interpretation of the piece evolved from 2013 to 2014, over the course of constant study and multiple performances

Fugue No 3 in C-Sharp Major, BWV 848 - three voices

This fugue's theme features the interval of the 6th very prominently, which is strongly linked to the overall feeling of exuberance and joy that the music expresses.

Ascending 6ths marked in red

The three fugue subjects are introduced from top to bottom and they never overlap (no stretto). No other techniques, such as augmentation, diminution, or inversion are applied to the fugue theme. One of the striking structural characteristics of the piece is the extended episode - music based on fragments of the theme, used in imitation, usually for modulation - between bars 29 and 40. One of the key features of this episode is the imitative exchange of three note fragments between voices with running 16th notes in the third voice.

Episode figure 1

Fugue No 22 in B-flat minor, BWV 867 - Five voices

The haunting five-voice fugue in B-flat minor has several characteristics which are notable. First, it is one of the rare fugues with five voices (there are two in Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and none in Book 2). Second, the theme features a dramatic and expressive leap of a minor 9th (the big jump upwards between the 2nd and 3rd notes). This is the only fugue theme to have such a dramatic leap. And finally, at the climactic moment of the piece, it features a mind-blowing hyperstretto. Stretto is the overlapping of the theme voices. Bach takes it to the extreme by overlapping all five voices, offset by only one note! See the diagram for an illustration.

An illustration of five-voice hyperstretto