Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is his collection of two sets of preludes and fugues for keyboard in all the major and minor keys, starting with C major in each set and progressing chromatically through the keys, each major followed by the tonic minor. The title page for the first volume states that the work is ‘For the profit and use of musical youth desiring instruction, and especially for the pastime of those who are already skilled in this study.‘ As I have been dipping into this work over the past thirty or so years, I definitely fall into the second category! My vaguely formulated plan of learning three new ones every year has only been put into practice the last few years or so; if I had kept to this schedule when I first thought of it, I would have learned both sets by now. As it is, at the time of writing I have at some point studied all of Book 1 apart from the A minor (I’m currently halfway through memorising the fugue) and B flat minor. Book 2 has remained largely unopened, apart from the occasional glance; the picture of my two books below doesn’t quite show that the back spine of Volume 1 has nearly come off but you can see that the cover is creased and the book looks well used compared to the almost pristine appearance of Volume 2.
Why this project? The first and main reason is that I love playing Bach, and once I’d learnt a couple of the preludes and fugues I wanted to complete the set. I suppose it’s the pianist’s equivalent of a climber who wants to bag all the Munros! Recording each prelude and fugue (always together) when I have learnt them is proof that I can play them.
I came quite late to the Well-Tempered Clavier.The D minor Prelude and Fugue in Book 1 was a compulsory piece for my A level performing exam and I remember learning it in between the Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel that were more recital pieces. The next was No. 15 in G major (Book 1), recommended by Maria Curcio when I went to her for lessons in my late twenties. As so often happened, it seemed my technique was completely wrong and it needed Bach to sort me out!
I took the message to heart and embarked on the long delayed study of the WTC. This is work that will keep me going for the rest of my life – but I hope to have learnt all 48 preludes and fugues at least once by the time I am 90! My practice always begins with Bach these days: I usually work for an hour early in the morning. Half an hour at least is spent learning a new piece – I will say more about this process in a later post – and some time on the next one to record.
Bach’s autographed manuscript of the first volume of Das Wohltemperirte Clavier (his spelling) first appeared in 1722. My first goal is to record all the pieces in Book 1 by 2022 – in time for the 300th anniversary.