Bach’s first volume of his Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC) of 1722 was a most daring adventure into the whole circle of tonality, which he wrote “for the profit and use of musical young people who are curious to learn, and also as a special pastime for those already skilled in this study”. Why he should have decided to embark on a second volume twenty years later, however, at the very time when he was already engaged in the greater project of the Clavier-Übung in four volumes, which he was planning to publish as a statement for posterity, is something of a mystery.
One answer lies in the number of advanced pupils he had at the time, including Johann Friedrich Agricola, Johann Kirnberger and Johann Christoph Altnickol. In common with all of Bach’s pupils, these three musicians were tasked with copying their teacher’s material as part of their studies, and their copies, along with Bach’s surviving incomplete manuscript (which is now in the British Museum), provide sources from which we can draw interesting insights into emendations and developments made over a number of years.
Bach’s revisions in the manuscript of his future son-in-law, Altnickol, probably made during the course of teaching, are especially fascinating, for they reveal his continuing creative engagement with the material. In particular, they are testament to his lifelong quest to improve his craft. This, rather than mere convenience, may lie behind his use of earlier material as the basis for some preludes and fugues in this second volume. Especially telling is the reworking of the C major pieces after Bach had already systematically composed two blocks of preludes and fugues for Book II. First he composed the main keys and then the difficult keys (for some of these he simply transposed and reworked existing pieces, as for example in the C sharp major Prelude, based on an earlier work in C major). For his third block Bach was left with the pieces in A flat and C major. Although the A flat Prelude may have been newly composed, for the other pieces he used material that he had written in 1720, even before the completion of Book I. The original Prelude in C major, in particular, he now doubled in length and then, in subsequent revisions, added further details and flourishes to this most improvisatory prelude of the whole set.
In general, the 24 preludes and fugues of Book II do not explore more adventurous technical requirements, such as those in the Goldberg Variations. From a performer’s point of view, despite some demands for advanced technique in trills, they feel less systematically concerned with the education and development of keyboard technique than do the 24 preludes and fugues of Book I from 1722. Rather, they offer the challenge of responding to Bach’s widening boundaries of compositional technique and musical expression. As I play many of these pieces, I feel as though Bach wrote them as much for himself as for anybody else, exploring new territory and ideas, playing with the modern galant style, stretching the boundaries of traditional forms and extending his beloved chromaticism ever further and with new freedom.
Although it seems he had no plans to publish either volume of the WTC, Bach must have known that this music would be widely disseminated through the numerous copies made by his pupils. His music could then move outwards into his ever-growing circle of admirers. What he cannot have anticipated, however, was the sheer reach and influence of this music over the nearly three centuries since he created it.
In Vienna, at the time of the great Classical composers, the influence of Bach was famously channelled through the private library of the Dutch-born diplomat Baron Gottfried van Swieten. He knew a great deal about Bach as, in his youth in Berlin, he himself had been a pupil of Kirnberger and was therefore directly connected to the second book of the WTC. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were all well acquainted with van Swieten’s collection. In a letter to his father from 1782, Mozart provided this vivid description: “Every Sunday at 12 o’clock I go to Baron van Swieten – and there we play nothing but Handel and Bach. – I am just building up a collection of Bach fugues.” He duly made arrangements for string quartet of five fugues from Book II of the WTC (and possibly also those in F sharp major and F sharp minor for string trio) to be played at the baron’s Sunday gatherings.
Beethoven’s close connections to the WTC are very well known, going right back to an excitable press report from Bonn dated March 1783, when the composer was only 12 years old but already a prodigious performer: “He plays the clavier very skilfully and with power, and (to put it in a nutshell) he plays chiefly the Well-Tempered Clavier of Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe put into his hands.” In this connection, it is worth noting that many players of my generation were first introduced to the WTC through the edition by Beethoven’s pupil, Carl Czerny.
The enthusiasm for Bach on the part of early-Romantic composers is well documented. Felix Mendelssohn’s “Bach revival” is a familiar turning-point, but his sister Fanny’s playing of Bach’s preludes and fugues must certainly have contributed to this “revival”, which was itself a continuation of the Bach tradition emanating from the Berlin Sing-Akademie.
Chopin’s love of Bach was reported by many of his pupils, who remembered him urging them to begin their piano practice every day with the WTC. Fascinating in this connection was the recent rediscovery of a copy of Book I of the WTC annotated by Chopin for one of his students in or around 1828. All over this score, Chopin added metronome markings, performance indications (allegro, legato, etc.), a strange system of marking up the different entries of the fugal voices, and even occasional changes and “corrections” to the actual notes. I suspect that these last were made less out of arrogance than out of the feeling that he had established a close understanding with Bach.
A few years later, in 1850, Mendelssohn’s and Chopin’s close friend Robert Schumann published his witty and amusing Musikalische Haus- und Lebensregeln (known in English as Advice to Young Musicians), which was intended as an introduction to his own collection of piano pieces for teaching purposes, the Album für die Jugend (Album for the Young): “Practise industriously the fugues of good masters; and, above all, those of J. S. Bach. The Well-Tempered Clavier should be your daily bread.”
Even Wagner in Bayreuth, towards the end of his life, when he was working on Parsifal between 1877 and 1882, found himself turning more and more to Bach’s WTC rather than to Beethoven for his stimulus. His family remembered how in those years he loved to listen to the preludes and fugues played by his disciple, the pianist Joseph Rubinstein, or sometimes by his father-in-law Franz Liszt. And occasionally, his daughter recalled, he might be seated at the piano playing them for himself.
By the turn of the twentieth century, there seem to have been almost no composers or performers untouched by this music. Every summer Gustav Mahler, for example, would escape the worldly noise and bustle of Vienna and repair to his hut in southern Austria to rediscover himself as a composer by spending some days doing little else but playing the preludes and fugues of Bach.
And at almost exactly the same time, in Paris, his contemporary Debussy was writing with infectious enthusiasm: “It is in the notebooks of the great Bach most of all that we find the ‘musical arabesque’ … that principle of ‘ornamentation’ which is the basis of all modes of art (and which, incidentally, has nothing to do with the ‘ornaments’ we read about in books of musical grammar). The primitives, Palestrina, Vittoria, Orlando di Lasso, etc., had already made use of this divine ‘arabesque’ … When Bach took hold of it, he made it more supple and more fluid, so that, despite the severe discipline which this great master imposed upon beauty, it could now move with that free fantasy which constantly renews itself and continues to astonish us, even in our own age.”
Today, Bach’s WTC has shifted from private music to public music through concert performances and recordings. The pioneering performances of Edwin Fischer, Wanda Landowska and Gustav Leonhardt take their place amongst a vast number of recordings which include many riches. The listener may well try to find the recording which for them seems “definitive”. But, for the performer, each new performance or recording is simply a stepping-stone on the path of learning as, in common with our illustrious predecessors, we follow the great Bach in his own quest for the infinite.
London, September 2021