Sunday, February 3, 2013

J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier 
Book 2 
A Community Listening Project
hosted by the 
Ethical Culture Society of Essex County,
516 Prospect Street, Maplewood, NJ 07040
February 1st - April 20, 2013

Presenter and Pianist: Birgit Matzerath


1. The composer
2. Keyboard Instruments in Bach’s time - types of instruments, tuning
3.The Music: Preludes and Fugues - Listening to Fugue No 2 in c-minor BWV 871 step by step
4. Bach’s music as an analogy to the life journey
5.The Community Listening project 

  1. The Composer - short overview of J.S. Bach’s life and work
    Johann Sebastian Bach lived from 1685 to 1750 and he spent his entire life in Germany, in a fairly small region of the country. He was born in Eisenach into a family with many professional musicians. His father Johann Ambrosius was the director of the town musicians in Eisenach, it was from him that Johann Sebastian got his first instruction in harpsichord and violin.

    His parents died within months of each other when he was 10 years old, and he was taken in by his older brother Johann Christoph, who was the organist at the Michaeliskirche in Ohrdruf, a town not very far away. Under his supervision, J.S’ musical education continued. I read somewhere that Johann Sebastian never had any formal instruction in composition, but It has to be mentioned that in those days, learning to play a musical instrument went beyond mere instruction in playing skills. It included learning musical theory - getting to know the elements that constitute music, and applying them through improvisation. In real life, no church- or court musician could survive without producing a certain amount of his own music. “Copies” of other people’s music were not readily available, they had to be copied by hand, and the only way to hear another musician’s performance was to go there.

    Johann Christoph exposed him to the works of the leading composers of the day, the Germans Jacob Froberger and Johann Pachelbel, the French Composers Marin Marais, Jean Baptiste Lully and Marchand, and the keyboard compositions of the Italian Girolamo Frescobaldi. Bach also attended the Gymnasium, where instruction consisted of Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Theology.

    At age 14, his musical skills won him a choral scholarship to the prestigious school of St Michael’s in Luebeck, an institute where the sons of the nobility were educated and prepared for a variety of careers. The school had a good choir and good instruments. Living in Luebeck also enabled Bach to hear two of the leading organists of the day; Georg Boehm, and Reincken in Hamburg, which was not very far away.

    In 1703, when he was 18, Bach graduated from the school and began his career as a professional musician. The options were to work either at a court or at a church, and Bach did both in the course of his life. His skills as an organist and his knowledge about the instrument got him positions in Arnstadt and Muehlhausen. 
      Bach-Kirche, Arnstadt
    In Muehlhausen, J.S. married his first wife, Maria Barbara, with whom he had seven children. Four survived into adulthood, among them Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanual, who became famous musicians themselves.

    From 1708 to 1717 Bach was organist and court musician at the ducal court in Weimar. This gave him the opportunity to work with professional musicians. He composed many orchestral and keyboard works, among them a number of concertos transcribed from Italian masters. That kind of exposure to the Italian style had an impact on his own works as well. He began to work on the “Little Organ Book” for his eldest son; it contains elaborate arrangements of Lutheran chorales and is directed toward the training of organists. Bach also wrote some of the Preludes and Fugues that were later included in the “Well-Tempered Clavier I ” a collection of 24 Preludes and Fugues in all keys, published in 1722.

    Between 1717 and 1723 Bach worked as director of music for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Koethen. The prince was a Calvinist, and that meant that the music played at the church service was plain, there was no demand for elaborate works. Bach wrote many secular works during this time, the Orchestral Suites, the suites for solo cello, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, the Brandenburg Concertos.

    In 1720, Bach experienced the probably greatest tragedy of his personal life. He was on a several months leave with the prince, and when he returned, he found his wife Maria Barbara dead and buried. She had died on July 7, the causes of her death are unknown.
    The following year, Bach married his second wife, Anna Magdalena, a gifted singer, who was 17 years younger than he. The famous “Notebook for Anna Magdalena” , which is the first encounter with his music for many pianists, was his wedding present to his young wife. They had 13 children together, six of them survived into adulthood, Gottfried Heinrich, Johann Christoph Friedrich und Johann Christian became musicians.    

St. Thomas' Church, Leipzig

From 1723 until his death in 1750, Bach held the prestigious position of Cantor at St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig; and he was also the music director of the principal churches in the city; the Nikolaikirche and the Paulinerkirche. Leipzig was a lively, bustling mercantile city, much more vibrant than the places where he had lived before.  

His duties as a church music director included the performance of a cantata - a work for choir, orchestra and soloists - on every Sunday of the liturgical year, and Bach usually wrote his own. Three complete cycles of cantatas exist today, the obituary even mentions five. Additional church holidays inspired works like the monumental the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John’s Passion - illustrating the suffering of Christ in music, involving choir, orchestra, soloists; there is the Christmas Oratorio - a collection of six cantatas for the six special days around Christmas, the B-minor Mass.

Bach continued to compose secular and also purely instrumental works. Among the most famous works of his last ten years are the Goldberg Variations, Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the “Musical Offering,” inspired by a theme that Friedrich the Great gave him on a visit to Berlin, and “The Art of the Fugue” his last work, which he did not finish. As far as we know, the “Well-Tempered Clavier” and the “Art of the Fugue” were not written for a special purpose, they were motivated by the composer’s interest to continue experimenting with contrapuntal music, developing it further, finding out how far he could go.

When Bach died at the age of 65 in 1750, his style of composing was already considered obsolete. It appeared complicated and artificial, audiences called for something more natural,simple and pleasing. His sons called him “an old wig” and wrote their own music, following the new “empfindsamer Stil” (“sensitive style”) brought them greater fame in their life time than their father ever experienced.

While Bach’s music largely disappeared from public performances for more than 100 years, professional musicians knew and continued to study it, especially the Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Today, J.S. Bach’s works, secular or sacred, are played all over the world and considered among the greatest music ever written.

2. The Instrument

The composition of the Well-Tempered Clavier is closely connected with the development of the keyboard instrument - more precisely: its tuning. Today, keyboards are generally tuned “well-tempered,” which means that the octave is divided into 12 equal half-steps. Practically, this allows us to play any tune from any key. According to the laws of acoustics, this is not really correct. The only interval  ( distance between two pitches )  that is really in tune on the modern keyboard is the octave. Everything else is slightly off, but we don’t realize it, because we’ re used to it. 

The traditional method (methods) of tuning in Bach’s time was more in tune with the laws of acoustics. That had an upside and a downside. Each scale had its own, specific character, which meant that a major scale played from C sounded slightly different than a major scale played from A. Musicians liked those different characteristics, but the downside was that scales beyond 3 flats or sharps sounded so badly out of tune that they were practically unusable. (The link gives sound files from Stuart Isacoff's book: Temperament

Around Bach’s time, musicians finally came up with a tuning system that solved the problem and was close to the well-tempered tuning that is used today. It went along with a loss of individual character of each key, which some deplored, while others welcomed the extended possibilities that opened up for the composer. To use an analogy : Imagine the map of the US with a road going down the East Coast, the West Coast, maybe one along the Mississippi, and one going across in the South, one in the Middle and one in the North. That’s like the “old” tuning. With Well-Tempered tuning, you suddenly have roads all over, and the novelty is not just the road itself, but now you can use many different ways to get from A to B. 

Bach was the first composer to write major works in all 24 keys. In the Well-Tempered Clavier he demonstrates what the new tuning system made possible. It took about another century after its introduction to fully explore and use all the options.  

Before we turn to the music, there are a few more terms that need to be clarified. “Clavier” in Bach’s time simply meant keyboard. The modern piano did not yet exist, instead, there were three types of keyboard instrument: the organ, the harpsichord, and the clavichord. On the organ, the tone is produced through air that goes through a pipe. That happens with the help of keys, but in terms of tone production, the organ is really a wind instrument. 

 Pipe Organ

On the harpsichord, the tone is produced by a quill that plucks a string.
sound example) Neither the organ nor the harpsichord allow the player to influence the tone quality through the way they touch the keys - that is the privilege of the pianist. 


On the piano, a hammer is thrown against a string when you lower the key. If you lower it fast, you get a loud sound, if the key goes down slowly, you get a soft sound. In all, this allows for a much finer gradation of dynamics and a manipulation of sound of each individual note that is not possible on the harpsichord or the organ. Bach didn’t know the piano, but he knew the clavichord - a keyboard instrument, where metal tangents strike the strings, and that allowed the player the sound through touch, which made it particularly expressive.
sound example) Yet, the sound was soft, the instrument not suitable for larger venues. It was also very difficult to play, because certain challenges of the mechanic weren’t solved yet, e.g. the tangent would rebound and strike the string again if you lowered the key too fast. In general, clavichords were mostly used as practice instruments, and they were often portable.

Today, it is common practice to play all the pieces from the Well-Tempered Clavier on the modern piano, or the harpsichord, not so much on the organ, because organ pieces usually have a separate bass line. Some pieces from the WTC suggest that Bach may have had a particular instrument in mind when he composed them, but he did not specify it.

3. The Music

Bach wrote two collections of 24 Preludes and Fugues in all 24 keys of the circle of 5ths. Book 1 was published in 1722, possibly in connection with Bach’s application for the position as Thomaskantor in Leipzig.  The 2nd collection was published 20 years later, in 1744. With both collections, Bach demonstrated for the first time what became possible in composition if you used well-tempered tuning for a keyboard instrument. 

The pieces in both books were composed over a long period of time, and not all of them were originally written for the Well-Tempered Clavier. Some pieces in Book 2 were probably written before Book 1; so stylistically, there is quite a variety, from early to late style. 

Each of the 24 “Numbers” of the Well-Tempered Clavier consists of two pieces: a Prelude and a Fugue. 

Preludes originally had an introductory function. They were often improvised in church to set the mood, the key, and the tempo of a hymn, so the congregation would hopefully begin the hymn at the same time and on the same pitch. The key is often outlined through a “cadence” - a progression of chords on the first, fourth and fifth step of the scale, that contains all the notes of the respective scale. Bach uses this chord progression at the beginning of each Prelude - though in much more elaborate form than I just demonstrated.  

The Preludes in the WTC can be very different in structure and character, from an improvisation ( Prelude No 1 in C-major, to simple broken chords ( Prelude No 3 in C# major to virtuosic (Prelude No 6 in d-minor - they are a playground for the freedom of the composer.

Eventually, Preludes developed into pieces of their own right, far beyond their original introductory function. In Book 2 of the WTC we already get some of that; many Preludes are longer, some even much longer that the following Fugue which they supposedly introduce. Over time, and to this day, Preludes become “character” pieces  - pieces expressing a certain mood. Chopin wrote 24 Preludes in all keys of the circle of 5th. Rachmaninov, Scrijabin, Debussy composed character pieces called Preludes - no longer in combination with Fugues though, a method of composition that remains a challenge to composers to this day, a method in which Bach reached his greatest mastery.

Fugues are the highlight of “contrapuntal” composition, that means independent voices join together to make a piece of music. You’re probably all familiar with rounds, which are very simple example of that.

The structure of the round allows us to accompany the tune with itself, which sounds good as long as we start at the right place. Rounds are nice, but as the name says, they  don’t go anywhere, there is no development of the music.
This changes once you accompany the melody with its augmentation (twice as slow; the opposite is diminuition; twice as fast), or with the inversion (the melody turned upside down)

Listen to the following versions of “Frere Jacques”:
1) the melody alone
  1. the melody, accompanied with chords
  2. as a round in 2 parts
  3. the inversion of the melody (the melody turned upside down)
  4. the melody and the augmentation (the melody twice as slow)

    2nd example: Frere Jacques in 3 parts:

The middle voice begins with the melody, after two measures, the lowest voice comes in with the augmentation. The soprano enters next, with the diminuition of the melody, accompanied by the inversion of the melody in the alto voice. The example gives an idea of something that happens in a Fugue: the material is changed, there is development, the music actually goes somewhere.  With that in mind, let’s listen to the Fugue in C-minor, WTC 2

  1. The piece begins with one voice stating the subject - like the subject of a conversation. Then, the second voice comes in and takes up the subject. When you compare the two, you will notice that the second entrance is a little different from the first - this usually happens in a fugue, because the second entrance starts on a different pitch, and you have to tweak it a little to make it fit the whole. The second entrance of the subject is generally called “answer”, and the “subject” and the answer will continue through the entire piece.  The third entrance follows in M 4, it is a subject in the tenor voice.
    In every fugue, there are sections where the subject does not appear  - as in the conversation, the music “trails off.” Depending on their function, we call these sections “episodes” - if they connect two parts, or they can be “extensions” of the subject, or “codettas” - a section that finishes an idea. In this Fugue, a short episode follows the third entrance. 
  2. The next entrance, the answer (A) in the tenor voice (T) in M 7 marks the beginning of a new section, we call it counter- exposition.
    In Fugues, different sections merge into each other; if you don’t know about them, you may not even recognize them at first. In the beginning, every voice states the subject/answer once. When that has happened, the “Exposition” of the Fugue is complete. This Fugue is an exception in so far as it is marked as a Fugue in four voices, but you don’t have four voices at the same time until the last part of the piece,
    The subject entrances in the counter- exposition are
    M 7 Tenor: A, M8 Soprano: S, with rhythmic change, M10 Alto: A, M 11 Tenor: S
    The counter-exposition ends in a big climax, and you could think this is the end of the piece - but it can’t be, because we’ve landed in a different key, and it’s a general rule that a piece has to end in the key that it started with - the composer has to bring it home.
  3. With M 14/15 we enter the “development section” of the Fugue. Even though I choose to play it very softly, for me, this has been one of the great moments of this fugue, ever since I heard it for the first time. After all the commotion, dissonance of the cadence before, here is the augmentation of the subject, and it feels like a rock in the surf, or a silver lining on the horizon. The augmentation of the subject is accompanied by the subject in the Soprano and the inversion of the answer in the Tenor. The technique of having the subject/answer overlap in different voices is called stretto. 
  4. Right after this first stretto, there is another one in M 16-18 Alto: A, Soprano:S, Tenor: S. If you listen to them individually, you will find that there are changes, in order to make things fit harmonically - and sometimes, also to make things more interesting - the composer tweaks the subject on the way.
  5. The augmentation of the subject in the bass marks the first entrance of that voice. Interestingly, the subject stays in the bass for the rest of that section, presenting the inversion of the answer, and the answer - as if the bass was trying to make up for everything that voice missed out on so far. At the end of that section, we’re back in c-minor.
  6. A final section follows in M 23, again as a stretto - the subject overlapping in different voices:
    Alto: S, Soprano: A; Soprano: S, Alto :S, Tenor: S, Bass: inversion of A; and , in difference to the beginning, we have all four voices together - maybe this fugue is a quest in search in search of a lost bass... 
  7. A short coda concludes the piece, confirming the key of c-minor.
If your brains are starting to smoke over all those terms and intricacies, don’t worry, you don’t have to remember each and every one, they are only supposed to give you some orientation what to listen for, “landmarks” on the way through the maze. As you listen to more of this kind of music, and listen to it more often, I’m sure you’ll begin to notice them, like something familiar that you’ve heard before. I think terms can be helpful, giving you a little bit of structure, but I don’t think that they are indispensable to what I would like to call “the emotional understanding” of the music. 

4. Bach’s Preludes and Fugues as an analogy to the life journey

As a young piano student, I didn’t like to play Bach. The two-part Inventions, usually the piano student’s first encounter with serious polyphony, were on my secret boycott list, mostly for practical reasons. They are incredibly difficult, much more difficult than they sound. You have to exactly know which finger goes where - as you could hear in the fugue, the voices that come together form a texture, and if one thing falls through, everything unravels, it’s like a run in your stockings. When I was a teenager, I didn’t care for the kind of discipline that is required to master the task. Fortunately, I got over that when I was in college, where I really got to love Bach’s music, even though that applied more to his Suites, Partitas, Toccatas, the forms that are more playful and don’t appear as structured as the Preludes and Fugues. 

It wasn’t until I was past forty that I got hooked on the Well-Tempered Clavier. Book I became a pillar during one of the greatest transitions of my life, the emigration from Germany. It built a bridge between the country where it was composed and the country I was moving to. I began to experience the stabilizing influence of this music, and that is something that I’ve since found confirmed by so many people, musicians and non-musicians.

In 2005 I was living in New Hampshire and preparing for a complete performance of Book 1. The house where I lived was being painted, and while the painter was working on the scaffold in front of the windows of my apartment, I was practicing 5, 6 hours a day. One day, when I went out, the painter approached me, and he said: “ What music is  it that you’re playing, it is so comforting and calming,” and then he added “ it’s such a treat compared to the crap that’s on the radio all the time.”
Last summer, I had a similar experience to the one I had with the painter in New Hampshire in the neighborhood where I live now. I was practicing with the windows open, and a neighbor, a young woman, came up to me and commented that the music was so soothing for the mind. 

There is something in Bach’s music that conveys the feeling of bringing order into chaos, and I believe that we can all connect to that emotionally, regardless of our educational background, if we open our hearts. It is highly structured music, “ it’s math become music,” somebody recently said to me. It’s true that it’s frightfully difficult to compose a decent fugue, and nobody did it better than Bach. But that’ s not all there is to it. If we regard the Preludes and Fugues as a merely intellectual challenge, we miss the point. This music is highly emotional, like all of Bach’s music. The leading authors in his time who wrote treatises on musical matters, all agree in one point: The sole function of music is to speak to the emotions of the listener. Musicians had even developed a musical rhethoric, a kind of musical vocabulary, where certain rhythmic, melodic and harmonic elements stood for certain emotional values. Johann Mattheson, one of Bach’s contemporaries, wrote: “Whatever happens in music without true emotions, says nothing, means nothing and is worth nothing.” That is true for the composer as well as the performer, and it is as true today as it was back then.

In the Preludes and Fugues, you can find every shade of emotion, from the most radiant joy to the deepest sorrow. What’s special is the way he expresses them - from the point of view of someone who has been there, who has seen it all, and gone through and found his balance, and found a solution. His music conveys that kind of peace, peace of mind, that is so hard to find in this world. 

Another thought occurred to me, one day when I was practicing last summer.  In Bach’s “music of many voices” there is something that mirrors human life. It is just as complicated, complex, difficult to figure out and to play. 

Different voices, independent, but not self sufficient, communicate with each other; different paths cross on a common journey. Whatever happens is a result of what happens between them, and how they deal with each other. 

Like life, the music never stops. A voice will take a break, go into silence every now and then when it has nothing to say, needs to catch its breath, or when it doesn’t fit in. In the meantime, the others continue the journey. 

Exploring the music is all about listening - listening for each voice, and discovering the hidden messages that pass back and forth between them. 

The music of the Preludes and Fugues doesn’t know loneliness. The way it is laid out is the answer to the yearning of human beings to be released from being trapped within themselves. 

As long as there is communication, and be it communication with yourself, there is hope. The interaction with another voice, keeps things moving. If it is functioning, it develops a dynamic that shapes the initial emotion, gives it direction; it also reigns it in. 

Things get dangerous if the emotion becomes self absorbed and reigns alone. Putting it into a cage of reason only works superficially. The emotion keeps smoldering under the surface, and will eventually cause destruction. Emotions need to be processed - through action and “reflection” - reflection in the sense of an image or idea being shared and reflected back to you, as seen through the eyes of another. 

That’s what happens in Bach’s music. The music knows joy and grief, and it knows conflict, but it doesn’t know loneliness or self-absorption. It may picture an ideal world, and maybe, it can also give us some ideas on how to live...  

5. The community listening project

During the weeks to come, I would like to invite you on a listening journey through Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Starting this Sunday, I will play four Preludes and Fugues on Sunday morning between 10:15 and 10:45, every other week, here at the Ethical Culture Society. Those meetings are mini-recitals, there will be no “explanation” of the music. If you’re ready to embark on this journey, do come if at all possible. There is a special energy to events where people come together at the same time at the same place with the same purpose. During the two weeks in between those sessions, I invite you to listen to at least one of the pieces that I’ve played once a day - and simply see what it does for you. Find your favorite piece and take it with through the day. Hear it in your mind when you’re at the dentist, or when you’re stuck in traffic. Find a connection to a picture, a poem, a situation, an object that is meaningful in your life. You may want to take notes on your experience, and if there’s something you want to share, please, do so. Possibilities to share are on Youtube, on my blog, or through the EC website.

In order to make a recording available that everybody can access and use, I’ve recorded all the Preludes and Fugues from Book 2 and uploaded them on Youtube. That also gives you an opportunity to participate if you can’t come on Sunday mornings. The recording was made on a very good instrument with a very good recording device, but it does not have the quality of a studio recording. I did not have a possibility to splice, so there are the occasional little glitches and wrong notes. If you prefer to listen to a studio recording, or to a different interpretation, please go ahead and find something you like. 

Bach Interpretation on the modern piano is a topic I don’t even want to go into at this point. The composer himself left very few instructions on how to play his music. For musicians, it is often a point of dispute and disagreement what to do, so you come across very different interpretations, and they are fascinating to explore. 

That said, I wish us all a pleasant journey, and hope to welcome you back here for the Sunday morning sessions, and/ or the final concert, a performance of the entire Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, on Saturday, April 20, at 6:30 pm, which is an event of the Ethical Culture Society’s “Third Saturday Arts” series.   


  1. Wow Birgit. What an ambitious project! Your obvious love of Bach's music infuses your historical narrative and makes it very accessible and readable. And your recordings are more than adequate for my ears. Congratulations on this tour de force. Count me in for the "journey".

    Bob Smith

    1. Thanks so much, Bob, and it's wonderful to know that you'll be "listening along." Greetings to New Hampshire - and I'd love to take the project there some day!

  2. This is a comment from Neil McKelvie about the tuning systems. I think he describes the issue very well.

    Birgit: I do not know if it is different in German, but generally "well-tempered" does NOT mean equal temperament! It means tempered to one's satisfaction, and that is exactly what Bach meant then. The degree obviously depends on the music, and the key. One would never dream of playing Debussy in anything but equal temperament, and music before 1700, Purcell for example, usually is best with no tempering at all! Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven go best with well- tempered but NOT equally tempered tuning. Also; I believe; Schubert and Mendelsssohn. Anyway; that is what I think.