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 (December 2018) I have at some point studied all of Book 1; in my Henle edition the back spine has nearly come off, the cover is creased and the book looks very well used compared to the almost pristine appearance of Volume 2 which has barely been opened. Work will start on the second set in 2019.
Why this project? I love playing Bach, and once I’d started studying the preludes and fugues I wanted to learn all of them. I suppose it’s the pianist’s equivalent of a climber who wants to bag all the Munros! The decision to record them in order, from memory, challenges me to give my best possible interpretation - at the time of recording. These are pieces that offer something new every time I play them, and if I'm not too old and decrepit by the time I've recorded all 48 I will probably try to improve on my original recordings.
I came quite late to the Well-Tempered Clavier apart from having to learn the D minor Prelude and Fugue in Book 1 for my A level performing examination. I enjoyed playing other keyboard works by Bach and was rather upset when advised not to play a toccata for my Finals recital at Oxford; Bach was not considered suitable for the piano at that time. I studied some of the keyboard suites and when I went to Maria Curcio for lessons in my late twenties, one of the first pieces she set me was the G major prelude and fugue from Book 1. 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 my 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 2030. My practice always begins with Bach: I usually work for an hour early in the morning, spending half an hour learning a new piece – I will say more about this process in a later post – and some time on one that I have learnt previously and am revisiting prior to recording. Ideally I will study each at least three times before recording.
Bach’s autographed manuscript of the first volume of Das Wohltemperirte Clavier (his spelling) appeared in 1722. My first goal is to record all the pieces in Book 1 by 2022 – in time for the 300th anniversary.