Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #29/50: The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach

In order to appreciate the magnitude of what The Well-Tempered Clavier represents, we must first spend a few moments discussing the concept of language. Whether we are examining the minute aspects of our oral conversations or the words, letters and punctuation that make up what you see on the screen before you or the notes that you hear when you listen to music, in essence what we are describing is language. If you were to pare the term “language” down to its most basic meaning, you would say that language is a system that organizes sounds and ascribes meaning to those sounds in ways that we can appreciate and understand. For example, as children grow up, they are inundated with sounds. We sing, we speak and we make nonsense sounds to them all in the hope that one day we will be able to communicate with them easily and effectively so that we both can understand each other perfectly. Learning to communicate and become a literate human being is one of the grandest accomplishments in all of human existence, and it is all made possible because we, as humans, value the importance of sounds. It is also possible because, over time, our spoken sounds have evolved into words which, in turn, have become organized and assigned meanings which we all accept and understand. This organization of words in vehicles such as dictionaries allows there to be a standardized way of approaching language when used in the form of words. From this standardized organization of words comes everything from the glorious language of Shakespeare to the minimalist language of texting.

You can buy your own copy of the work that many consider to be the “Bible” of Music

But one of the most important aspects of accepting the notion that something like music can be thought of as language, too, is that language is not restricted to mere words. Language is an organized approach to understanding and using sounds in ways that convey meaning and emotion. The language of reading this post may be words and punctuation. The language of music can be found in tones and notes and tempos. One need only to think of the theme music to the movie Jaws to understand how much emotion and understanding can be conveyed via the proper arrangement of tones and notes and chords. So today we are going to spend some time talking about one of the single most important and influential “books” ever created in the world of music. That “book” or guide is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Follow along as we discover how Bach organized sound for the world of music just as people like Samuel Johnson organized words in dictionaries.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach grew up in the 1700s. He was the youngest of ten children in his family. By the time he turned ten, both his mother and father had passed away. With no parental figure to look after him, young Johann was taken in by his oldest brother, Johann Christoph, who was already a man by the time his youngest brother came to stay with him. The eldest Bach son worked as a church organist and spent much time exposing Johann Sebastian to the music that was played in churches at the time, as well as instructing him in matters of theology, the Arts and Sciences, along with politics. Because Johann Sebastian Bach spent much of his formative years in church buildings and was focussed on the music played there, he developed a keen sense of sound and the acoustical qualities that these churches possessed and how that impacted the volume/tone at which his brother could most effectively play. In his spare time, young Johann copied the sheet music that his brother owned through the church and began to practice playing on various keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord, the clavichord, the pianoforte and the organ. It was not too long before Johann began to earn a reputation as being a skilled player like his brother. Not only did Johann Sebastian Bach become a better player of keyboard instruments, but he found that he was becoming able to hear sounds differently, more intensively than those around him. This led Johann Sebastian Bach to start offering constructive criticism to his brother and the church choir when it came to the pitch and tone of their singing and his brother’s playing of the organ. As Johann matured into a young man in his own right, he was granted a series of increasingly important positions in churches and royal courts in the role of kapellmeister, or musical director of a church or choir. In these roles, Bach was in charge of creating his own music and performing it in ways that met his exacting specifications. In addition to his duties as kapellmeister, Bach also began to tutor music students. He was a demanding taskmaster and soon developed a reputation for helping to turn out accomplished players who were well schooled in the fundamentals of playing keyboard-based instruments. As part of his desire to help his students understand the importance of proper sound, Bach decided to create a guidebook of sorts that would codify these sounds and set a standard for anyone else that followed afterwards. This book took several years to create and became known as The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The dedication page of the original manuscript for The Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach dedicated it to his students because he always meant this work to be a teaching tool.

Breaking down the title of his book, the word clavier means keyboard and refers to those instruments listed above such as the harpsichord and so on that are played with keys and/or some sort of combination of pedals and keys. The term well-tempered refers to the sound an instrument makes after it has been played for a while and is broken in as we say today. A well-tempered sound is a sound that is true and in the proper key and played with the proper tone. A well-tempered note also is dependent upon the exact instrument being used. For example, a pianoforte can exist with slight variations between it and another pianoforte based on the person or company that manufactured it. Perhaps a different form of wood was used or the hammer design was slightly altered during the manufacturing process. The end result would be a pianoforte that emitted tones that were slightly different, even though the keys and pedals being used were exactly the same. Thus, sounds not only had to be acoustically correct for the environment in which they were being played, they had to be correct for the instrument being used. Because there were so many variables in existence, Bach found the need to codify exactly what the proper sound should be for each major and minor key regardless of the instrument or performance location. So, in his guidebook, he created compositions in the form of preludes and fugues that covered all tones and scales known to the world. Specifically, he created 48 compositions that, if practiced and played well, would help the composer know how to properly tune his instrument for the setting in which they found themselves. As it turned out, The Well-Tempered Clavier was the very first attempt at organizing musical sounds in a standardized way. The universality of Bach’s efforts has helped every musician of note who followed in his wake. The book is considered to be one of, if not the most important musical document ever created.

From what I have read in Chasing Chopin by Annie LaFarge, I believe that Chopin’s copy of The Well-Tempered Clavier is in the glass case above the chair next to the piano.

A short but direct example of its influence can be found in a book I read a year or so ago called Chasing Chopin by Annik LaFarge. This is an excellent book for anyone interested in the life and times of pianist Frederic Chopin. But it is also where I learned about the manufacturing process that caused pianos to sound unique from one another and of how completely absorbed in each minute note composers such as Chopin actually were. From this book I also learned a second fact about Chopin that relates to Bach and specifically to this post. Apparently, for many years, Frederic Chopin was involved in a platonic yet loving relationship with the writer George Sand. (George Sand was the pen name of author and journalist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin de Francueil). Chopin and Sand lived together platonically for several years in Paris. Their relationship was mutually beneficial as they both understood the desire for artistic expression that the other possessed. Consequently, they were able to support each other in ways that uniquely helped each achieve success in their creative endeavours. Eventually, it was decided that they would travel together to the island of Majorca and would share a monastery where they would continue with their work. It was felt that the more exotic location would inspire each in new and important ways. In Chopin’s case, he had a piano manufactured for him and shipped across the ocean specifically for his work on Marjorca. When packing for the trip, he took only one book with him. It was Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Using Bach’s book for inspiration and guidance, Frederic Chopin (who was already a well-seasoned and accomplished composer) created his own set of 23 preludes and fugues that covered all major and minor scales. The monastery in which Sand and Chopin lived is now a museum. In that museum there is a display dedicated to each artist. In the display dedicated to showcasing the work of Chopin, there sits the copy of The Well-Tempered Clavier he used to create his own masterwork.

In the link below, I will introduce you to the first composition that is included in Bach’s guidebook. It is entitled “Book 1, 1.Prelude C Major”. Not surprisingly, the second entry is entitled, “Book 1, 1.Prelude C Minor”. On YouTube there are many varieties of music you can listen to when you search for the term The Well-Tempered Clavier. There is everything from each of the individual compositions, all the way to many examples of the complete 48-composition set being played in one sitting. I am going to simply give you access to the first composition Bach created for The Well-Tempered Clavier, but if you want to see how each piece changes as he goes through the minor and major scales, feel free to explore the entire 48-piece set at your leisure. For now, here is the first composition that helped lay the groundwork for the codification of musical sounds. From this one composition comes everything we know about music that followed throughout time. This reminds me of a short joke by comedian Steven Wright that goes something like, “The world is getting smaller every day, but still, I wouldn’t want to clean it”. Imagine someone having the audacity to think to organize and codify all of the tones, notes and chords that existed in the world of music. Bach did that with The Well-Tempered Clavier. The majesty of such an endeavour truly boggles my tiny mind, but I am most grateful that he took the time to do it. His accomplishment means that the music that I love and you love was made possible in the centuries that followed. I would be curious to know how many modern musicians have their own copies of Bach’s book? I bet that number would surprise us all. As someone who loves language and music, I salute you Johann Sebastian Bach. Your efforts at creating The Well-Tempered Clavier are gratefully appreciated.

The link to the video for the composition “Book 1, 1.Prelude in C Major” written by Johann Sebastian Bach can be found here.

The link to a museum dedicated to the life and music of Johann Sebastian Bach can be found here.

The link to the museum in Majorca where George Sand and Frederic Chopin stayed for a while can be found here.

The link to the world’s best classical music radio station, Classical FM 103.1, streaming to the world from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario can be found here.

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