How Johann Sebastian Bach created a musical bible out of boredom and anger 300 years ago | German music: from classical to modern styles | DW

Whether it’s Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin or Shostakovich, the Well-Tempered Clavier is for virtually all great composers and musicians. Johann Sebastian Bach (Johann Sebastian Bach) was a reference book and had a huge impact on them. It was from this piano work, which is a collection that includes 48 preludes and fugues, combined in two volumes of 24 clavier pieces each and covering all major and minor keys, that they studied the basics of composition and counterpoint.

Collection Well-Tempered Clavier

Collection “Well-Tempered Clavier”

The brilliant German composer, organist, bandmaster and music teacher published the first part of his monumental work 300 years ago. But even today this composition is considered one of the highest achievements of musical art. Creating such a manual, Bach set himself the goal of introducing young pianists to all keys, as well as demonstrating the clear advantage of the new temperamental tuning of keyboard instruments compared to the natural tuning generally accepted at that time. To this day, aspiring pianists around the world are perfecting their piano playing with the Well-Tempered Clavier. At the same time, few people know that Bach composed the first part of his famous cycle in the shortest possible time – when he temporarily did not have access to the instrument and did not know what to do with himself. But where could the composer, tormented by boredom, be?

Become a worthy interpreter of Bach

Recently in Leipzig, where Bach spent the last 27 years of his life, the world famous Hungarian-born British pianist Andras Schiff performed all the pieces from the first movement of the Well-Tempered Clavier – at one time, without interruption, one after another. The ovations were endless. For his outstanding, highly original interpretation of Bach and for his special contribution to the popularization of the work of this great German composer, Schiff was awarded the Bach Prize of the Royal Academy of Music in London, and he was recently awarded the Bach Medal of the city of Leipzig.

British pianist Andras Schiff

British pianist Andras Schiff

“Unfortunately, I have no talent for composition, but if you know what distinguishes such a great composer as Bach, you will also know what not to do, namely, to compose something mediocre,” said the 68-year-old. musician in his acceptance speech. And, according to him, the best option in such a situation is simply to become a good interpreter of Bach.

From Fixed Instrument Tuning to Equal Temperament

As the German composer and musician Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the second of the five sons of Johann Sebastian Bach and his first wife Maria Barbara, once wrote, his father’s harpsichord was tuned “so cleanly and correctly that all the keys sounded beautiful and pleasant “.

German composer and musician Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

German composer and musician Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

The sound in a certain key, to which harpsichords were tuned 300 years ago, delighted Bach Jr. However, as soon as the musician began to move from one key to another within one piece, the sound of the composition already cut the ear: the possibilities of modulation were limited by the fixed tuning system of the musical instrument.

The tuning method that spread in the second half of the 19th century became known as equal temperament, since it used a system of dividing the octave into twelve equal semitones. This setting provided the possibility of modulation. And it was Johann Sebastian Bach who paved the way for equal temperament, which today underlies all world music and also allows you to perform all the preludes and fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier, as they say, “in one piece.”

Since Bach managed to write the “Well-Tempered (that is, properly tuned) Clavier” in all keys already in the first half of the 17th century, experts believe that the pieces included in this cycle were performed on an instrument that was tuned in the same way as pianos are tuned today, then eat in equal temperament. However, they do not rule out that Bach’s harpsichord was retuned between one pair – prelude and fugue – and another.

Odyssey of the Shrew Genius

There are speculations that Bach began writing The Well-Tempered Clavier while in prison. The composer really ended up behind bars in 1717, where he spent about four weeks. And the background is as follows: at that time, Bach served as court organist and concert organizer for Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimar in Weimar, and received a solid salary there and had at his disposal a carefully selected composition of professional musicians. And suddenly he signed a contract for the post of Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthensky, without even asking permission from his master in the proper form, and demanded immediate resignation, for which he was brought to trial and was punished.

Door to the Weimar prison cell where Johann Sebastian Bach was placed in 1717

Door to the Weimar prison cell where Johann Sebastian Bach was placed in 1717

There is no direct written evidence that Bach began composing his outstanding work in prison, but there are hints of this. As the German composer, lexicographer, and organist Ernst Ludiwg Gerber, whose father had been a student of Bach in the 1720s, wrote in 1790, the great composer set about creating the Well-Tempered Clavier in a place where he “was tormented by boredom, was depressed, in a bad mood and was deprived of any musical instruments.” Judging by the description, it could very well be a prison cell.

Be that as it may, the obstinate genius did not linger in Köthen, where he went to serve after his release from prison. In 1723, the composer left for Leipzig, where he took up the position of choir cantor in the St. Thomas Church. In this Saxon city, Johann Sebastian Bach remained until the end of his life.

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