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2005 Macromedia Higher Education Innovation Gallery
2003 MERLOT Editor's Choice and Classics awards.
Carnegie Foundation Snapshot
The Well-Tempered Clavier, by J. S. Bach, is one of the world's great intellectual treasures. Each of its two volumes contains a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key of the chromatic scale. Book I, which was completed in 1722, was the first cycle of compositions in this conception. Book I begins with a prelude in C Major, followed by a fugue in the same key. These are followed by a prelude and fugue in C minor, C#/Db major/minor, D major/minor, etc. Each pair moves up the chromatic scale until every key has been represented. In Book II, which was completed in 1744, Bach effects another complete transversal of the chromatic cycle. One of Bach's primary purposes in composing these cycles was to demonstrate the feasibility of the "well tempered" tuning system that would allow for composition in every key.
Another purpose of the Well-Tempered Clavier was to reveal how modern and progressive composition could be informed by conservative ideas. The Well-Tempered Clavier is an encyclopedia of national and historical styles and idioms. Its influences range from the white-note style of the Renaissance motet to the French manier. Ironically, half of this stylistic smorgasbord is expressed in fugue, a form that was out of date upon the cycle's completion. Bach was of course aware of this. His hope was to defend the venerable form by demonstrating how it could absorb contemporary flavors.
While the Well-Tempered Clavier would delight anybody, it continues to engage keyboardists, music theorists, and composers in particular. What piano student has not played the C Major prelude of Book I, later to tangle fingers with the C minor fugue of Book II? For music theorists and composers, the Well-Tempered Clavier is a feast of tools and techniques, a paradise of inversion, augmentation, and every other contrapuntal device. It represents the summa of Baroque technique, not heard with such clarity or consistency before, and seldom since.