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Bach 360°: The Well-Tempered Clavier

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In 1953, the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter was enlisted to play at Joseph Stalin's funeral. For the occasion he chose the longest and most dense prelude and fugue from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Solemn commemorative music it was not. Several times the authorities tried to interrupt him to make way for another pianist, but Richter could not be distracted from the score. Finally, he was removed from the keyboard by armed soldiers; at that moment, he feared he would be shot.

Bach composed the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier not as a political manifesto but as a kind of treatise to promote the modern system of "tempered" tuning. Both books consist of 24 preludes and fugues going through all the keys, a total of 48 pieces in each volume. Until Bach’s era, it wasn’t possible to write such a work because of the unstandardized tuning of keyboard instruments. Now it was feasible to transpose and modulate into any key, no retuning necessary.

The opening C Major prelude, smooth and serene, doesn't like something that would ruffle a totalitarian regime. But the contrapuntal writing gets increasingly intricate and experimental in the latter book. By the end, many of the fugue subjects – as in the Fugue in F sharp minor – are unwieldy, fragmented and strange. But they are not severe or remote either, and Bach manages to express yearning and frustration, joy and humor over the course of the cycle.

Many later composers studied Bach’s WTC in an effort to improve their own fugue writing. Verdi reportedly used it in Falstaff. Shostakovich modeled his own 24 Preludes and Fugues on it. And Stravinsky apparently began his every composing day by playing something out of the set to get his own ideas going.

Yet it’s impossible to consider the WTC as pure, absolute music. Scholars have identified religious and numeric symbolism in Bach’s score, including quotations from sacred hymns of the day, and references to Bible verses. One passage in the F minor Fugue has been interpreted as representing Christ's crucifixion, owing to its descending chromatic manner and other features.

Most striking was Jean-Paul Sartre’s observation that The Well-Tempered Clavier is a metaphor for freedom in the face of oppressive social orders. His theory would seem to bolster Richter’s provocative gesture in 1953. "Against the closed traditions of little despotic courts," Sartre wrote, "he taught how to find originality within an established discipline; actually, how to live. He demonstrated the play of moral freedom within the confines of a religious and monarchical absolutism.”

Free Download: Prelude No. 1 in C Major, BWV 846: from the Well-Tempered Clavier I

One of the 20th century's great Bach interpreters, Glenn Gould recorded the Well-Tempered Clavier in the summer of 1962 at Columbia's 30th Street Studio. The opening prelude and fugue are contained on the new double album "This is Glenn Gould" (Sony)
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Listening Highlights for Saturday, March 23 (all times are approximate)

Well-Tempered Clavier excerpts from the following artists:

6 am Wanda Landowska, harpsichord

7 am Till Fellner, piano

8 am Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, BWV 1048 (plus a Stravinsky arrangement played by members of International Contemporary Ensemble)

9 am Masaaki Suzuki, harpsichord

10 am Glenn Gould, piano

11 am Andras Schiff, piano

12 pm Gustav Leonhardt, harpsichord

5 pm Andras Schiff performs the complete Book I of the WTC in a live performance from October 27, 2012 at the 92nd St. Y

Below: Listen to the complete WTC performed by Sviatoslav Richter: