Bach 360°: The Well-Tempered Clavier

Saturday, March 23, 2013

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)
Available at

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:


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Comments [17]

Paul Joseph

Bach 360 should be an annual festival. Also good to have other composer mini-festivals.

Concentrated blocks of one composer or style give the listeners the opportunity to a experience the music on a much deeper level, which will stay with them always throughout all their musical experiences. It takes time for our ears, thought process and physiology to adapt to any style, especially ones that are removed from us by hundreds of years.

Continuity is important if the music is going to become part of us. Without continuity, the pleasure we experience remains superficial. Most programming for radio and concerts emphasizes variety, so by the time we're starting to adapt to a given style, we're on to the next one - resonating with our fragmented inner processes which are a product of our compartmentalized culture.

Classical Music has a unique ability to resonate at the depth of self (where wholeness can be found), and this resonance is what becomes its relevance in the 21st century - and always. Bless you all.

Apr. 01 2013 01:30 PM
NYEarthling from New York, Earth.

Haiku for Rosalyn Tureck:

Well-tempered goddess
Bach was always in safe hands
Whenever *she* played

Mar. 29 2013 04:23 PM

My father was a chorister at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (NYC) from ages 8 to 14 and though singing Bach masses and cantatas several times a day, especially during Christmas and Easter, was a tough gig for a kid, his love of Bach lasted his entire life. I must have inherited the Baroque gene as I continue to be a Bach junkie; Bach 24/11 - BRING IT ON!

Mar. 25 2013 10:47 PM
Peter Feldman from New York City

I agree that this Bach Festival will damage WQXR because listeners will stop listening Bach, Bach, Bach, Bach, etc. and will look for other radios discovering the huge richness of classic music streamed online from all over the World. All EXCESSES bring bad consequences and WXQR deserves the worse for their shortsighted thinking since managers of WQXR believe that they are "exquisite" when in reality they are STUPID.

Mar. 24 2013 07:41 PM
Paul from Brooklyn, NY

ICH HABE GENUG! I'm going to listen to Operavore.

Mar. 24 2013 06:16 PM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

I must confess that I could listen to this Bach marathon 24 hours a day. It is slightly addictive; musical crack!

Mar. 24 2013 05:28 PM
Walt Clifford from Avenel, NJ

Although I've been an avid classical music listener for the past sixty years, I didn't realize the relative importance of JS Bach until much later: the work I will always remember as being the epiphany was The Well-Tempered Clavier, performed by Wanda Landowska: I realized in this experience that Bach's music, as the great pianist Artur Scnhabel said,is cosmic, and for me it has given deep and lasting insights into the profoundest integrity that lies in the bedrock of our Universe. So I'm glad WQXR is doing this great service!

Mar. 24 2013 03:22 PM
rae from NYC

Instead of listening to our beloved WQXR these days, I am turning off this programming which for me has become very tedious. I'm enjoying listening to my CDs.

Mar. 24 2013 02:40 PM

I LOVE BACH! I am a lover of Early Music and polyphony, so Bach is the great period to the great period. (The WKCR Bach festival is how I manage to retain my sanity in the Jingle Bells X-mas season.) Thank you for celebrating the great master who has been influenced by everything before, and himself influenced everything afterwards. I hope you will celebrate his birthday similarly EACH year from now on, so those who love him can rejoice, and those who have not yet learned to, can be properly exposed to him.

Mar. 24 2013 02:18 PM
Kate from Pelham

I LOVE this!! You've made my 10 days :)

Mar. 24 2013 10:29 AM
Stephanie from Montclair, NJ

Pure joy. Only wish I could actually listen for 24 hours. Ten days of 365, leaves a lot of other listening days for those who are finding this a difficult challenge. Thank you WQXR

Mar. 24 2013 10:28 AM
Mario from NY

For Bach enthusiasts WHAT COULD BE BETTER than to listen non-stop the divine music of THE GREATEST of THE COMPOSERS.

Mar. 23 2013 08:58 PM
Ruth Shoenthal

Thank you, thank you. Each year, during the 10 days leading up to New Year's Eve, I set my stereo to WKCR, 89.9 FM, Columbia University's FM radio station because they play Bach 24/7. I can't get enough Bach, so to be able to traverse Bach's complete opus twice this year is a wonderful treat. Thank you so much!!!

Mar. 23 2013 01:49 PM
Gabriel Kosakoff from New York City

A Bach Story Right Key- Wrong Fugue It was 1987 and my father Reuven Kosakoff , a remarkable pianist was living in his upper west side apartment attended to by a full time nurse. He had difficulty walking and could hardly see but his mind and fingers were still functioning and he spent a good part of the day at the piano. His favorite music was Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier which he had memorized.

One afternoon his nurse called my office and left a message that it was very important the I come to see him as soon as possible. Since my father never called me at work before, I was fearful that the end was near and wasted no time in getting to his home.

When I arrived,I found him at the keyboard engrossed in his favorite pass time very frustratingly playing one of Bach's fugues and then skipping to another. The problem was that he started off with a prelude and ended up in what he knew was not the correct fugue. Even though he played the fugues in the same key as the prelude, it just didn't sound right to him.

The music was on the table waiting for me and within a few minutes, all was straightened out. I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying Bach and my father.

Mar. 23 2013 01:18 PM
John S Clark from New Jersey

I think it's kind of perverse that in an important anniversary year for Wagner, Verdi and Britten you're playing every note of Bach. The rationale is lost on me.

Mar. 23 2013 12:02 PM
EA from Long Island

I'm trying to hang in there, Day Three, but listening only intermittently to retain my sanity and yearning for vocal music in any language that isn't German. I'm reminded of a story the New York Times wrote a while back about the man who schedules the many works performed by the NYC Ballet in a given season. Once, despite his best efforts to maintain the required variety of composers, choreographers, dancers, styles, you name it, he had to remake an entire schedule because he had inadvertently set up one evening of ballets all performed in black leotards. A single evening--not 10 whole days. I think there's a lesson there.

Mar. 23 2013 11:05 AM
Craig Heard from New York, NY

I love Bach but not twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for eleven days. After a while this programing becomes nothing less than musical waterboarding. For the first time I'm using my computer to tune into other classical stations around the country and the world. This is quite a pleasant surprise. No doubt I will return to WQXR but only after the last note of this Bach madness has sounded.

Mar. 23 2013 09:02 AM

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