The Well-Tempered Clavier I No. 3 in C-sharp major

The Well-Tempered Clavier I No. 3 in C-sharp major

BWV 848 performed by Patrick Ayrton
at home in Culles-les-Roches, France

  • Menu
  • 1. Prelude
  • 2. Fugue

Behind the music

Extra videos
Extra videos

Mind game

A difficult, mysterious and problematic key

It is the most impossible key in the whole of the Wohltemperirte Clavier: C-sharp major. No fewer than seven sharps adorn the beginning of each staff. Furthermore, it is an unnecessarily complicated key, as instead of seven sharps you could use five flats to write exactly the same pitch – as D-flat major. In 1728, the music theorist Johann David Heinichen therefore classified C-sharp major as one of the ‘superfluous keys’. Here, Bach is deliberately toying with the mind of the keyboard player, as the instinctive correspondence between the black noteheads on the paper and the fingers on the keys no longer works.

In 1728, Johann David Heinichen wrote that it was ‘completely unorthodox’ to compose in F-sharp major and C-sharp major. And years later, in 1795, another writer thought that these keys were suitable for ‘the horror of secret Persian sultans or demons’. They were keys that existed ‘on the borders of the musical world”. C-sharp major did indeed remain extremely rare for many years after Bach’s day. And then, of course, there is the question of how C-sharp major could anyway sound ‘well-tempered’. Difficult, mysterious and problematic, in other words.

Yet the Prelude is a model of melodious simplicity and the Fugue has one of the liveliest themes of the whole Wohltemperirte Clavier. Bach was clearly more in line with Johann Mattheson, who predicted in 1719 that in a couple of hundred years’ time musicians would be playing C-sharp major just as easily as the village organists of the time played C major.

Das Wohltemperirte Clavier, BWV 846-893
Composing 48 keyboard pieces in all 24 keys was the sort of challenge Bach enjoyed. In each of the two parts of the Wohltemperirte Clavier, he brought together the musical couple prelude and fugue 24 times; twelve in minor keys and twelve in major. In the preludes, he gave free rein to his imagination, and demonstrated mathematical tours de force in the fugues. In contrast to the iron discipline Bach had to apply to his church compositions, here he could abandon himself to intellectual Spielerei without worrying about deadlines.

The first part of the Wohltemperirte Clavier dates from 1722, although it contains some music that was written in the preceding five years. There is less clarity about the history of part two. Bach compiled this second manuscript only around 1740, although once again some of the preludes and fugues it contains date from a much earlier period. Bach described the target group for this collection of pieces as follows: ‘Zum Nutzen und Gebrauch der Lehr-begierigen Musicalischen Jugend, als auch dere in diesem studio schon habil seyenden besonderem ZeitVertreib’ (For both the education of the industrious musical youngster and the enjoyment of those well-versed in this material’).

Prelude and fugue in C-sharp major
no. 3 from Das Wohltemperirte Clavier I
harpsichord works
Das Wohltemperirte Clavier I
1722 or earlier
Köthen (or Weimar?)

With support from

Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds

Extra videos

Harpsichordist Patrick Ayrton

“The fugue has for me the most joyful and good-humòured theme which Bach ever composed.”

Vocal texts




  • Release date
    26 July 2019
  • Recording date
    16 April 2018
  • Location
    Culles-les-Roches, France
  • Harpsichordist
    Patrick Ayrton
  • Director and interview
    Jan Van den Bossche
  • Music recording, edit and mix
    Guido Tichelman
  • Camera
    Gijs Besseling
  • Producer
    Jessie Verbrugh
  • With support from
    Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds

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