The Well-Tempered Clavier I No. 7 in E-flat major
BWV 852 performed by Pieter-Jan Belder
at home in Arnhem, the Netherlands
Behind the music
A productive imprisonment
It will pass, and Im full of new plans!
In his younger years, Bach was rather a hot-head. His new job in Köthen, for instance, caused considerable differences of opinion in his employers in Weimar. Bach only received his (dishonourable) dismissal four weeks after he had been put in prison for being ‘too obstinate in requesting his dismissal’. Music lexicographer Gerber, whose father studied with Bach in the 1720s, hints at this episode in guarded terms. He suggests that Bach composed the first part of the Wohltemperirte Clavier ‘at a place where boredom, frustration and the absence of any musical instrument forced him to find a pastime’. That would date this 1722 collection, or at least parts of it, at least five years earlier.
The question arises of whether there are compositions in the Well-Tempered Clavier in which you can hear Bach’s frustration about his time in prison. The Prelude and fugue in E-flat major could be interpreted in this way. In the prelude in three sections, at least, an interesting question appears to be raised. A short motif of eight notes, which always has a rising, questioning end, is repeated about fifteen times in every key, so to speak. It is as if you are assailed by a tricky problem: could I have handled it differently? What follows is a contemplative piece of self-examination, which results in the return of the same repeated motif, but now with a mostly descending, resigned line. Continuing this ‘psychological’ interpretation, this could mean that Bach did not blame himself. This is confirmed by the bold three-part fugue that follows, which really blows away all your troubles: it will pass, and anyhow I’m full of revolutionary new plans! Is this what Bach wanted to say in this prelude and fugue? That might just be the case.
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 E-flat major
- no. 7 from The Well-Tempered Clavier I
- harpsichord works
- Das Wohltemperirte Clavier
- 1722 or earlier
- Cöthen (or Weimar?)
- Release date
- 13 February 2015
- Recording date
- 19 December 2014
- Pieter-Jan Belder
- Titus Crijnen after Blanchet, 1730
- Hanna Schreuders
- Jan Van den Bossche
- Ruben van den Broeke
- Music recording, editing and mix
- Guido Tichelman
- Film editors
- Dylan Glyn Jones, Jan Van den Bossche