The Well-Tempered Clavier I No. 17 in A-flat major
BWV 862 performed by Olivier Fortin
at home in Suin, France
Behind the music
Wistful late summer
The key of A-flat major inspired Bach to compose a radiant start and a more solemn ending
This Prelude in A-flat major opens with radiant sunshine that dominates throughout the piece. And yet there is a darker side beneath the surface. A-flat major, according to harpsichordist Olivier Fortin, is already well on the way towards the ‘harsher’ keys with lots of sharps or flats. Without being able to place it exactly, you hear that the intonation begins to strain and chafe. Even the ‘home chord’ of A-flat itself is not stable, which is heard clearly in the final chords. Maybe that is why music theorists of just after Bach’s day linked unexpectedly dark descriptions to this key. In 1779, Georg Joseph Vogler stated succinctly that A-flat major suggests “a black idea”, and Christian Schubart wrote a few years later about “the key of the grave: death, tomb, mortality, judgement and eternity belong to its scope”.
The summery prelude is followed by a fugue that appears to evoke precisely this sort of association. The piece is more solemn and feels like a wistful late summer. Whereas the prelude is practically all in major, the fugue keeps moving towards autumnal minor keys. In Bach’s day, the seasons and strange weather phenomena often had ominous significance. For instance, at the beginning of March 1721, the northern lights were seen in Germany. Who knows, maybe that had an influence somewhere in the Wohltemperirte Clavier.
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 A-flat major
- no. 17 from Das Wohltemperirte Clavier I
- harpsichord works
- Das Wohltemperirte Clavier I
- 1722 or earlier
- Köthen (of Weimar?)
With support from
Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
- Release date
- 28 June 2019
- Recording date
- 17 April 2018
- Suin, France
- Olivier Fortin
- Jonte Knif & Arno Pelto 2004
- Director and interview
- Jan Van den Bossche
- Music recording, edit and mix
- Guido Tichelman
- Gijs Besseling
- Jessie Verbrugh
- With support from
- Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
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