The Well-Tempered Clavier I No. 18 in G-sharp minor
BWV 863 performed by Korneel Bernolet
at home in Aalter, Belgium
Behind the music
The Wohltemperirte Clavier is full of simple things that are actually complex, and vice versa.
In our interview with Korneel Bernolet about this recording, he told us how as a young student he was quite taken aback when he first saw the Prelude and fugue in G-sharp minor from the second book of the Wohltemperirte Clavier. Not just the young Korneel Bernolet, but also adult keyboard players in Bach’s day must have been equally daunted on first seeing one of the Preludes and fugues in G-sharp minor (with five sharps). No wonder that Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg printed the first five bars of this fugue a semitone lower, in G minor, in the section of music examples in his Abhandlung von der Fuge, from 1753. That makes the piece easier to play, but less exciting, as Bernolet demonstrates.
And it would appear that Bach is deliberately in search of contrasts here. Firstly, there is the tension between the astringent key itself and, as Bernolet says, the almost comically simple repetition of a standard chord pattern throughout the whole fugue. And then there is the tension between eye and ear. Because the further the fugue progresses to even stranger keys on paper – the double sharps abound – the more the fingers and sounds end up in ‘normal’ keys in reality. However, you only notice this by listening closely to subtle shifts in the purity of tone. The Wohltemperirte Clavier is thus filled with simplicity that is actually complex, and complexity that is actually simple.
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 G-sharp minor
- no. 18 from Das Wohltemperirte Clavier I
- harpsichord works
- Das Wohltemperirte Clavier
- 1722 or earlier
- Köthen (or Weimar?)
- Release date
- 3 May 2019
- Recording date
- 21 May 2018
- Aalter, Belgium
- Korneel Bernolet
- Alan Gotto, 2012
- Director and interview
- Jan Van den Bossche
- Music recording, edit and mix
- Guido Tichelman
- Gijs Besseling
- Jessie Verbrugh
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