The Well-Tempered Clavier I No. 23 in B major

The Well-Tempered Clavier I No. 23 in B major

BWV 868 performed by Diego Ares
in Utrecht, The Netherlands

  • Menu
  • 1. Prelude
  • 2. Fugue

Behind the music

Extra videos
Extra videos

Fleeting visit to a faraway land

Simplicity reigns, even with five sharps in the key

For centuries, instrumental music with a lot of accidentals in the key (‘black keys’) was rather uncommon. Before the arrival of the modern compromised tuning system, known as ‘equal temperament’ – where everything is actually slightly off-pitch – the less common keys like B major sounded exciting, racy or even out of tune. Yet Bach must have found an acceptable middle road for making all 24 keys in the Wohltemperirte Clavier sound agreeable.

Diego Ares says it himself: B major is a difficult key, not only with regard to mood, but also for the fingers. So in writing such natural music as this Fugue, Bach once again reveals himself a real master of the miniature. The four voices sing freely and clearly, never interrupting one another. And especially in Ares’ performance, the theme entrances are easy to follow: tenor, alto, soprano, bass and then at intervals tenor and alto again. And for the attentive ear, Bach subsequently gives the theme twice in inversion to the soprano and alto, before returning quickly to the ‘straight’ version and letting the bass usher in the closing phase. From the countertheme emerge lots of fast runs, with a spectacular descent to the depths of the harpsichord as the highlight of the close of the central section.

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 B major
no. 23 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 Diego Ares

“This Prelude and fugue in B major is just right for the autumn, with those brilliant, warm colours.”

Vocal texts




  • Release date
    12 November 2020
  • Recording date
    1 October 2018
  • Location
  • Harpsichordist
    Diego Ares
  • Harpsichord
    Titus Crijnen, 1992 after Johannes Ruckers, 1638
  • 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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