The Well-Tempered Clavier I No. 24 in B minor
BWV 869 performed by Bob van Asperen
at home in Bennebroek, the Netherlands
Behind the music
Bach completes the circle with melancholy.
Bach had already put his students to the test 23 times. Just one more key to go and the circle of unprecedented contrapuntal inventions would be complete. What would Bach do, now he had arrived at the last couple of pieces? Would he surpass himself by combining yet more techniques or finish off in simplicity and thus conquer the heart of the listener?
Bach succeeded in doing both, of course, even though the technical ingenuity in this Prelude and fugue in B minor is a little less obvious. Both pieces are so perfectly proportioned that Bach practically renounces any tricks to heighten the tension.
The Prelude is a model trio sonata. Above a calmly progressing bass, two upper parts blend together intimately. Five bars before the end comes the surprise of a 'Trugschluss', an almost-but-not-quite ending. And because this has already misled us, Bach then lets the bass usher in the real final chord half a bar ‘too early’.
The fugue, which is the longest one in the whole Wohltemperirte Clavier (Well-Tempered Clavier), is remarkably austere in construction. The theme, on the other hand, uses all the tones of the octave – extravagantly and ostentatiously – as if Bach wanted to underline the point of the collection once more. The music is moving, but not without effort, as there are only a few interludes to break the chromaticism that is hard to understand. Bach biographer Spitta wrote that this stirring music “made the expression of pain almost unbearable”. And indeed, even though Bach did not really have a choice, the key of B minor did stand for melancholy in the Baroque.
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 minor
- no. 24 from The Well-Tempered Clavier I
- harpsichord works
- Das Wohltemperirte Clavier
- 1722 or earlier
- Köthen (or Weimar?)
- Release date
- 16 December 2016
- Recording date
- 21 December 2015
- Bob van Asperen
- Michael Johnson, Fontmell Magna, Engeland 1979, after Pascal Taskin/Johannes Goermans
- Jan Van den Bossche
- Music recording, edit and mix
- Guido Tichelman
- Camera, edit and interview
- Gijs Besseling
- Hanna Schreuders, Jessie Verbrugh
Help us to complete All of Bach
There are still many recordings to be made before the whole of Bach’s oeuvre is online. And we can’t complete the task without the financial support of our patrons. Please help us to complete the musical heritage of Bach, by supporting us with a donation!