The Well-Tempered Clavier II no. 20 in A minor

The Well-Tempered Clavier II no. 20 in A minor

BWV 889 performed by Christine Schornsheim
TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht

  • Menu
  • 1. Prelude
  • 2. Fugue

Behind the music

Extra videos
Extra videos

Serious game

An intense exploration of contrast and balance

For the dignified and slightly melancholy key of A minor, Bach chose a pair of works filled with mirrors. Whereas the deadly serious prelude barely has room to breathe, the fugue provides relaxation. It’s almost humorous – and let’s be honest, that’s not exactly what the Thomaskantor is known for.

 An immediately striking feature of the prelude is its strict construction: two sections of sixteen bars each, two parts that continually pass ideas to one another and – precisely in the middle – a complete inversion, where the parts exchange places and directions. Where the line rises in the first half, here it descends. At least until the cogwheels threaten to turn in the direction of predictability and Bach opts for a different turning near the end. While the harmonic building blocks actually come directly from Baroque improvisation, Bach fills the distance between the notes with even smaller steps wherever possible. This chromaticism dominates the sound picture and makes the parts snake around one another.

What a relief when the fugue opens with calmness and space – and almost grotesque leaps. The effect of the pompous theme borders on parody; an impression that is further confirmed by strings of notes that get increasingly out of hand. And once the three parts have had their say, the spectacle really lets rip. Exuberantly, Bach sends the fingers flying over the whole keyboard; first dancing from top to bottom, and then up to the top again in a scale of trills covering more than two octaves. And just before the abrupt ending, the parts take yet another wild flight into the depths of the instrument. Some sources give this piece the heading ‘fughetta’, which suggests a light interpretation. Whatever the case, here we find Bach at his wittiest.

We recorded Bach’s first book of Preludes and Fugues in all the keys at the homes of 24 different musicians. For this second part, performed in its entirety by Christine Schornsheim, we chose 12 very different locations in Utrecht, to celebrate the 900th anniversary of our home city.

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 minor
no. 20 from the Well-Tempered Clavier II
harpsichord works
Das Wohltemperirte Clavier II

Extra videos

Harpsichordist Christine Schornsheim on the Wohltemperirte Clavier II

“Practising the Well-Tempered Clavier and perhaps especially the second book was a difficult but therapeutic task.”

Vocal texts




  • Release date
    15 May 2023
  • Recording date
    25 September 2022
  • Location
    Fundatie van Renswoude
  • Harpsichordist
    Christine Schornsheim
  • Harpsichord
    Bruce Kennedy, 1989 after Michael Mietke
  • Director, camera and lights
    Gijs Besseling
  • Music recording
    Guido Tichelman, Pim van der Lee
  • Music edit and mix
    Guido Tichelman
  • Camera, lights
    David Koster
  • Data handling
    Marieke de Blaay
  • Producer
    Marieke de Blaay

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