JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: DAS WOHLTEMPERIERTE KLAVIER
“The work of works” (Robert Schumann): “An everlasting treasure of the piano repertoire and piano pedagogy, almost without rival” (Dénes Bartha). Such is the high praise that has been lauded by musicians and music historians on Johann Sebastian Bach’s two-volume work in the nigh 300 years since it was written. This extraordinary cycle was not published by the composer in print, but in the 50 years following his death dozens of manuscript copies were made of it, and in 1800 three publishers published it simultaneously. Each volume of the cycle contains 24 preludes and fugues, in all of the major and minor keys, each pair progressing upwards by one semitone – a unique undertaking for its time. (Although there were precedents, above all J. C. Fischer’s orgain series Ariadne musica, but Fischer’s work has only 20 preludes and fugues, and is far shorter and simpler, consisting of pieces written expressly for teaching purposes.)
“Das wohl temperirte Clavier” stands at the head of the composer’s 1722 manuscript of the first volume, and the text of the title page goes on to explain what Bach understood by the expression “well tempered”: a tuning system in which one could play in all 24 keys. This is generally identified as the widely used so-called equal temperament, in which all the major and minor keys sound the same. This tuning system was known from the 16th century, but in Bach’s time there also existed several types of mildly uneven temperament which were also suitable for playing the pieces in this cycle. In the 18th century in German-speaking areas the word “clavier” could mean three different things: 1) a keyboard, 2) the clavichord, a soft-sounding household instrument capable of shades of dynamics, and 3) generally any keyboard instrument. Bach probably used the word in this latter sense, for although many of the pieces sound good on the clavichord too, the fine contours of the inner voices of the fugues are perhaps best brought out on the cembalo, and this is the instrument on which all the preludes and fugues sound equally convincing.
The composer’s manuscript of 1722, which contains all the material of Book 1 of the Wohltemperiertes Klavier, is the summary of a long creative process. An early version of eleven preludes in the cycle features in a music book made for Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann (conceivably, the composer first planned a series of preludes, and later linked them up to fugues), and on the basis of differences in style, we can suppose that other movements too also had earlier versions. (Later, in the 1720s and 30s, Bach revised all the movements of the series at least twice.) The material of volume II spans an even wider period: some movements date from the first Leipzig period, from the mid-1720s, but most of the preludes and fugues were probably written after 1735.
The complete series was finished about twenty years after the first volume, by the middle of the 1740s, and this too was later revised.
Although the Wohltemperiertes Klavier is still today the daily bread of student pianists of the highest calibre, alongside its pedagogical role, its greatest importance lies in the encyclopedic richness of its musical contents, the variety of types of movement, textures and characters, the formal rigour and freedom, and the juxtaposition of archaic and the most modern of styles from Bach’s time. Both volumes contain prelude-and-fugue pairs of which were conceivably written at different times (for instance, in volume II the A flat major prelude is one of the latest movements, while the fugue is one of the earliest).
Among the preludes we find improvisatory arpeggiations of a true “preamble” character (for instance, I/C major, I/C minor, I/G major), music similar to the two- and three-part inventions (I/F sharp major, II/D sharp minor, and I/A major), richly embellished Adagios (I/E flat minor), Andantes reminiscent of the style of the trio sonatas of Arcangelo Corelli (I/B minor), movements referencing the concerto style of Vivaldi (II/D minor, II/ B major), dance (gigue) rhythms (II/E flat major, II/A major), some in the “galant” style (I/A flat major, II/F minor) and even one presaging the opening chorus of the Matthew Passion (I/B flat minor). The fugues are at least as varied as the preludes, in terms of both structure and style: the collection contains archaic movements rooted in the 17th centure (II/E major, II/G minor), rigorously written movements close to the Kunst der Fuge (II/B major), and more freely structured ones (II/A major). And perhaps most surprisingly: even fugues can be written in the galant style (II/F major, II/F minor). Although this diversity is typical of the entire Wohltemperiertes Klavier, the time that elapsed between the writing of the two volumes resulted nevertheless in perceptible differences: the first volume has more four-part fugues, and the two five-part fugues (C sharp minor and B flat minor); the second volume has more galant movements, the preludes are often longer, almost of equal weight with the fugues, and their structure is often binary or ternary, similar to the pre-Classical sonata movements with repeats (in Book I there is only one such prelude, while in Book II there are ten).
The generations of composers after Bach have held the Wohltemperiertes Klavier in great esteem: it lay on the pianos of Beethoven and Schumann; it inspired many composers to write similarly structured series (the best known being Chopin’s 24 preludes and Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues), and in the first years of the 20th century, Béla Bartók, as a teacher at the Budapest Academy of Music, made his own instructive edition of it for pedagogical purposes. Bach’s monumental work is even today an unavoidable, inexhaustible source, not only for students of the keyboard and composition, and professional musicians, but for every music lover.
Translated by Richard Robinson
It is a great pleasure for me to be able to record the second volume of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier on a unique instrument: the authentic replica of a Johann Heinrich Harraß harpsichord (Großbreitenbach, c. 1706). Construction of this was started by Jürgen Ammer (†2017) in his workshop in Breitenbach, but the master was only able to make the case, which Jan Bečička, Stanislav Hüttl and Petr Šefl (Bystřec) went on to complete in 2018.
The harpsichord has a 16’ stop (unusual for its time) which when coupled to the other stops results in an imposing sound. This Harraß copy was particularly inspiring as an instrument on which to play the second volume of this monumental collection displaying an encyclopedic range of the national styles, genres, and writing of the time. The richness and variety of this series, unparalleled in content, prompted me to exploit more fully the opportunities for combinations of timbre, to change register more often, and in some cases to adopt an organ-like manner of performing. The recording is also a homage to the instrument maker Jürgen Ammer. My thanks go to Jan Bečička, Stanislav Hüttl, and Petr Šefl, the Czech craftsmen who continued the work in his spirit, and made it possible for this recording to be made on a far from everyday instrument.
I am grateful to Frank Mehlfeld, who generously allowed me to use the harpsichord.
BORBÁLA DOBOZY began higher education harpsichord studies with Zuzana Růžičková at the Academy of Music in Bratislava and then continued with her at the Prague Academy of Music. In the following years she studied historical performance practice: first at the Mozarteum in Salzburg under the guidance of Liselotte Brändle, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Johann Sonnleitner. She then studied for a year at the Zurich Academy of Music as a student of Johann Sonnleitner.
In 1983 she won a prize at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.
She has given courses in Hungary, Norway, Germany, Austria, Belarus, Slovenia and Serbia. From 2005 to 2013, she was a teacher at the “Brillamment baroque” course in early music, held annually in Thoiry, France. She has given concerts, and made recordings for radio and TV in most European countries and in the US. Borbála Dobozy’s artistic work focuses on the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach: she has played almost all of his compositions for the harpsichord, including all the orchestral and chamber works. In 2010, her recording of the Goldberg Variations released in the Czech Republic earned high praise. The Czech music journal Hudební rozhledy wrote: “… Not only is the artist technically skilled, and thus able to play even the hardest variations with marvellous ease, but she also has a perfect feel for Bach’s music. Her thoughtful interpretation is based on the way she handles time, the tempo of each variation, and a detailed working out of articulation, which gives even more impetus to the pieces... it represents the highest standards of performance.”
Her repertoire encompasses almost the entire harpsichord literature, including twentieth-century and contemporary music. Several Hungarian composers (György Arányi-Aschner, Árpád Balázs, and Frigyes Hidas) have composed works for her, and consequently many premieres are linked to her name.
She is an associate professor at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest, and head of the harpsichord class there. Her album of works by Gottlieb Muffat (Componimenti musicali per il cembalo) won the German Record Critics’ Prize in 1992.
In 2011 she received the Ferenc Liszt Prize. In 2013 she obtained a DLA degree. Her dissertation “Georg Anton Benda and his Harpsichord Sonatas” was published in book form in Hungarian and Czech (Magyar Kultúra Kiadó, 2014 and 2016) Since June 2017, she has been a corresponding member of the Music Section of the Hungarian Academy of Arts.