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30 November 2022

Bach’s accidental masterpiece

The keyboard works of The Well-Tempered Clavier sound more novel and luminous 300 years later than in their composer’s day.

By Phil Hebblethwaite

A camera pans down from high in a church to focus on a stone bust of a typically ill-tempered looking Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s 1962 and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is making a short film about the composer, presented by the pianist Glenn Gould. He’s playing Bach’s Fugue in E-flat major on the organ, initially off-camera. He completes the short piece, swivels round on his stool, and ad-libs the following:  

“One of the most extraordinary things about history’s most extraordinary musician is the fact that this man’s music, which exerts such a magnetic attraction for us today, and against which we tend to measure much of the achievement in the art of music in the last two centuries, had absolutely no effect on either the musicians or the public of his own day.”  

[See also: How Steve Reich’s Clapping Music rebooted classical]

Gould, Canada’s best-known classical musician, is exaggerating, but only slightly. He adds that Bach (1685-1750) was not ahead of his time. Rather, “according to the musical disposition of that day, he was generations behind it”. He used forms – particularly the fugue – that were unfashionable in the early 18th century. Mozart was born six years after Bach died, and when the baroque era in music gave way to the classical period – with the new form of the symphony at the helm – Bach’s legacy languished. It was not until 100 years after his death that his work was revisited, starting a revival that has never ceased. Today, Bach’s music – often programmed in recitals with the most demanding contemporary compositions – has a freakish ability to sound perpetually modern. It’s a miracle of timelessness.

In 1720 the composer and organist Johann Adam Reincken heard Bach improvise on an old Lutheran hymn: “I thought that this art was dead,” Reincken said, “but I see that it lives in you.” In the early 1720s others wondered whether Bach, still in his thirties, might be missing a trick by scoffing at new forms and shunning opera altogether. It was during this time, though, that he produced works now recognised as being among his most enduring and profound: the Brandenburg Concertos, Cello Suites, Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, and, exactly 300 years ago this year, the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

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It is often said that in the cast of music’s immortal figures, Bach is the one we know least about. Unlike his contemporary George Frideric Handel, who moved to London and became famous, Bach worked in smaller towns across Germany and didn’t have much time or need to write letters. By far the most famous authenticated portrait of him was painted when he was in his early sixties. He has been frozen in time as older and stern, but elsewhere there are hints of a happier disposition. Take the casualness of his inscription in the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Of the music’s purpose he writes: “Preludes and Fugues in all the tones and semitones… for the use and practice of young musicians who desire to learn, as well as by way of amusement, for those who are already skilled in this study.” 

So, 24 pairs of exercises – one in each key, a prelude first, and then a fugue – to be played on a keyboard instrument (“clavier”) in a system of tuning that’s become standard (“well-tempered”). Nothing in his description hints at what these short pieces really are – deep investigations into the character of each key, presented in stunningly inventive sonic architecture. 

[See also: How The Shipping Forecast became the nation’s favourite lullaby]

This masterpiece may have been an accident of circumstance. In 1717, Bach was appointed Kapellmeister (director of music) to Prince Leopold at Cöthen, with one problem: his existing boss, Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, refused to let him go. Bach was imprisoned for almost a month without a musical instrument, and it’s thought that he conceived The Well-Tempered Clavier while locked up, as a means of staving off boredom.

“Bach stood at the crossroads of thought: the idea of the individual artist of ‘genius’ was only just beginning to emerge from the older idea of the musician as skilled working artisan or medieval philosopher,” writes Andrew Gant in his 2018 biography. Where Beethoven composed for eternity, Bach was a hired gun, concerned day-to-day with writing a banger for church on Sunday and providing for his huge family – 20 children from two marriages (his first wife died in 1720). We can guess, because Bach was hopeless at preserving the music of predecessors at his many postings, that he probably did not expect anyone to keep a record of his. A devout Lutheran, he “thought it was the music and the God he offered it to who deserved… the attention, not him”, writes Gant. 

Radio 3 marked the 300th birthday of the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier by broadcasting five short essays on the work. The author Frank Cottrell-Boyce concluded that the composition “always imposes itself completely on the moment. It’s Teflon music, always bright, shiny, and new.”

There’s some irony in that, as for much of the 18th century it was Bach’s fifth child who was considered the true pioneer. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s music can be dazzling, elegant and highly innovative, but we are unlikely to mark the 300th anniversary of even his best piece. His father’s music doesn’t just survive, it hurtles through time and space – literally, in the case of a few of his works. Contained on the golden records that were launched with both the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 is a selection of compositions by Bach – including the first prelude and fugue from the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, played by Glenn Gould.

[See also: The enduring chill of Schubert’s Winterreise]

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This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince