Bach Composed 'Clavier' to Prove A Point on Tuning

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Bach Composed 'Clavier' to Prove A Point on Tuning


A well-known legend among musical scholars is that Frederic Chopin would steady his nerves before performing by playing parts of Johann Sebastian Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier." Bach's work is divided into two books, each consisting of 24 preludes and fugues - one prelude and one fugue in each of the 12 major and minor keys.

"The Well-Tempered Clavier," thus comprises 48 pieces, numbered BWV 846~893. BWV stands for Bach-Werke Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue), the system of numbering Bach's works. This collection, however, is commonly referred to by musicians as "the 48."

"Well-tempered" refers to a method of tuning a keyboard instrument. A tuning system is termed a temperament. The problem of temperament has occupied musicians for the thousands of years since musical sounds were divided into the eight tones of the octave. When one string is vibrating exactly twice as fast as another, the resulting interval is called an octave. When two strings vibrate at a ratio of 2:3, the resulting interval is called a fifth.

The problem arises when people try to tune perfect fifths and perfect octaves together on a keyboard. The task is impossible due to the mathematical incompatibility of the ratios 1:2 and 2:3. In "equal temperament," the temperament of the modern piano, all intervals are equally imperfect - equally "out of tune." Each key thus possesses the same character or color. In contrast, Bach advocated "well-tempered" tuning, in which some intervals are tuned perfectly and others are left imperfect. Since the intervals are not equal, compositions written in different keys may have different characteristics. The method also permits full chords to be played in each key without substantial discord.

In addition to demonstrating the possibilities of "well-tempered" tuning, Bach had a particular additional intention - to teach. In most of the preludes, a single specific technical task is given the player, and the preludes thus can be called etudes (studies).

Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier" influenced many composers who came after him; it is considered the "Old Testament" of music (Beethoven's sonatas being the "New Testament"). Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arranged the fugue into string ensemble works, and Charles Gounod composed a song, "Ave Maria," using Prelude No.1 in C major from Book 1 as an accompaniment. Chopin's "24 Preludes" and Dmitri Shostakovich's "24 Preludes and Fugues" were also influenced by Bach's great work.

"The Well-Tempered Clavier," recorded by Sviatoslav Richter in 1972 and 1973 at a castle in Salzburg, is considered the best recording of the work. Richter played a Bosendorfer piano and the four-and-a-half-hour recording was produced on the RCA label. Richter is brilliant at reading between the lines and capturing the rich melody and theme. His playing is clear and powerful enough to convince listeners that the work is not just an etude, but a masterpiece.

by Lee Jang-jik

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