Historical Seasons > Past Symposiums

Symposium 108 - Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier

Sunday, 15 December 2013 @ 5:00pm
Monday, 16 December 2013 @ 7:00pm

Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier



Program


  • THE WELL-TEMPERED CLAVIER, BOOK II – Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)


    Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C Major – harpsichord Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C Minor – harpsichord
    Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp Major – fortepiano/chamber organ
    Prelude and Fugue No. 4 in C-sharp Minor – harpsichord
    Prelude and Fugue No. 5 in D Major – harpsichord
    Prelude and Fugue No. 6 in D Minor – harpsichord
    Prelude and Fugue No. 7 in E-flat Major – harpsichord/chamber organ
    Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in D-sharp Minor – harpsichord/fortepiano
    Prelude and Fugue No. 9 in E Major – fortepiano/chamber organ
    Prelude and Fugue No. 10 in E Minor – harpsichord
    Prelude and Fugue No. 11 in F Major – fortepiano/harpsichord
    Prelude and Fugue No. 12 in F Minor – fortepiano/harpsichord

    Intermission

    Prelude and Fugue No. 13 in F-sharp Major – harpsichord
    Prelude and Fugue No. 14 in F-sharp Minor – harpsichord
    Prelude and Fugue No. 15 in G Major – harpsichord/chamber organ
    Prelude and Fugue No. 16 in G Minor – harpsichord
    Prelude and Fugue No. 17 in A-flat Major – harpsichord
    Prelude and Fugue No. 18 in G-sharp Minor – fortepiano
    Prelude and Fugue No. 19 in A Major – harpsichord
    Prelude and Fugue No. 20 in A Minor – harpsichord/chamber organ
    Prelude and Fugue No. 21 in B-flat Major – harpsichord/chamber organ
    Prelude and Fugue No. 22 in B-flat Minor – harpsichord
    Prelude and Fugue No. 23 in B Major – harpsichord
    Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B Minor – fortepiano/harpsichord

     

Musicians

Notes on the Program


    Program Notes by Avi Stein

    Much of Bach's career was spent creating rather ephemeral music. Pieces composed for specific occasions such as church services, court events or coffeehouse concerts were unpublished and the manuscript parts used by individual musicians lay neglected and virtually unknown for nearly a century after his death. It is estimated that Bach composed as many sacred cantatas that have disappeared since his lifetime as the roughly two-hundred that have survived. For instrumental chamber works, the survival rate is even worse and we can now only imagine the totality of Bach's output.

    In this context it is curious to examine Bach's particular interest in creating comprehensive works - collections that encompass a complete examination of a form, genre or compositional technique. The famous Brandenburg Concertos are grouped together in the normal arrangement for the time of six complementary pieces such as found in the published sonatas or concertos of Corelli, Handel and Vivaldi. Yet the Brandenburgs display a variety of orchestration that goes far beyond contemporary equivalents, with unusual roles for winds, rare combinations of string instruments and the innovative use of the harpsichord as a soloist rather than accompanist. These concertos contain a diversity that surpasses novelty of instrumentation to become a survey into the possibilities of orchestral color. Other collections such as the Musical Offering, Art of Fugue, Goldberg Variations or Canonic Variations on the Christmas hymn "Vom Himmel hoch" explore the craft of developing a single musical idea through a vast multitude of permutations. Bach's exploration of liturgical function can be found in the unfinished Orgel-Büchlein (little organ Book) with hymn preludes for the entire church year or the third part of the Clavierübung (keyboard practice) with organ pieces for all the parts of the Lutheran Mass. The Mass itself transcends function to become an immense narrative in Bach's crowning achievement of the B minor Mass. Composed towards the end of his life, the great mass is a retrospective journey of his own work combining reworked pieces from throughout his lifetime into a towering statement of faith.

    The two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier provide a similar in-depth survey of styles and genres arranged in major and minor pairs, through the twelve notes of the scale. Bach's forward to the collection gives us a glimpse as to its purpose - "Preludes and Fugues for the use and profit of the musical youth desirous of learning as well as for the pastime of those already skilled in this study." Such an advertisement seems like an enormous understatement for such an exquisite overview of all the genres in which Bach excelled. Some fugues harken back a century to the ethereal Renaissance polyphony of Palestrina, while others display Bach's endeavor to keep up with current fashions in music espoused by his own children, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann. In various preludes and fugues, we see the implication of a wide spectrum of instrumental models, from the stately and theatrical orchestral overtures and virtuoso concertos to the intimate and improvisatory toccatas of the keyboard and lute.

    Bach's humble description of this work received perhaps a more appropriate translation in the words of the great 19th century conductor Hans von Bülow who designated it as "The Old Testament" in parallel to "The New Testament" of the piano sonatas of Beethoven.