The well-tempered piano

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The Well-Tempered Clavier ( BWV 846–893) is a collection of preludes and fugues for a keyboard instrument by Johann Sebastian Bach in two parts. Bach completed Part I in 1722, Part II in 1740/42. Each part contains 24 pairs of one Prelude and a joint in all major - and minor - keys , chromatically arranged in ascending order from C major to B Minor, wherein after a major key minor key same name appears (C Major / C minor C sharp major / C sharp minor).

Title page of the autograph from 1722


Bach's own title on the title page of the autograph from 1722 reads:

The Well-Tempered Clavier or Præludia, and fugues through all tones and Semitonia, as well as concerning tertiam majorem or Ut Re Mi, as well as concerning tertiam minorem or Re Mi Fa. For the benefit and use of the musical youth eager to learn, as well as those special pastimes who are already habilitated in this studio, prepared and made by Johann Sebastian Bach. p. t: Princely Anhalt-Cöthenischen Capel-Masters and directors of their Camer Musiquen. Anno 1722.

Clavichord (modern replica of an instrument from the 18th century)


With the term “clavier”, which encompassed all keyboard instruments of the time , Bach deliberately left the choice of the instrument open for execution. Most of the work is evidently designed for clavichord or harpsichord . According to Johann Nikolaus Forkel , Bach had a preference for the clavichord. In the obituary of 1754 however, stands above Bach: "The Clavicymbale he knew in the mood so pure and temperiren true that all keys sounded nice and pleasing." The work is now both on the harpsichord and on the modern piano or . wings played.


The term “well-tempered” possibly refers to the so-called well - tempered mood invented by Andreas Werckmeister in 1681 . The mid-tone wolf fifth was defused at the expense of the pure thirds to enable playing in all keys. In the mean-tone tuning that was common up to then and also in parallel, however, the further away they are from C major, the more out of tune keys are, so the composers avoided these distant keys. In 1710 Johann David Heinichen introduced the circle of fifths , which brought the 24 major and minor keys into a common tonal system and thus made their relationships to one another definable. Before Bach, however, composers hardly made any practical use of these innovations and only composed individual works in the keys that had been avoided up to now, so that Johann Mattheson complained in 1717: “Although all claves can now be set up with Temperaturam so that they are very diatonicé, chromaticé & enharmonicè May use, a real demonstratio is missing. "

With his work, Bach wanted to demonstrate practically the suitability of the well-tempered mood for composing and playing in all keys. In doing so, he made a significant contribution to their historical implementation. However, it is unknown which of the well-tempered tunings Bach actually used at the time. What is certain is that Bach's well-tempered tuning is not the same-scale tuning customary today , which is why the keys differ in character, in contrast to today.

Major and minor

Bach described the then still uncommon terms major and minor in the long title of the first part in two ways: in major with the major third (Latin tertia major , accusative tertiam majorem ) and additionally with the Italian names of the first three degrees of a major scale (ut Re Wed); in the case of the minor, the corresponding minor third and the first three notes of a minor scale (Re Mi Fa).

Intended use

The carefully formulated long title indicated the pedagogical purpose of the collection as a systematic textbook for musical beginners and advanced learners: It serves "for the benefit and use of the musical youth eager to learn, as well as those special pastimes who are already habilitated in this studio". Bach also gave this purpose to two further composition cycles , which were newly published in 1722/23: the “ Auffrichtigen Handbuch ” and the “ Orgelbüchlein ”. In doing so, he included the Well-Tempered Clavier among those instrumental works that primarily served the training of young musicians. This was one of the outstanding duties of the Thomaskantor in Leipzig: the position for which Bach was applying in 1722. The first part of the Well-Tempered Clavier, including its full title, was also part of Bach's application.


Even before the Well-Tempered Clavier , there were many forms of compilation of preludes and fugues. In the north German tradition, which Bach got to know mainly through its main master Dieterich Buxtehude , improvisational- toccaten-like sections with imitative or fugal sections broke through in long, complex sentences . In the southern German tradition, a single prelude often formed the introduction to a collection of short fugues ("versettes") intended for worship. The paired combination of a prelude of different forms with a fugue is the first to be performed in the collection of organ compositions Ariadne Musica by Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (1702; only the reprint from 1715 has survived). This collection also points towards the Well-Tempered Clavier by expanding the range of keys that had been customary up until then (the pieces are in a total of twenty keys) .

In addition to Fischer, there were occasional experiments to make all keys compositionally usable even before the Well-Tempered Clavier . Johann Jakob Froberger composed a (now lost) canzone through all 12 [!] Keys ; Johann Mattheson's Exemplary Organist Rehearsal (1719) contains figured bass exercises in all keys without any artistic claim.


First part

No information is available about the earliest time that Part I was made. Ernst Ludwig Gerber , the son of Bach's student Heinrich Nikolaus Gerber , reported in 1790:

“So, according to a certain tradition, he wrote his Tempered Clavier , some of which are very artificial fugues and preludes through all 24 tones, in a place where resentment, a long time and lack of any kind of musical instrument forced him to pass the time. "

This passage is often related to Part I; However, nothing is known about the place Gerber referred to, or about the time.

The first part is handed down in the autograph. There is also an abundance of copies, the most important of which were made by Bach's students and which contain a number of different readings. They were created during lessons with Bach and reflect the revision process that has taken several years. The following stages can be read from them:

  • α1 : The earliest version known to us has only survived through copies. Some of the preludes from the first half in particular are much shorter and simpler. It cannot be said for sure whether earlier versions existed before α1. Some indications support the assumption that α1 is at least partially composed of older material.
  • α2 : The piano booklet for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach contains eleven partly incomplete preludes in slightly refined form.
  • α3 : Between α1 / 2 and α3 lies by far the most important development step in the history of development known to us. Almost all preludes from the first half to G major are extended to their final length, in some cases almost doubled. The fugues are hardly changed, nor are the preludes from G minor, only the one in A flat major changes the melodic lines. “This almost gives the impression that Bach interrupted the revision process after the pair of sentences in G.” It is also conceivable that Bach “had previously based the preludes from G minor on on a new concept that, in his opinion, did not require revision”.
  • A : The autograph (today in the Berlin State Library ) was originally (1722) a fair copy. However, Bach made many changes here too. The following stages can be distinguished, whereby each revision also includes various bug fixes:
    • A1 : Original condition of the autograph, only slightly developed compared to α3 (1722 to 1723 at the latest);
    • A2 : Minor changes to the Prelude in C sharp major and the Fugue in D minor (1732);
    • A3 : Rhythmic change in the theme of the C major fugue (1736 or later);
    • A4 : More extensive revision, which, like α3, only affects the first half up to the G major fugue (after 1740). This is the last version known to us.

Second part

Fugue in A flat major from Part 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier in the London autograph

An incomplete autograph has survived for the second part. It came to light in the British Museum in London in 1896 , had previously belonged to Muzio Clementi and was bequeathed to the museum after his death by Eliza Wesley, the daughter of Samuel Wesley . It consists of loose double leaves, with the numbers 4 in C sharp minor, 5 in D major and 12 in F minor. Bach neither summarized these sheets in one volume nor gave them an overall title.

In addition to this so-called London autograph, which is dated to the years 1740/42 on the basis of diplomatic investigations, there are copies by Bach's student Johann Christoph Altnikol from 1744 and by Johann Philipp Kirnberger . However, to a greater extent than in the first part, Bach may have resorted to older compositions. The classification of this late collection as part 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier goes back to the Altnikol copy, which is entitled with the same title.


Each of the two parts of the Well-Tempered Clavier contains 48 pieces, each arranged in pairs as a prelude with a corresponding fugue. The sequence of the pairs of movements depends on the key and is semitone ascending from the root C, with each major key being followed by the minor key of the same name.

Each pair of sentences from the prelude and fugue is listed in the Bach Works Directory under its own number. Correspondingly, the 1st part comprises BWV 846 to BWV 869, the 2nd part BWV 870 to BWV 893.

No. BWV key Prelude Gap
Tact Tact be right
I / 1 846 C major 4/4 time 4/4 time 4th
I / 2 847 C minor 4/4 time 4/4 time 3
I / 3 848 C sharp major 3/8 4/4 time 3
I / 4 849 c sharp minor 6/4 alla breve 5
I / 5 850 D major 4/4 time 4/4 time 4th
I / 6 851 D minor 4/4 time 3/4 3
I / 7 852 E flat major 4/4 time 4/4 time 3
I / 8 853 E flat / D flat minor 3/2 4/4 time 3
I / 9 854 E major 12/8 4/4 time 3
I / 10 855 E minor 4/4 time 3/4 2
I / 11 856 F major 12/8 3/8 3
I / 12 857 F minor 4/4 time 4/4 time 4th
I / 13 858 F sharp major 12/16 4/4 time 3
I / 14 859 F sharp minor 4/4 time 6/4 4th
I / 15 860 G major 24/16 6/8 3
I / 16 861 G minor 4/4 time 4/4 time 4th
I / 17 862 A flat major 3/4 4/4 time 4th
I / 18 863 G sharp minor 6/8 4/4 time 4th
I / 19th 864 A major 4/4 time 9/8 3
I / 20 865 A minor 9/8 4/4 time 4th
I / 21 866 B flat major 4/4 time 3/4 3
I / 22 867 B flat minor 4/4 time 4/4 time 5
I / 23 868 B major 4/4 time 4/4 time 4th
I / 24 869 B minor 4/4 time 4/4 time 4th
II / 1 870 C major 4/4 time 2/4 3
II / 2 871 C minor 4/4 time 4/4 time 4th
II / 3 872 C sharp major 4/4 time and 3/8 4/4 time 3
II / 4 873 c sharp minor 9/8 12/16 3
II / 5 874 D major 12/8 4/4 time 4th
II / 6 875 D minor 3/4 4/4 time 3
II / 7 876 E flat major 9/8 4/4 time 4th
II / 8 877 D flat minor 4/4 time 4/4 time 4th
II / 9 878 E major 3/4 alla breve (4/2) 4th
II / 10 879 E minor 3/8 4/4 time 3
II / 11 880 F major 3/2 6/16 3
II / 12 881 F minor 2/4 2/4 3
II / 13 882 F sharp major 3/4 alla breve 3
II / 14 883 F sharp minor 3/4 4/4 time 3
II / 15 884 G major 3/4 3/8 3
II / 16 885 G minor 4/4 time 3/4 4th
II / 17 886 A flat major 3/4 4/4 time 4th
II / 18 887 G sharp minor 4/4 time 6/8 3
II / 19 888 A major 12/8 4/4 time 3
II / 20 889 A minor 4/4 time 4/4 time 3
II / 21 890 B flat major 12/16 3/4 3
II / 22 891 B flat minor 4/4 time 3/2 4th
II / 23 892 B major 4/4 time 4/4 time 4th
II / 24 893 B minor alla breve 3/8 3

Musical content

to form

Despite its limitation to the forms of the prelude and the fugue, the Well-Tempered Clavier has a great variety of musical forms of expression. The greatness of the work consists not only in the artistic composition technique. It is precisely the poetic content of the pieces that has fascinated performers and listeners of the work through the centuries.


The preludes are not subject to any strict compositional rules and are very diverse. In part, they can be seen as preparation and attunement to the following fugue. For the most part, however, they are compositions of their own rank, and in some cases even significantly longer and weightier than the respective fugues, such as the Prelude in E flat major BWV 852 in Part 1. Different types of preludes can be distinguished: arpeggiated pieces like the one in C major BWV 846 in the 1st part do not contain a theme of their own; Preludes in the imitation movement, on the other hand, are two or three-part inventions , in the style of inventions and symphonies . In the second part, pieces in the piano-like, gallant movement can also be identified, which stand out due to their particular style (broken chords, melodies of sighs, two-part structure).

Bars 1 to 9 of the fugue in C minor BWV 847 (Part I)


The fugue, on the other hand, is characterized by a stricter system based on the principle of imitation and contrapuntal technique . The fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier are noticeable because of their brevity, and their diversity stands out despite the stricter compositional framework. Some fugues have a dance-like character, for example echoes of a passepied (F major in the 1st part, B minor in the 2nd part) or a gavotte (F sharp major in the 2nd part). The second part contains only three- and four-part fugues, the first part, however, also a two-part (E minor) and two five-part examples (C sharp minor and B flat minor). In addition, the vast majority of the fugues are monothematic, three deal with two themes, and only two prominent works are triple fugues.

On the question of the unity of the work

On the part of musicology, there have been repeated efforts to establish connections between the prelude and fugue of a pair of movements, and also between the pieces of the entire work. Although such connections can be found, they are not mandatory. The order of the pieces does not seem compelling either, with the possible exception of the Prelude in C major, which has a clearly opening character. That is why one speaks of the Well-Tempered Clavier more of a collection of pieces than of a (self-contained) piano cycle.

Key character

Especially in German-language literature, there has been repeated speculation about the key characteristics on which the Well-Tempered Clavier is based. In most cases, the explanations of the various authors only reflect their subjective impressions, whose claim to objectivity fails because of the contradictions between the characteristics of the prelude and fugue, the first and second part. Relevant sources from which it emerged that Bach attributed certain characters to certain keys do not exist. As evidence for the existence of such aesthetics in the Bach era, a passage from Johann Mattheson's Das Neu =opene Orchester (1713) is sometimes cited, in which a total of 17 different keys are assigned partly contradicting characters. However, a connection to Bach's thinking cannot be proven; rather, in view of the complete isolation of this passage in the extensive musical literature of the time, it is not even demonstrable that key characteristics played any role in composing the late Baroque and that Mattheson's remarks are more than just a temporary thought experiment extraordinarily productive music writer. On the other hand, if Bach had ideas of key characteristics or symbols when he conceptualized his compositions, they cannot have been very important to him. It is widely believed that he has obtained a number of pieces in rare keys by transposing older pieces into simple keys. The first version of the D minor fugue of the first part is assumed to be a D minor fugue, and the G sharp minor fugue to be in G minor. At best, they could be used as examples of the characteristics of D or G minor pieces. In addition, an early version of the A flat major fugue from Part 2 has been preserved as Fughetta in F major (BWV 901). It was written by Bach during his years in Koethen and contained only 23 bars. It was notated in the upper notation system in the soprano clef, which Bach replaced about 20 years later in the extended final version with the treble clef , so that the score remained the same and only the accidentals had to be changed.

When assessing the characteristics of the keys of the well-tempered piano by later performers, it must be taken into account that after the introduction of equal tuning, the tonal results have changed. For example, the melodious sound of the C sharp major prelude noted by Hugo Riemann in his book, viewed from the point of view of Bach's well-tempered mood, should be judged differently.

Hans Eppstein , on the other hand, wrote about the first part: “Scholarly fugues are almost without exception in minor (with those in C sharp, D flat and B flat as the most prominent), as well as those with particularly expressive themes (F, F sharp, B), while on the other hand emphasized musical, contrapuntal uncomplicated fugues are predominantly in major. ”But even this is little more than a vague tendency: The fugues in C minor, E minor and G sharp minor are not particularly learned (ie they dispense with contrapuntal tricks such as augmentations , diminutions , inversions or narrowings ), and whether you want to describe their topics as "expressive" can only be left to personal taste.

Impact history

Edition by Carl Czerny, around 1910

The work became a milestone in European music history because now all keys were in principle equivalent and the possibilities of enhharmonics and modulation could be extended to all keys.

In contrast to other compositions by Bach, the Well-Tempered Clavier was not forgotten immediately after his death. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart probably got to know the work through Gottfried van Swieten , who brought music from Prussia to Vienna; Mozart arranged fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier for string trio (KV 404a) and for string quartet (KV 405). Also Ludwig van Beethoven knew and appreciated the Well-Tempered Clavier: Louis van Beethoven ... a boy of 11 years, and promising talent. He plays the piano very well and with strength, reads very well from the sight, and to say it all in one: He mostly plays the well-tempered piano by Johann Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe has given him. Anyone who knows this collection of preludes and fugues through all tones (which one could call the non plus ultra) will know what that means. There are also reports from Robert Schumann . The Méditation sur le premier prélude de Bach for violin and piano and the Ave Maria by Charles Gounod represent a romantic arrangement . Ignaz Moscheles has created an arrangement for piano and violoncello ( Ten Preludes after the Well-Tempered Clavier (Opus 137a)).

Carl Czerny's edition of the Well-Tempered Clavier was very popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries . Czerny, who refers in his preface to Beethoven, provides the score not only with numerous details of tempo, dynamics, presentation and articulation, but also engages frequently in the note text - be it harmonious to alleviate hardships, by the change of accidentals to Avoiding the Picardian third at the end of a sentence, or by filling in, summarizing chords or adding closing notes to increase the pianistic brilliance. The piano virtuoso and music pedagogue Franz Kroll (1820–1877) published a “New and Critical Edition” of the Well-Tempered Clavier for the first time in 1862/63, which was not only edited from handwritten sources , but also provided with technical explanations and fingering and thus for the first time text-critical and practical game qualities. The turning away from romanticism and its pompous musical movement, as well as the increased interest in historical-critical source research ( New Bach Edition ) and historical performance practice shifted the interpretative focus in the course of the 20th century.

Numerous composers have also been inspired to create their own works by the Well-Tempered Clavier. The fugues already influenced Anton Reicha's 36 fugues op. 36 or August Alexander Klengel with his 24 canons through all keys "Les Avantcoureurs" and another two volumes each with 24 canons and fugues through all keys. The Preludes, however, were in the 24 Preludes (Op. 28) by Frédéric Chopin Pate. In the 20th century, Julius Weismann with his Fugenbaum (1943–1946) and especially Paul Hindemith with his Ludus tonalis (1942) and his Ragtime (well-tempered) (1921, first performance 1987) as well as Dmitri Shostakovich with his 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87 to Bach's work. Further examples are Rodion Schtschedrin with 24 preludes and fugues for piano (Book 1, 1964; Book 2, 1970), the 24 preludes op.83 and 24 fugues op.108 by Hans Gál and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco with Les guitares bien temperées (24 Preludes and Fugues for Two Guitars, Op. 199). Arnold Schönberg considered the B minor fugue from Part 1 to be the first work in twelve-tone technique . Jazz musicians such as Keith Jarrett have also repeatedly dealt with Bach and especially the well-tempered piano.


"The well-tempered piano is the old testament, the Beethoven sonatas the new one, we have to believe in both [Bach and Beethoven]."

"Whenever I got stuck while composing, I took out the Well-Tempered Clavier, and new ideas sprout again."

“The 'well-tempered piano' is your daily bread. Then you will certainly become a capable musician. "

“... there I first became familiar with your grandmaster, with complete calmness and without external distraction. I said it to myself: as if eternal harmony were entertaining itself, as it might have happened in God's bosom, shortly before the creation of the world. This is how it moved inside me, and it seemed to me as if I neither possessed nor needed neither ears, least of all eyes, and no other senses. "


  • Siglind Bruhn : JS Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Analysis and design. Edition Gorz, Waldkirch 2006, ISBN 3-938095-05-9 .
  • Ludwig Czaczkes: Analysis of the well-tempered piano. 2 volumes. Österreichischer Bundesverlag, Vienna 1965.
  • Johann Nepomuk David : The Well-Tempered Clavier. An attempt at a synopsis. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1962.
  • Alfred Dürr : Johann Sebastian Bach. New edition of all works. Series V, Volume 6.1: The Well-Tempered Clavier. Critical report. Bärenreiter-Verlag, Kassel and VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, Leipzig 1989.
  • Alfred Dürr: Johann Sebastian Bach. The well-tempered piano. Bärenreiter, Kassel u. a. 1998. (3rd edition 2008, ISBN 978-3-7618-1229-7 )
  • Hermann Keller : The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach. Work and reproduction. Bärenreiter, Kassel 1965. (New edition 1994, ISBN 3-7618-1200-0 )
  • Stefan Kunze : Genres of the fugue in Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. In: Martin Geck (Ed.): Bach interpretations. ( Walter Blankenburg on his 65th birthday). ( Small Vandenhoeck series. 291). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1969.
  • Cecil Gray: The Forty-Eight Preludes And Fugues Of JS Bach . Oxford University Press, 1938. (
  • Christian Overstolz: A quiet credo of JS Bach. Prelude and Fugue in A major from the Well-Tempered Clavier I. 2nd edition. Schwabe, Basel 2012, ISBN 978-3-7965-2779-1 .
  • Herbert Kelletat : On the musical temperature . Volume 1: Johann Sebastian Bach and his time. (= Edition Merseburger. No. 1190). 2nd, improved and enlarged edition. Merseburger Verlag, Berlin 1981, ISBN 3-87537-156-9 . (The first edition appeared under the title On musical temperature in particular by Johann Sebastian Bach . Oncken Verlag, Kassel 1960)

Web links

Commons : The Well-Tempered Clavier  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. In contrast to the Preludes op.28 by Frédéric Chopin , which are arranged in a circle of fifths and in which the parallel minor key appears after a major key (C major / A minor, G major / E minor, etc.).
  2. ^ Hans-Joachim Schulze: Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and work in documents. Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1984, ISBN 3-423-02946-3 , p. 194.
  3. quoted from Christoph Wolff: Johann Sebastian Bach. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2000, ISBN 3-596-16739-6 , p. 250.
  4. ^ Christoph Wolff: Johann Sebastian Bach. 2000, pp. 246-252.
  5. Fischer's Ariadne Musica : Sheet music and audio files in the International Music Score Library Project
  6. Cf. on this chapter: Alfred Dürr: Johann Sebastian Bach. The well-tempered piano. Bärenreiter, Kassel etc. 1998; v. a, pp. 27-32.
  7. ^ Ernst Ludwig Gerber: Historisch-Biographisches Lexicon der Tonkünstler, which contains news of the life and works of musical writers, famous composers, singers, masters of instruments, amateurs, organ and instrument makers . Vol. 1: A-M. Leipzig 1790. Column 90.
  8. cf. e.g. Dürr 1989, p. 187.
  9. Dürr 1989, p. 192.
  10. Dürr 1998, p. 68.
  11. Hermann Keller: The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach. Work and reproduction. ( Memento of May 17, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) ISBN 3-7618-1200-0 , p. 121.
  12. Examples are provided by comparing the various articles on individual items in Keller 1965/1994.
  13. ^ Johann Mattheson: Das Neu = opened Orchester. Hamburg 1713, pp. 231-253. Bibliography according to Dürr 1998, p. 76, who gives a detailed account of the passage.
  14. cf. see the individual articles for the pieces in Dürr 1998.
  15. Hermann Keller: The Well-Tempered Clavier . ( Memento of July 14, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) p. 165.
  16. Hans Eppstein: Johann Sebastian Bach and the fortepiano. In: Bach yearbook. 1993, pp. 81-90, here p. 86f. Quoted from Dürr 1998, p. 78.
  17. ^ Magazin der Musik, published by Carl Friedrich Cramer, Professor in Kiel, first year, 1783, p. 394
  18. "after the well-preserved memory of how I once heard Beethoven perform a large number of these fugues"
  19. for example in the C minor fugue of the 2nd part
  20. The history of the classic editions . In: Annette Oppermann: Musical classic editions of the 19th century: a study ...
  21. ^ Kroll's edition of the Well-Tempered Clavier . In: Annette Oppermann: Musical classic editions of the 19th century: a study ...
  22. "The well-tempered piano is the old testament, the Beethoven sonatas the new, we have to believe in both". Theodor Pfeiffer: Studies with Hans von Bülow . 2012, ISBN 3-95507-422-6 , pp. 3 ( limited preview in Google Book Search).
  23. ^ Musical house and life rules , in the appendix to Schumann's album for the youth .
  24. in a letter to Zelter dated June 21, 1827, when the organist Heinrich Friedrich Schütz had played him from the "Well-Tempered Clavier" in Bad Berka . Hermann Keller: The Well-Tempered Clavier . ( Memento of May 17, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) p. 8.