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Well Tempered Clavier Study


passion_chorale
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Hi,

 

This is really a keyboard music question, and possibly open ended/impossible to answer! But here goes:

 

Do people have any thoughts on whether somebody beginning to look at the Well Tempered Clavier for the first time should look at the pieces in a specific order, or simply go for what looks manageable? Or are there certain important preludes and fugues which should be looked at first?

 

Also, are there any good resources online or in book form which discuss ornaments and fingering?

 

The website below has an online book which discusses each piece in depth, which I am finding useful.

 

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~siglind/text.htm

 

Many thanks, David.

 

*Update: Have now found some fingered versions at http://www.sheetmusicarchive.net

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Hi,

 

This is really a keyboard music question, and possibly open ended/impossible to answer! But here goes:

 

Do people have any thoughts on whether somebody beginning to look at the Well Tempered Clavier for the first time should look at the pieces in a specific order, or simply go for what looks manageable? Or are there certain important preludes and fugues which should be looked at first?

 

Also, are there any good resources online or in book form which discuss ornaments and fingering?

 

Bach didn't specify an instrument, so all that we know for sure is that he didn't intend a modern piano. Robert Levin produced some useful recordings, choosing what he thought was the most appropriate instrument for each piece, including Harpsichord, Clavichord, several organs and fortepiano. Bach almost certainly didn't specify equal temperament, but used a "well temperament" about which one may speculate.

 

It appears that different preludes and fugues work better on some instruments than others, where the sustained notes of an organ would show up any temperament problems more than other instruments would.

 

It is almost certain, too that Bach didn't expect legato playing throughout with careful finger substitution to avoid breaks between notes. Few of his manuscripts have any fingering at all, and his admirers noted that his fingering was unconventional for the time. However, many treatises of the time make it clear that the "normal touch" was slightly detached, as can be achieved on a harpsichord, clavichord or good tracker organ, but not on a modern piano. If you have found versions with fingering, you need to consider whether this is modern fingering intended to impose an unhistoric legato on the music, or whether it follows Baroque principles, where the breaks which occur when you don't use finger substitution would occur at the points where the composer expected breaks.

 

If you are tempted to get David Ledbitter's book be aware that most of it deals with the history of the pieces and their manuscripts, and theoretical analysis, all admirably done, but the practical advice about performance, while there, is a little hard to find.

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Bach almost certainly didn't specify equal temperament, but used a "well temperament" about which one may speculate.

 

I've always assumed that "The Well-tempered Clavier" was just that, i.e. a well-tuned instrument, capable of being played in all keys. But I do wonder if it might also have implied an instrument in equal temperament, also capable of being played in all keys without any wolf intervals.

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I've always assumed that "The Well-tempered Clavier" was just that, i.e. a well-tuned instrument, capable of being played in all keys. But I do wonder if it might also have implied an instrument in equal temperament, also capable of being played in all keys without any wolf intervals.

A few years ago many people assumed, and some wrote, that Bach had "discovered" equal temperament, while more assumed that even if he didn't invent it, he was responsible for popularising it. That is now very much a minority view.

 

The theory of equal temperament has been known for a very long time (ancient Chinese?) but there were several reasons that delayed its almost universal use. The first was that people didn't like the sound of it. They knew what pure thirds sounded like and resisted any new system which lost that purity. We are so used to ET thirds that we don't easily notice how bad they sound. The consequence for organists is that ET made third-sounding ranks in mixtures intolerable, hence the almost total disappearance of the traditional English cornet stop. ET was also the most difficult temperament to tune, and until 100 years ago most attempts to tune ET were way out, and it seems that few tuners even now get very close to true ET, either from preference or from lack of technique, if they don't tune with an electronic meter.

 

Of course ET has some advantages, not so much that all keys can be used as that so much modulation is possible. If it weren't for enharmonic modulation we wouldn't have Cocker's Tuba Tune.

 

We don't know for sure which temperament Bach used, but we know a lot about the several competing schemes in use at his time. The "Well temperings" other than ET have the advantage that different keys have different sound colours, something that Baroque composers knew and exploited. While there is little evidence for or against Lehman's proposal, it certainly is possible to play the 48 without hitting any wolf intervals, and different keys sound different. Why did Bach bother to write in C# major if it only sounded like a transposition of C major? On the other hand, many of the pieces in the 48 are not in their original keys, but had a former life and were transposed to fill gaps in other keys in the 48.

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Guest spottedmetal
Of course ET has some advantages, not so much that all keys can be used as that so much modulation is possible. If it weren't for enharmonic modulation we wouldn't have Cocker's Tuba Tune.

 

We don't know for sure which temperament Bach used, but we know a lot about the several competing schemes in use at his time. The "Well temperings" other than ET have the advantage that different keys have different sound colours, something that Baroque composers knew and exploited. While there is little evidence for or against Lehman's proposal, it certainly is possible to play the 48 without hitting any wolf intervals, and different keys sound different.

 

The question of temperament arising elsewhere the other night I tried the NC Tuba Tune on a good toaster extension box with unequal temperaments. It seemed that it came out fine with Kellner and Vallotti with Kirnberger (assume III) giving the remote key a nice "edge" without being out of tune. The one I came to hate in my youth was Werkmeister and it did not endear itself more on re-hearing.

 

The brilliant thing about having those temperaments easily available is that really can test the tuning before re-tuning a pipe organ. What's it going to be? Kellner or Kirnbergar have my vote. On this basis, certainly one could routinely tune a pipe-organ to Kellner without incurring anyone's wrath . . . or is that optimistic?

 

Some time ago, I flirted with the Lehman temperament on a harpsichord and whilst finding it interesting didn't find enough colour or, unlike Kellner, a meaningful progression into the remoter keys. How do others who have tried it rate it in this respect? Kellner also looked at the Bach signet ring and from memory there was another who looked at the Bach WT manuscript squiggle and arrived at a solution not far from Kellner's.

 

Best wishes,

 

Spot

 

PS. As an aside, the performance of the Chopin 2nd sonata (the funeral march one) was on the radio the other day. The movement following the funeral march, it is said, perhaps images the wind whistling over the gravestones. It's in a remote key and on an unequal temperament, it would sound icily chilly. I might try to encourage a performance on Kellner later in the season, although Kirnberger would give it more bite. I don't suppose anyone has a toasted piano to try out the two at a flick of the switch do they?

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