In 1717, Bach spent four weeks in prison as a result of what were deemed to be his over-zealous attempts to leave his employment with the Weimar court. Bach is said to have written Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, at least in part, "in a place where ennui, boredom,, and the absence of any kind of musical instrument forced him to resort to this pastime." (Christoph Wolff, "Johann Sebastian Bach, The Learned Musician", page.184).
Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier was published in 1722 with a brief note by Bach describing the work as "The Well-Tempered Clavier, or preludes and fugues through all the tones and semitones, both as regards the tertia major or [Do] Re Me and as concerns the tertia minor or Re Me Fa. 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." Many years later, between 1738 -- 1742, Bach published Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The 48 Preludes and Fugues have since their composition formed a backbone of the repertory for keyboard.
Book I consists of 24 preludes and fugues in each of the 12 major and minor keys using well-tempered tuning.The work begins in C major and C minor, followed by the major and minor keys in ascending half-steps. Thus, the final prelude and fugue are in the key of b minor. In this collection, Bach explores the full potential of keyboard music in expressiveness and technique. The preludes are improvisatory and free-style. The fugues are rigorous and learned and range from two voices to two fugues with five large voices. The mood of the work varies widely from severe and grand to song and dance and play. The preludes in fugues in each key generally are of contrasting character, allowing Bach to show the range of expressiveness of which each key was capable. The pieces cover the broadest range of time-signatures and rhythms. In an least one instance,, Prelude and Fugue no. 8, Bach used enharmonic notation. The Prelude is written in six flats (e-flat minor) while the cognate fugue is written in six sharps --- (d sharp minor) using the same keys on the instrument.
As a young boy in Bonn, Beethoven played and mastered this difficult music. Years ago in my own efforts at the piano, I attempted several of them. Although my experience playing the music is on the piano, I love to hear performances on the harpsichord. I spent many years with Wanda Landowska's reading on the Pleyel harpsichord which, with its clangor, bears little resemblance to the harpsichord of Bach's time. I thoroughly enjoyed ths new budget-priced release of Book I by Luc Beausejour. Beausejour is a Canadian harpsichordist and organist who has recorded the Goldberg Variations, Bach organ music, and Scarlatti, among much else. In this recording, he plays on a modern double-manual harpsichord built in 1985 with no specific historical model. It has a light, lyrical sound. The recording does not have the grandeur and sweep of Landowska's. The overall impression I got from the set was one of lightness even in the solemn pieces. The tone is generally one of lightness and flow, song and dance. I found it lovely, and it returned me to the music after an absence.
I followed the performance using my edition of Book I edited by Hans Bischoff. Beasejour does not appear to be playing from this text, and it would be interesting to know what edition he did use. The works that brought back my memories were, of course, the pieces I once tried to play, including the famous opening C major prelude with its spacious arpeggios and the following four part fugue based upon a scalar theme. I also rember playing the following c minor prelude with its succession of sixteenth-note figures and rapid close followed by a dance-like three part fugue. I enjoyed the vigoruous A-flat major prelude with its reflective and complex four-voice fugue. There is much to be savored in each pair of works in this collection.
As is apparent from the thougtful reviews that have already appeared for this CD, every listener has his or her own conception of this music and favorite performances. The low price and lovely playing make Beausejour's version a fine choice as an introduction to the work. Listeners with a great familiariy with the music will enjoy, as the reviews show, comparing it with other readings of this endlessly fascinating score.