WHY THE WELL-TEMPERED CLAVIER?
Bach compiled the 24 preludes and fugues (of Book 1) in all 12 major and minor keys in 1722.He composed them "for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning,and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study".Clearly,Bach meant to give the world an example of excellence to learn from,as well as to provide sheer pleasure to all.
My initial interest in the WTC,as musician and pianist,arouse out of a feeling I had for many years that both my intuitive and my self-consciously intellectual "understanding" of the music I was playing were wanting.I felt I was dealing with a culture I could not truly make my own.That caused me to follow Robert Schumann's advice to young musicians:"make the Well-Tempered Clavier" your daily bread".For many years hence I have been meeting the WTC almost daily,initially out of curiosity as to what was in it that made it so commendable.I found myself exploring an infinite cosmos,ever changing,ever new,with my own self,quite surprisingly,as one salient aspect of its landscape.As time went by,I got attached to those daily encounters in which I experienced great music and the most advanced compositional procedures I am aware of.In time I came to appreciate the fact that the WTC has been the very best music and piano teacher I could ever had.
The Steinway grand piano was as foreign to Bach as a cellular phone would have been.He meant the WTC to be performed on a keyboard,but had never specified whether the harpsichord,the clavichord or the organ were intended.
Quite frankly,even had the instrument been specified,I would still feel completely at ease with the idea of performing it on just about any instrument.I also enjoy very much playing the WTC on the harpsichord and the organ,with tempo,timing,my own feelings and experience changing considerably with each medium;the conjunction of the different acoustic phenomena with the inner relationships of the composition are sure always to produce a unique outcome.
The same goes for the piano,which is a natural choice in my case since I'm a pianist and meet Bach and the WTC through it.The pedal,however,albeit a very important feature of the modern instrument,had to be dropped.Although elsewhere it opens wonderful opportunities of expression,in the case of the WTC the inner requirements of the music dictated its absolute avoidance.
This,however,is not suggested as simplistically self-evident,for in the preface to the Inventions and Sinfonias,a didactic work,Bach does state that "above all" he would like students of music to perform in "cantabile" (singing) style.Surely ,the modern piano as Chopin's music amply proves the point enables the human voice's dynamic flexibility to be reproduced more than the harpsichord or the organ ever could.Nevertheless,I believe the singing quality Bach recommends is intended as independent of the instrument at hand and is only a function of the performer's expression and his ability to identify with his own inner singing during his playing.
POLYPHONY AT THE KEYBOARD
All western music is polyphonic in the wide sense of the simultaneity of two or more voices.To my best judgment,J.S.Bach was the greatest master ever of polyphony with his amazing creativity as well as artistic and inner freedom.For a keyboard player though,there is an intrinsic paradox in the performance of polyphony:every person has one single voice only,and can consequently sing but one musical line at a time,whereas the keyboard player has to "sing" more than one voice simultaneously.
This is indeed a formidable challenge;but it is also at the root of a most unique and personal skill born of the performer's need to bring into being relationships between given musical lines,as it seems required by him and as he fancies.
From another aspect,polyphony ,especially in Bach's instrumental music,seems to me wonderfully suggestive of social and emotional relationships,encounters,conversations,interactions,extracted from our daily life-experiences,from our inner and outer worlds-all that despite the absolute abstraction of music as language.
The fugue is the most "erudite" of musical forms.It has a subject (a melody) which is crafted so that it remains the main musical idea throughout the composition while it encounters itself and other musical ideas (which sometimes are partly derived from it).The WTC includes fugues of two,three,four and five voices.Each fugue has a unique "map" of texture despite the strict rules and regulations that a fugue demands.
One could think of the fugue as a given number of people (one to five) who gather in order to discuss a subject;the first "speaker" exposes the subject matter,then the others gradually join the conversation with their own views.
The composition ends after exhaustively "discussing" all most relevant aspects of the subject matter at hand.
The term prelude also implies a short "preparation" to the following piece the fugue.Nevertheless,the preludes of the WTC are mostly self-sufficient compositions of very high artistic merit by themselves.In my view,one of its functions is to give the listener a flowing,more melodic,more "diverting" experience than the following fugue with a more demanding learned style which requires much more readiness and concentration.
Notes by Israel Kastoriano
Recording:Steinway piano, Tel-Aviv,August 2007
Sound Engineer:Avi Elbaz
Disc graphics:Maya Tanner