article 4:   Notes to the Teldec Well-Tempered Clavier

My recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier I & II was reissued by Teldec as part of their BACH 2000 complete edition, but without the magnificent introduction by the great Bach scholar Alfred Dürr. My own modest contribution to the original, reproduced below, may be of interest to purchasers of the reissue, or to those listening to it in several versions found on YouTube.

by Glen Wilson

Dr. Dürr alludes in his introduction to two questions which every student of the Well-Tempered Clavier must confront: the tuning intended for the work (which is, after all, its whole raison d'être), and the revisions Bach undertook in his fair copy of 1722. I would like to comment briefly on some of the decisions I have taken with respect to both.

As to the vexed question of tuning: Dr. Rudolf Rasch has recently argued convincingly that, for German music of this period where free use of all keys is required, equal temperament is the tuning supported by much the greatest weight of historical evidence. To cite but one of these authorities, Andreas Werckmeister (usually seen as a champion of unequal temperament), in a series of works written after his famous Musikalische Temperatur, moves steadily in the direction of an advocacy of equal temperament, finally going so far as to apologize for ever recommending anything else.

The present-day early music movement, like all revolutions, has its built-in reactionary element; equal temperament is seen by some as a pernicious invention of the wicked nineteenth century, when in fact it is simply one of the historical temperaments, one side of a polarity in tuning theory going back in an unbroken line to the ancient Greeks. To exclude it from its rightful place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is as silly as playing Brahms in meantone.

Let us turn now to the complex question of Bach's revisions to the actual note-text. Today, one can walk into any music shop and choose from a number of neatly printed "Urtext" editions of the WTC. It is extremely difficult to conceive how different, how chaotic almost, the evolution of the work actually was during the thirty-odd years in which Bach was involved with it. Early works, some heavily revised, were assembled along with new compositions into the fair copy of 1722; this manuscript was subjected by Bach to repeated revision; and all the while copies were being made by students, at different stages in the manuscript's development.

It has been customary, for obvious reasons, to accept the final version of the autograph manuscript as the basis for editions. There can be no question that this will always be a valid choice. Yet I would argue that, just as an etching can be prized in earlier states than the final one, the various stage in the revision of WTC 1 also have their value. And if one dares to approach the accreted revisions in a critical spirit, reasons could conceivably be found to reject certain of them. Admittedly, this is a frightening idea, tending as one does to see in every stroke of Bach's pen a sort of holy writ - but perhaps we can at least try to understand why he made some of the changes he did.

I believe that almost all the revisions undertaken after Bach wrote out the 1722 copy were motivated by considerations of voice-leading and contrapuntal purity. This is a bewildering and esoteric business to the average music-lover, but Bach was extremely conscious of his role as repository of the great European contrapuntal tradition, and was very concerned with passing it on to the next generation in an impeccable form. One has only to look at the massive treatises on counterpoint (often disguised as figured-bass handbooks) from Bach's time to see to what lengths German thinking went in this respect.

Yet in my opinion, higher musical values, such as unity of motif, strength of line, and expressive power, were almost always sacrificed, in the post-1722 revisions, to obtain a contrapunctal "purity" which interests me, for one, very little. I tremble to say it, but I believe the Olympian Cantor of St.Thomas suffered from a loss of nerve as he contemplated some of his youthful boldnesses of 1722 - but it is precisely this boldness that I treasure.

Strange to tell, there is a small but significant number of Bach's revisions to both books of WTC which are so patently bad that they have always been rejected - usually silently - by editors, in spite of their adherence to the "last version" ideal.

The most interesting of these occurs in the piece most heavily revised after 1722, the C major fugue. This was the original theme:

Only at some point after 1739 did Bach change it to the familiar version:

The general opinion is that the later version of the theme is more "mature". Is it, really? I personally find the dotted rhythm very distracting to the majestic surge of this wonderful fugue. It also cancels much of the power of the carefully placed syncopation on the dominant. The dotted theme becomes, perhaps, superficially more striking, more "rhetorical", but, uncharacteristically for Bach, the demi-semiquavers receive no further development; they starkly retain their quality of interlopers. How foreign this jerky rhythm is to this extremely compact stretto fugue, which lacks even a contrasting countersubject! In place of one, Bach employs the semiquavers at the tail of the subject, which consist of diminished inversions of the subject's opening motif. But the dotting of the theme forced Bach in two places to abandon this important figure. In bar twelve he substituted such a strange melody that most editions present a mixed version - the old soprano, but the dotted rhythm. Stranger still is the case of bar 15, where Bach, forced by the dotted them into an "irregularly" prepared dissonance, at some still later point changed the bass into this:

- thus mutilating the theme. Even the oustanding edition by Walter Dehnhard rejects this "correction", although it represents Bach's last will. Dürr, in the Neue Bach Ausgabe, relegates it to a footnote.

Let us be consistent: either the last version is definitive, or one casts a critical eye on all the revisions. I have taken the latter decision, and to me it seems clear that the dissonances and theoretically questionable parallels that render the C major fugue in its original form so pungent, struck the aging Master as going too far. The revisions in the other pieces seem similarly motivated.

Wanda Landowska wrote an article at the beginning of the twentieth century defending the original form of the C major fugue, and played it so to the end of her long life. But she thought it had been altered by Altnikol or Kirnberger, in a misguided attempt to save their teacher from theoretical disgrace. One wonders what the great lady would have thought had she known the revisions were in Bach's hand.

Perceptions change as time passes, and works of art, conceived as unities at a given moment, often suffer from revisions undertaken from a changed point of view; think of the "censoring" of Michelangelo's "Last Judgement", or of Longo's quaint purge of Scarlatti. Of course, those changes weren't undertaken by the creator - but then there is Beethoven's rejection, late in life, of all his earlier works, or his composition of strange new cadenzas in his late manner for his piano concerti; or (in an example of extreme revision) Botticelli's throwing his paintings into Savonarola's "Bonfire of the Vanities". Since I see Bach's revisions of WTC I as a result of changed perception that led to distortion rather than improvement, I have gone back to the 1722 version.

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