Sorry, a technical problem has occurred which may impair service. Apologies for any inconvenience, our engineers have been alerted.

Try refreshing the page in a moment.

The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I : Work information

Johann Sebastian Bach ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Jörg Demus (Piano)

This work

Work name
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I
Work number
BWV 846-869
1722-01-01 02:00:00

This recording

Dr Harald Schlosser (Tonmeister)
Recording date
2000-09-01 01:00:00

Track listing


The Well-Tempered Clavier was the title J S Bach gave to a. 1722 set of 24 paired preludes and fugues, one for each of the possible major and minor keys. A further collection assembled between 1738 and 1742 also bears this name and follows the same pattern. Together they are known colloquially as 'the 48'.

The title refers to a method of tuning the notes of a clavichord or harpsichord so that all keys are roughly in tune with each other. Playing Bach's work on an instrument using Just intonation (in which the intervals are acoustically pure) would result in many of the notes sounding 'out of tune'. Significantly, our modern equal temperament did not come into use until relatively recently, though piano tuners often still make small deviations from the strict values.

Musically, the first book is a masterpiece of baroque style, balancing the free with the strict, and contrasting traditional slow ricercares with the most ornate and brilliant offerings of the Italian style. The opening Prelude in C with its rippling arpeggio chords is particularly popular.

The Composers

Johann Sebastian Bach

One of the greatest composers in history, Johann Sebastian Bach (father of C.P.E, J. C. and W. F. Bach) was by far the most significant member of the Bach dynasty of musicians.

He outshone his forebears and contemporaries, but did not always receive the respect he deserved in his own lifetime. After a brief engagement as a violinist in the court of Weimar, Bach became organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt. In June 1707 he moved to St. Blasius, Mühlhausen, and married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach. In 1708 he was appointed court organist in Weimar where he composed most of his works for organ. In 1717, he was appointed Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold at Cöthen, but was refused permission to leave Weimar. The Duke only allowed Bach to go after holding him prisoner for nearly a month.

While at Weimar, Bach wrote his violin concertos and the six Brandenburg Concertos, as well as several suites, sonatas and keyboard works, including several, such as the Inventions and Book I of the 48 Preludes and Fugues (The Well-tempered Clavier). In 1720 Maria Barbara died, and the next year Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke. Bach resigned the post in Weimar in 1723 to become cantor at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig where he was responsible for music in the four main churches of the city. Here he wrote the Magnificat and the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, as well as a large quantity of other church music. In Leipzig he eventually took charge of the University “Collegium Musicum” and occupied himself with the collection and publication of many of his earlier compositions.

Over the years that followed, Bach’s interest in composing church music declined somewhat, and he took to writing more keyboard music and cantatas. As his eyesight began to fail, he underwent operations to try and correct the problem, and these may have weakened him in his old age. He died at age 65, having fathered a total of 20 children with his two wives. Despite widespread neglect for almost a century after his death, Bach is now regarded as one of the greatest of all composers and is still an inexhaustible source of inspiration for musicians. Bach’s compositions are catalogued by means of the prefix BWV (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis) and a numbering system which is generally accepted for convenience of reference.

Related Composers: Pachelbel, Telemann, Handel, Couperin

Also influenced: Mendelssohn, Brahms, Stravinsky, Hindemith