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Timeline 029: The Well-Tempered Clavier

U.S. Public Domain
Title page of The Well Tempered Clavier, Book I

Bach’s seminal work The Well-Tempered Clavier showcases an ability that we take for granted in modern music.  Today, we have the ability to play with anyone in any key thanks to our modern standards of tuning and temperament.

When you hear an orchestra tuning up before a performance, they are tuning to a standard frequency – what we call A440.  That’s the “A” above “middle C”; it must vibrate at exactly 440 cycles per second.  But, it hasn’t always been that way.  Some scholars believe that the pitch of baroque instruments could have been around 415, an entire half-step lower.  But tuning a single note is just the beginning, figuring out how to tune multiple notes to each other has been the real challenge.

The word “temperament” is used to describe how we tune or create scales, the building blocks of western music.  Today, we utilize a tuning called Equal Temperament, where the octave is split into 12 equal steps that we call semi-tones.  But history is filled with different ways that a scale could be tuned.  In Bach’s day, the standard tuning method was called Mean-tone Temperament.  The limitations of this system meant that a single keyboard could only play in 5 or 6 related keys.  That means that you would have to have multiple keyboards to play in all the available keys.

Credit US-PD
A manuscript of the fugue in Ab minor from the Well Tempered Clavier Book II.

This brings us to Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier; that title simply means that a single keyboard is tuned in such a way that the performer can play in all 24 keys (12 major and 12 minor).  We aren’t sure if Bach had our modern method of tuning in mind but he set out to compose a prelude and fugue in every key possible on a single instrument.  He did this in 1722 and then again 20 years later; books I and II.

In Bach’s own words The Well-Tempered Clavier was composed “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.”

These manuscripts were copied and circulated widely throughout Europe but the work was not officially published until 1801.  However, you can certainly hear the influence of The Well-Tempered Clavier in the compositions of the high classical era.  Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all studied these works very closely.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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