The German word “Bach” means a brook, creek or small stream of water. Ludwig van Beethoven felt that this was the wrong name for Johann Sebastian Bach. He famously said of Bach: “Nicht Bach, sondern Meer sollte er heißen” – not Brook, but Ocean should be his name! This is high praise, but not an uncommon appraisal. The depth of Bach’s artistic vision is perhaps without rival. In this post we will be looking at one of his most famous compositions. It also happens to be among his simplest and most accessible. This post is not in the Composer of the Week series, but rather an in-depth focus on a particular piece.
The Well-Tempered Clavier
In 1722, Bach started to work on what would become one of the most important musical compositions in the western canon. He took each of the 12 tones and composed a Prelude and Fugue for each one. He then repeated the process for the minor keys. The result is a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, beginning in C and ending in B. Amazingly, he later repeated the whole project and produced a second volume in the same format.
In his own words, Bach wrote these volumes “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study”. The first of all the preludes, number 1 in C, is arguably the best known to expert and lay audiences alike. The piece has a numinous quality, despite being highly regular in structure. The imaginative use of harmony gives the composition the timeless quality that people have been finding in it for the last three centuries.
How to Practice the Prelude
The piece consists of 35 bars or measures. Each bar contains a repetition of the same broken chord over a sustained base note. This provides a wonderful opportunity for you to sharpen your perception of chords and musical structures. To help in this task, we can divide the piece into three main segments reflecting the overall scheme of the composition. You can use the diagram below, which is a reduction of the piece into static chords, to help you. I have deliberately omitted bar numbers because I want you to count to find bars. Remember, the goal here is to immerse ourselves in this music and integrate it into our memories.
Part 1: bars 1 – 11
With the score in front of you, listen to the opening 4 bars of the piece. Do you notice that bar 4, just like bar 1, is a simple C major chord? We have begun in C and taken a short meander through D minor and G major before returning to the tonic. Remember, the tonic is the key that “feels like home” in any particular piece. Because this piece is in C major, the tonic is C. Now we arrive at bar 5 and are surprised with a solemn A minor. Of course, A minor is the relative minor of C major. This means that C major and A minor have the same key signature. This is why the transition into A minor is coherent and makes sense to the ear, even though it is emotionally evocative. The bass descends in small steps until we end up in the key of the dominant in bar 11. Dominant is word you need to remember – associate it with the number 5. In the key of C, the fifth step in the scale is G, which means G is the dominant here. So in bar 11, we have a G major chord.
Part 2: Bars 11 – 19
In this section, we move out of the dominant, which is G, and back towards the tonic, which is C. In this phase, Bach inserts some diminished chords, particularly at bars 12 and 14. Diminished chords are chords that stack two minor thirds on top of one another. Try this out: play a C with your thumb. Now, use your second finger to play an E flat and your third finger to play an F sharp. Try playing the three notes together, then separately, slowly, then quickly. Play them in a high octave and a low octave. You will notice that these chords create tension and an unsettling feeling. At this point in the piece, we have left the sunny, idyllic opening bars and are now contemplating shadows.
Part 3: Bars 20 – 35
These last fifteen bars are quite unusual in that they constitute an extremely long coda. The term coda is the Italian form of the Latin cauda, meaning “tail”. Musically, a coda is a passage that brings a piece of music to an end. This piece has a very lengthy one, and you can hear from bar 20 onward that the piece is “trying” to end. But the composer frustrates our expectations twice before finally delivering us back into C major cadence at the very end. Cadences, from the Latin for “fall”, are musical conclusions, or endings. Another term that you will see if you delve into music theory is resolution.
So much more can be said about this amazing piece of music. A great deal has been said over the centuries, and if you are really interested I would recommend this great analysis and, if you are really ambitious, this longer one. It is a rare genius who can compose music that is at once so pregnant with meaning and yet at the same time so amenable to interpretation. If you listen to any two great pianists playing this prelude, you will be able to discern two widely divergent interpretations of the same text. Add your voice to this legacy and integrate BWV 846 into your memory and your heart. If you are a pupil of mine, you have no choice but if you are reading this from elsewhere, I’d truly like to hear from you.