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Johann Sebastian Bach

Prelude and Fugue in A-flat Major from Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I  Play

Michael Mizrahi Piano

Recorded on 04/25/2006, uploaded on 01/12/2009

Musician's or Publisher's Notes

Preludes and Fugues in A-flat Major from Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I    Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, two books of 24 preludes and fugues covering all the major and minor keys, has remained a pinnacle in the keyboard repertoire for almost 300 years.  While not consistently performed in public over that span, pianists and composers (including the composers on today's program) have made studying these contrapuntal masterpieces central to their development as artists.  The two selected here are a fine representation of the oeuvre, with the f-sharp minor fugue in particular a towering achievement.     Michael Mizrahi


Prelude and Fugue in A flat Major, from Book I, Well-Tempered Clavier  Johann Sebastian Bach

The forty-eight preludes and fugues that make up the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier were compiled at two different times-the first book in 1722 while Bach was in Köthen and in 1742 in Leipzig. In each book, the first prelude and fugue set is in C major, followed by the next in C minor and so they ascend chromatically in major-minor pairs. The preludes for the most part exhibit simple binary or ternary forms;  a few (Nos. 9 and 12 in Book II) use the old Baroque sonata form well-known in the works of Scarlatti. Quite exceptionally, the Prelude in D of Book II nearly approaches the requirements of the modern sonata form. The fugues range from two to five voices, with three and four being the preferable choices, and employ a wide range of contrapuntal techniques.

The title page of Bach's autograph fair copy (in the possession of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz) states that the Well-Tempered Clavier is a set of preludes and fugues "for the Use and Profit of the Musical Youth Desirous of Learning." Although not published during his lifetime, Bach made use of the Well-Tempered Clavier with his own students, usually lending his manuscript to them and letting them make their own personal copy. These copies were slowly spread across Europe and several later influential composers, most notably Mozart and Beethoven, obtained their own manuscripts of the Well-Tempered Clavier. During the course of the nineteenth century, this remarkable set of preludes and fugue became a cornerstone in the piano literature, a position which it still holds today. As proof of its importance in the literature, the famous nineteenth century music critic, Hans von Bülow, called the the Well-Tempered Clavier the "Pianists' Old Testament."

Interesting is Bach's rather general statement on the title page: "for the Use and Profit of the Musical Youth Desirous of Learning." Bach was not specific concerning the subject of his instruction, so it can only be left to assume it is not one specific element, but music in all its aspects that he wished to teach. In the Well-Tempered Clavier, the music student has the most comprehensive and practical instructional manual to harmony and counterpoint, far surpassingly any textbook written on these subjects. From these two disciplines comes the foundation needed for a complete understanding of music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In assuming Bach's only intention was to teach keyboard technique, we fail to recognize the full potential of these forty-eight preludes and fugues.

The Prelude in A flat major in Book I begins with a short melodic motif built almost entirely from the notes of the tonic triad and repeated as part of the dominant seventh. The motif is present in nearly every measure of the prelude, appearing in different harmonies and undergoing a few instances of melodic transformation. A full close in the key of the dominant at measure eighteen effectively divides the prelude into two sections. The subject of the following four-voice fugue is also built largely out of triadic material of the tonic. The answer appears with only accompanying counterpoints and no countersubject.  The fugue is unique in that employs no instances of stretto-a device often employed at least during the middle entries. The final set of entries begins with the subject in the bass and then follows in the next higher voice until it finally reaches the soprano. An elegant deceptive cadence signals the approaching end and a final statement of the subject in the soprano.      Joseph DuBose

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