November 2011

Fugue No. 2 in C Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 847

by Johann Sebastian Bach

We've talked about Bach several times already. He was a German composer and lived from 1685 to 1750. In 1722, Bach put together a practice book for keyboardists. For every key, he wrote a prelude and a fugue. This means a total of 48 pieces (24 preludes and 24 fugues).

If you start at one note of a piano (or most other keyboard instruments), let's say a "C", and you count the number of notes (black keys, too) until you get to the same note (another "C"), you'll count 12 notes. These are the 12 keys. For each key, there is a major key (happy sounding) and a minor key (sad sounding). So, for all 24 keys, you'll get a list that starts with, say, C Major, C Minor, C# Major, C# Minor, D Major, D Minor, and so on, ending with B Major and B Minor.

Bach's idea was to come up with some practice music for a learning keyboardist to become comfortable playing in every key. The book is known as The Well-Tempered Clavier. The word "clavier" (pronounced klah-VEER) means a keyboard instrument. At Bach's time, this could mean a harpsichord, a clavichord, an organ, or a pianoforte (which we would know today as a "piano"). There were possibly other variations that I'm leaving out. His book applied to all of these instruments.

But what does "Well-Tempered" mean? Did it mean that you wouldn't get angry while practicing these pieces? I think most piano students would disagree. "Well-Tempered" refers to a method of tuning the notes. A piano, like any other stringed instrument, needs to be tuned. After a while, the strings become stretched and need to be retightened or otherwise adjusted to the proper note. So, who's to say what that proper note is?

Sound is produced by pushing air in a wave. It's a lot like the ripples you see when you toss a rock into a pond. The rock creates waves in the water. When you create sound, it makes waves in the air. When those waves reach your ear, your brain interprets them as sound. The faster the ripples in the air, the higher the note sounds. The note A above middle-C on a piano is usually considered to be 440 of these ripples in a given second. That measurement is called a Hertz. So, the note "A" is considered to be 440 Hertz (or Hz). But there are those that think that A should actually be 436 Hertz or even 420 Hertz. If all of the relative notes follow, this will sound lower (not as many ripples in a given second). Musicians have their reasons for these alternate tuning methods. It can make the music sound differently (i.e., more sullen, brighter, etc.). With computers and digital instruments, most musicians have settled that A is 440 Hertz.

In Bach's day, there was a popular tuning method called "Meantone temperament". There was another method of tuning called "Well temperament". It was Bach's intention that you would play these little tunes from his book on a keyboard instrument that was tuned using the "well-temperament" method. The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Bach actually created a second set of preludes and fugues in 1742 (20 years later). Here again, there were 48 new pieces written (24 preludes and 24 fugues) covering all 12 major keys and 12 minor keys. This is "The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II".

What certainly surprised keyboard students at the time (and in the future) was that some of these pieces were actually very beautiful. Normally, if something has been designed to teach you, it is written to be more practical than pretty. These pieces were both. As a result, many of these pieces find their way into popular culture.

The piece that we are going to listen to today is the second fugue in The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. The first prelude and fugue are in C Major. The second prelude and fugue are in C minor. So this is the C Minor fugue from Book I.

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

I can't be certain of this, but I'm pretty confident that the first time I heard this piece was on Sesame Street. In the late '70s or early '80s, Sesame Street had a short show called "Alphabet Chat". It wasn't a direct spoof of anything, but it represented a lot of the fireside chat shows that were common on PBS at the time. The theme of the show used this fugue (for the first part of it anyway). I loved it.

I was later to discover the actual fugue on the Walter Carlos album "Switched-On Bach". Even later, I would be tickled to hear that the game "Little Computer People" involved the little person playing this fugue on his piano.


So here is Fugue No. 2 in C Minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I:

Fugue No. 2 in C Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I by Johann Sebastian Bach (1:35)

For those interested, this recording was performed by Glenn Gould.

Jon's Interpretation:

Johann Sebastian Bach stands as my favorite composer of all time. A fugue is a difficult style to write in, and Bach wields this style with such genius, it's really awe-inspiring. Fugues can be very simple, but are most often very complex. This short little tune is no exception.

I can't help, but reflect on the theme to Alphabet Chat whenever I hear this piece. But mostly, it's just a beautiful fugue. The ending on a major chord (a "happy" note) is called a "Picardy third", and Bach used that a lot.

Extra Credit:

Here's the score of the fugue, for those who wish to follow along. It almost looks like a facsimile of the original hand-written score. The fugue is just one page.

Piano Score for Fugue No. 2 in C Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I by Johann Sebastian Bach

I debated on which recording to have you listen to for the assignment. I decided to put this recording in extra credit. This is the same piece performed on a harpsichord (the assignment was on a piano). This is probably closer to what Bach would have meant it to sound like. This was performed by Robert Levin, and it's from a complete collection of Bach's works (volume 116).

Fugue No. 2 in C Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I by Johann Sebastian Bach performed on harpsichord (1:39)

Next, I thought I'd include the Walter Carlos recording from Switched-On Bach. This includes both the prelude and the fugue. If the prelude is too abrasive (it's very electric), skip the first 1:20.

Prelude & Fugue No. 2 in C Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by Walter Carlos (2:46)

The Canadian Brass did a Dixieland version of this fugue they called the "Well-tampered Bach: Dixie Bach". I didn't care for this as much when I first heard it, but it kind of grew on me. Enjoy!

Dixie Bach from The Well-Tampered Bach by The Canadian Brass Quintet (1:54)

And finally, I would encourage each and every one of you to click on this link. It will take you to the Sesame Street website, where it will play for you an episode of Alphabet Chat. The theme sings the alphabet to Fugue No. 2 (though from Q to Z, they changed it to suit their need, but they kept the same style).

Please keep an ear out. The janitor is voiced by the incomparable Jim Henson (creator of the muppets), and the rabbit is voiced by a very young Frank Oz (partner of Henson's; also known for puppeteering and voicing Yoda). Enjoy!

Alphabet Chat (Letter O) on