J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier

J. S. Bach's Well-Termpered Clavier: In Depth Analysis and Interpretation
Volume I-IV
Siglind Bruhn
MAINER International, Ltd., 1993
ISBN 962-580-017-4

"This book is not meant to be read through in one go. It aims to help you, its reader, achieve a creative understanding and interpretation of Bach's preludes and fugues by encouraging you to think for yourself."

With the attitude of a wise and inspiring teacher, Siglind Bruhn begins her magnificent work with these words. The same words should apply to the humble earsense presentation of 48 Jewels as we were often directly inspired by her message to attempt our own creative understanding. Whether pianist, musicologist or passionate listener, the key is to develop an individual and personal relationship to the Well-Tempered Clavier, a pursuit that can happily occupy a lifetime of rewarding musical experience.

As Director of Studies for the diploma Course in Piano Performance Pedagogy at the University of Hong Kong, Bruhn created her in-depth study of the Well-Tempered Clavier as a tool for her students to approach Bach's sometimes formidable masterpieces. As such, it is written for students with an academic musical background who require a very detailed grasp of the music as a preparation for performance. Bruhn's accomplishment is breathtaking. Spanning four volumes which total well over 1,000 pages of crisp and comprehensive musical analysis, the work is a towering achievement of scholarship, discipline, careful attention, creative interpretation, and passionate pedagogy.

While Bruhn's work is directed to a particular and rather specialized audience, it contains a variety of resources that are quite generally useful to anyone with keen interest in learning more about the inner workings of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Each prelude and fugue receives a comprehensive and methodical treatment with sections detailing every crucial aspect. Here is a partial listing of the contents available for each and every fugue:

  • the subject, including pitch pattern and harmonic background
  • statements of the subject including count, voices and variants
  • countersubjects including contrapuntal dynamics with each other and the subject
  • episodes including cross-relationships
  • character, tempo, articulation and ornament realization for performance
  • overall design of the fugue including sectional organization, harmonic progression,
    cadences and cross-sectional relationships
  • overall dynamic outline of the fugue

Particularly interesting for a more general audience are two different visualizations of each fugue. The first is a simple back and white horizontal "time line" showing each subject entry along a vertical axis of voices:

This simple graphic documents the entire fugue, Book 2, No. 2 in C minor. As a compact, monochrome schematic, the image is curiously compelling: it looks almost like an abstraction of music notation, or better, a punch card, a computer tape, a transcript of a digitized conversation. It is in fact a precise script for a play. With some practice and imagination, you would find that it has a great deal to say. For this particular fugue, it conveys something of the following:

  • the number of subject entries
  • the number of voices
  • the voice ordering of subject entries
  • exposition, re-exposition and counter-exposition
  • the occurrence and placement of episodes including codettas
  • a rough sketch of sectional organization
  • stretto
  • augmentation and diminution
  • a glimpse of textural dynamics
  • an indication of climax points
  • relative length
  • unique curiosities

The last point is often the most vivid and the most surprising. This particular example is a wonderful illustration. Notice something unusual about the exposition: it is missing a subject entry in the bass (the lowest channel). Scan the time line to find the first bass entry. You will find not just one entry, but what appears to be three in a row! Notice that the first entry is longer than the others: it takes more time. The very first subject entry in the bass is augmented (can you find the other augmented entry?). It is also possible to see that the first bass subject entry runs in stretto with the previous entry. There are likely still more things to see.

A visualization of musical structure is really a startling tool. By taking music out of the realm of sound, off the page of traditional, technical notation and into a space which is non-verbal, an image helps us with a more immediate and comprehensive gestalt. It engages some of our more subtle and gifted faculties of shape, pattern, density and space and a sense of time on a larger scale. It is these precise faculties that come so strongly to bear in a cultivated awareness of the aesthetics of music. As a complete but miniature icon of music, it is like the presence and reality of the music itself as projected into a new and valid dimension of realization.

Regardless of your musical training, such images are bound to be useful. They engage our visual senses rather than our aural or verbal or symbolic senses. They offer a crucial opportunity to learn using multiple modes. And in the end, they are devices to help you maintain and sharpen your attentive focus on the music itself. Try listening to the music while following the icon with your eyes and the bouncing ball of your mind.

In J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier: In-depth Analysis and Interpretation, Siglind Bruhn has crafted 48 jewels of her own, 48 elegant and eloquent visualizations of Bach's precious fugues. Through her generosity, they are provided here at earsense where they play an essential role in our collaborative presentation. For an example, see the very same fugue, Book 2, No. 2 in C minor.

To the best of our knowledge, Bruhn's books are, unfortunately, no longer in print. You may be able to find used copies through Amazon or back stock from the publisher. There is excellent news, however: Bruhn has published the entire work on the web!. Here it is.

earsense owes an incalculable debt to Siglind Bruhn's work. From her books, we have derived inspiration, energy, discipline, a vast source of education, comparison and contrast and a general academic validation of our own findings. She has given us the courage to think and express for ourselves. Best of all, Siglind Bruhn has directly supported earsense with her generosity by allowing us to use her vivid diagrams. These pictures are well worth a thousand words not to mention the vast time and labor she must have put into them. Fortunately, we can enjoy her extraordinary words as well.

The vital historical dialogue initiated by Bach and his Well-Tempered Clavier has included extraordinary commentary from composers, performers, historians, musicologists, writers, poets and even web masters. In the totality of her work, Siglind Bruhn as given us a shining milestone along the way, a unique multi-dimensional realization that belongs among the very few of the highest quality contributions in this dialogue. To her work, Bach himself would likely apply his own words with admiration:

". . . for the benefit and use of musical youth desirous of knowledge as well as those who are already advanced in this study. For their especial diversion . . ."