clavier

The German word for "a keyboard instrument" which, at the time of Bach, referred to either the Clavichord or the Harpsichord but is now used to include the historic pianoforte and the modern Piano as well.

There are different professional opinions about what instrument is the best, the ideal, the original or the permissible choice for Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Leaving all those aside, there are two certain things about the issue of instrumentation and the Well-Tempered Clavier. First, it has been happily played and enjoyed frequently on Clavichord, Harpsichord and Piano, quite possibly the Organ. Second, the preludes and fugues have been happily and frequently transcribed beyond the "clavier" to include string duo, trio and quartet, brass ensemble, jazz choir, jazz combo, moog synthesizer, music box, computerized MIDI file and even the ring of cell phone. Some of these are more "successful" than others. This diversity underlines the profound fact that Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier falls into a special class of music called absolute music: music whose essential artistic integrity transcends the particular instrument that renders it. How it ought to be performed for the sake of historical accuracy and how many ways can it be performed as coherent and satisfying music are two different and equally valid questions. We have no shortage of possibilities. In the end, anyone's preference is apt to be based on experience and personal opinion.

On the other hand, the Well-Tempered Clavier yields markedly different listening experiences even across the traditional set of instruments, Clavichord, Harpsichord and Piano. For most modern listeners, it is likely the case that the Piano will be the most accessible due to familiarity and even the negative effects of stereotypical associations with the older instruments. Even choosing the piano, one finds a range of interpretations varying by tempo, touch, the instrument and the recording. Simply compare Andras Schiff with Glenn Gould.

A Well-Tempered clavier is a keyboard instrument that is tuned to permit music written in any of the 24 possible keys signatures to sound good. Bach used the title to highlight that his complete collection in fact traverses all 24 keys and that specific kind of tuning, novel and even controversial at the time, is required to play it. This is the perhaps the most technical term in this entire vocabulary: it is a complicated issue with a fascinating history. See Well-Tempered for further details.

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