Innovation and the first pedagogical method series: A new understanding of the Well-Tempered Clavier

The Well-Tempered Clavier is a set of preludes and fugues written for keyboard exploration in every key, but even more significantly, it was the first promotional method book, which exposed players to a myriad of technical and musical problems and then charmingly produced solutions in the music. J.S. Bach intended his two volumes of the WTC, like many of his keyboard works, to be a model of pedagogy, but they are more than a collection of pieces intended for use in teaching his sons and students. The preludes introduce progressively difficult textures in varying styles, and the fugues develop musicality through phrasing practice in multiple voices. But how did Bach’s knowledge for business combine with his compositional and teaching techniques to create a systematic, all in one, instructional method best seller, well before a market for such manuals existed?

The manuscript of the WTC book 1 is the only remaining copy written in Bach’s hand, and no part of the work was published during his lifetime. However, this does not mean that Bach failed to promote his pedagogical revolution. The title page reads that he intended it “for the profit and use of musical young people eager to learn, as well as for a special pastime for those who are already proficient.” Although there was no publication market for a pedagogical manual at the time, there is other evidence that Bach promoted his Well-Tempered Clavier and intended it as a model of pedagogy. In fact, he promoted the WTC using tactics of a born salesman. While much has changed in the “music industry” since Bach’s day, one overarching rule of marketing still applies: “a hit song must be well crafted.” Bach was well aware that keyboard repertoire lacked instructional pieces that could be used in teaching his students. After all, he had written the Inventions and Clavierbüchlein for this very purpose and his dedication of the WTC makes it clear that the goal of these pieces was to teach both the beginner and the advanced student. Therefore, this was to be the most excellent collection of keyboard works yet written. Evidence of Bach promoting the WTC comes from his widespread usage of it with his students and the numerous copies that exist as a result. Carl Philipp Emanuel made it clear in his father’s obituary that “since Bach himself had composed the most instructive pieces for the clavier, he brought up his pupils on them.” The first book of the WTC became his standard teaching material between 1720 and 1725, and the second volume was written in 1742 to meet his growing “studio’s” needs. Extant copies made by Anna Magdalena and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and students Altnikol and Kirnberger include corrections in Bach’s own hand, proving that he used the WTC in teaching all of these students and others. The Well-Tempered Clavier was thus promoted subtly through word of mouth and the fingers of his students.

So what? How can we possibly make a connection between a Baroque set of preludes and fugues, and today’s all-in-one piano method books? Today’s method book models will vary, but there are a two standards that keyboard teaching professionals have grown fond of over the last century. The first lesson standard is that a successful pianist is made by introducing theory, improvisation, composition, and ear-training skills early, in addition to a focus on technical skill. There is enormous evidence of this kind of education in Bach’s keyboard works, especially the WTC. The second standard is that today’s method books move systematically, including gradually more difficult lessons on how to play within repertoire pieces so that the student is not bored with technical exercises, but strengthens in technique through practical performance pieces. Bach’s WTC demonstrates genius of pedagogical thought in addressing both of these “modern” standards, in the context of pieces for a variety of student levels.

Since the Well-Tempered Clavier includes 48 preludes and fugues, written in every well-tempered key, it can be clearly seen that Bach intended to cover all his bases and write for a variety of teaching needs. An exploration of a few of these pieces is now necessary to understand their revolutionary effect on keyboard pedagogy. From the very beginning, students and teachers can see Bach’s pedagogical thinking in the first prelude of book 1, BWV 846 in C Major. The prelude contains broken harmonies which would have been standard practice for a prelude at the time. However, while most preludes would have only provided a harmonic sketch, which the player then had to realize, Bach’s first prelude of the WTC is entirely written out. This is evidence that Bach was making this piece “user friendly” for a less experienced player. By writing out the arpeggiated harmonies he provided a strict technical exercise and combined it with a model for standard harmonic progressions. The structure of the prelude, which is grouped into four bar sections, is a natural lesson in harmonic phrasing and requires attention in voicing and balance in what would otherwise be a straightforward piece. It can be supposed that a student at the harpsichord would be required to block the notes of all broken chords together in order to hear the resolutions and characteristics of the harmony. This method is frequently used today as one of the foremost ways to teach voicing and balance between the hands, proving that Bach’s first piece of the WTC has influenced modern teaching.

ClavierCompanion WTC C Major

Discussion of a more complicated or advanced prelude and fugue is now necessary to determine how Bach systematically included a plethora of pieces in the WTC so that he would have a piece to meet the needs of any level student. Book 2’s Prelude and Fugue in F Sharp Major, BWV 882 is a dynamic example of this. While the first prelude and fugue focused on technical skill, phrasing, articulation, voicing, and harmonic lessons, BWV 882 is engulfed in forms and complex rhythms and ornaments.

The fugue opens with a bold trill beginning on the leading tone and modulates to the subdominant early on. Both of these characteristics would have been unheard of in Bach’s day. There are brief passages (such as bars 56-64) in which it almost sounds as if the fugue has been transformed into a gavotte, only to have the fugue subject take over again and reveal that the gavotte-like passages were merely transpositions or inversions of the subject or countersubject curiously woven together. Through this and many more complexities of form, this fugue is an advanced work that requires the highest level of skill to master. It would have provided Bach’s students with an opportunity to experience a new chapter of fugue composition, as well as to perfect their own performance techniques as they meticulously broke it apart into readable chunks, only to sew it back together again.

ClavierCompanion WTC F Major

Finally, it is important to note that the argument for the WTC as the first promotional method book is not only inherently shown in the original works themselves, but also in the works of subsequent generations. Between Bach’s years as a teacher and the current era of piano method books there are important links comprised of other composers’ works, which followed Bach’s example. One such composer is Béla Bartok who pictured himself as a student working in Bach’s fashion. His 1929 piano transcription of Bach’s 6th Sonata for organ (BWV 530) is one example of his emulation of the Baroque master. However, the key link between the two men is in their shared construction of compositions to serve as pedagogical methods. Bartok’s Mikrokosmos were constructed to teach his own son basic keyboard skills and they obviously are shaped in a deep understanding of the WTC. Bartok’s writing shows the same appreciation of writing lessons in articulation, complex harmonies, phrasing, and technical practice that Bach showcased two centuries earlier. While there were other composers before and since that have similarly used their compositions to teach, Bartok popularized Bach’s method book writing style in the twentieth-century, and it is after the publication of his Mikrokosmos that modern day method books by the likes of Robert Pace and Francis Clark exploded onto the market.

J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier has been lauded as a monumental Baroque work that revolutionized aspects of style and structure at the keyboard and pushed the boundaries for tonality, as it encompassed every key of the well-tempered scale. However, even though Bach’s use of keyboard works for teaching purposes has been widely researched, there has never been much cause for comparison between Bach’s teaching methods and those of the modern era. The examples above make it clear that music scholarship should forever recognize The Well-Tempered Clavier not only as a volume of Baroque masterworks, but as a pedagogical model of form and harmonic exploration by which many eager students have developed their skill. 

RachelMenscherRachel Menscher is committed to combining non-profit music and higher education. Currently a doctoral student and instructor at the University of Missouri, she earned master’s (Southern Methodist University) and bachelor’s (Vanderbilt University) degrees in piano performance and pedagogy and founded the non-profit music think tank known as “Soundscape St. Louis.”







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