How the Well Tempered Clavier are Like Bach Chorales: The Seeds of Western Music

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Welcome to Living Pianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about the similarities between the preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier and Bach chorales. If you know the Well-Tempered Clavier you know that these are monumental works. Bach decided to write these preludes and fugues to celebrate the fact that it was finally possible for keyboard instruments to be tuned in such a way as to be able to play in all the keys. Before that, instruments had to be tuned for specific keys. So he decided to write preludes and fugues in every single major and minor key. But there are 48 preludes and fugues, because he did it twice! There are two books of preludes and fugues. The fugues are masters of counterpoint. The preludes are beautiful little gems in their own right.

The four-part writing in Bach chorales is really the basis for the writing of all of Western music, one could argue.

I had the good fortune of studying four-part harmony with my father when I was a child. I really mastered the art of voice leadings, doublings, and all of that. It stays with me to this day to understand the structure of the music I’m studying, as well as for composing, arranging and improvising. You can see the relationship between the Bach chorales, which are the pure four voice writing containing soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, parts, and what he did in the preludes and fugues. Naturally, none of the preludes are based upon strict four-voice writing, but they’re still based upon the same structure of harmony, voice leadings, doublings, and all of that. For example, if you take the famous C Major Prelude from Book 1, what would happen if it were played more like a four voice chorale? If I were to play it with some passing tones and other non-chord tones, it really wouldn’t be so different from a Bach chorale. But what about another prelude that maybe is not as obvious, like the C Minor Prelude, also from Book 1. Well, it really has the fundamental structure of a chorale as well.

Looking at the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich, and other composers, you’ll see the same foundation of the essential elements of a Bach chorale.

It’s all just embellishment of one sort or another. Did you ever realize that? Everything back then has just grown like a forest of music from the original seeds of inspiration going back centuries! It’s really remarkable how the language of music has grown. And you can hear how the Bach chorale transcends into more complex music. We could go further, whether it’s Beethoven, the second movement of one of his sonatas, like the Opus 10 Number 1, for example. It’s essentially a chorale. It’s broken up, but it’s the same basic structure. It’s remarkable, isn’t it?

I want you to think about your music, whatever music you’re playing. Whether it’s 21st century or 15th century, even. Notice how these same elements have been in music all along, exemplified beautifully in Bach chorales. I hope this has been interesting for you! Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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2 thoughts on “How the Well Tempered Clavier are Like Bach Chorales: The Seeds of Western Music”

  1. Hi Robert. Big fan here. Long time listener, first time caller 🙂 Just curious where you got the chorales with fingering that you played in this video. So much nicer than the Schirmer Riemenschneider Chorales.

    1. I found that chorale searching on the internet. It was probably on imslp.org. Incidentally, we are now a bit closer to you in the Waterloo Arts District in Cleveland!

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