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What is the Well-Tempered Clavier by J. S. Bach?

Well-tempered Clavier is a two-volume composition of preludes and fugues by J. S. Bach written in all minor and major keys (24 per book). Johann Sebastian Bach composed the first book in 1722 (in Köthen) and the second one in 1742 (Leipzig). The composition’s original German name is Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (or Clavier).

What instrument was the well-tempered clavier written for?

It is written for ‘clavier’, which indicates any keyboard instrument of the time, such as harpsichord, clavichord, or organ (https://daily.jstor.org/happy-birthday-well-tempered-clavier/).

BWV Numbering

Traditional catalogue numbering from BWV (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, eng. ‘Bach works catalogue) states that preludes and fugues are numbered as follows:

  • Book I BWV 846 (No. 1 in C major) – BWV 869 (No. 24 in B minor)
  • Book II BWV 870 (No. 1 in C major) – BWV 893 (No. 24 in B minor)

What was the purpose of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier?

Bach wrote Well-Tempered Clavier to celebrate the development and wider use of equal temperament – a style of tuning keyboard instruments that allowed composers to use all available keys rather than the limited number previously available due to an unequal tuning system.


Prelude is usually considered an ‘introduction’ to the fugue, and it is written in various forms, such as suite dances, or instrumental ones, such as toccata.


On the other hand, Fugue is a very strict two-to-five-voice polyphonic form with many rules guiding the composer. In most cases, fugue consists of a single theme which is shown through all voices in its exposition. Between main sections exploring the theme, ‘bridges’, also called ‘episodes’, are composed, usually in contrasting moods and textures. Strict rules of counterpoint apply to the other voices, and complex harmonic language is often used.

Is The Well-Tempered Clavier for beginners?

Johann Sebastian Bach composed Well-Tempered Clavier as a “pedagogical work for advanced students. Although there are few easier preludes available in the entire cycle, most of the pieces included by Bach are at intermediate to advanced levels. I would personally opt for some of the easier baroque pieces first to aid in developing better sound control in a polyphonic texture and improve the pianist’s listening skills. Fugues, in particular, can be difficult to read, challenging to find correct fingerings, and even more difficult to execute interpretation-wise.

The skills necessary to execute this music professionally take years to train and often begin with pieces from Anna Magdalena Bach’s book of easy pieces and two and three-part inventions as the important intermediary step towards The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Prelude and Fugue in C major BWV 846

The prelude from this pair is arguably one of the most recognized Bach compositions. It is often compared with Ave Maria by Charles Gounod since the harmonic language and some of the repetitive figurations are very similar.

Please listen to the original version played on the piano and the voice arrangement from Schubert:

C. Gounod – Ave Maria

And below is the rendition of Prelude and Fugue from Book I of Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach, performed by Sviatoslav Richter:

J. S. Bach – Prelude and Fugue in C major, Book I

What level/grade is Bach Prelude in C major, and is it easy?

Despite the unquestionable beauty and artistic simplicity, the music itself is not technically challenging and can be learned even at the early stages of piano education. With enough patience, it can be learned after one to two years of piano education. Mastering it to the point of artistic satisfaction might take many more years.

Bach Preludes and Fugues sheet music

More than 40 editions of Well-Tempered Clavier are available, ranging from free to quite expensive.

Many editions of sheet music for The Well-Tempered Clavier are edited with fingerings, dynamic markings and articulation suggestions that the composer did not indicate. Please check the urtext edition (the composer’s original score) and the edited sheet music below for a comparison.

If you are unsure which editions to choose, I explain who and why should use original urtext editions and who would benefit from using edited performance editions.

Best free editions of Well-Tempered Clavier available online

If you visit www.IMSLPL.org, you will be welcomed by an astounding twenty-five (!) editions to choose from. Links to Book I and Book II.

If you are curious about Bach’s handwriting or are a seasoned researcher of this style, check his original manuscript (first eight options on the list):

If you prefer an edition with fingerings and complete interpretative suggestions (dynamics and articulation suggested by the editor), check Czerny or Mugellini:

They are a little outdated by modern standards, but if you need some guidance, they are a good option.

A high-quality urtext edition (containing only the original score of the composer) can be found by searching for Barenreiter or Kroll editions:

Particularly Barenreiter is currently considered a state-to-the-art edition used by professional pedagogues and performers. Please note that Barenreiter and Kroll available via IMSLP are not including fingerings. If you prefer the full edition, those are available for purchase.

For more information about various editions of the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, please see my earlier post.

How many well-tempered books are there?

There are two books of Well-TemperedClavier written by Johann Sebastian Bach. Each book contains 24 pairs of preludes and fugues in each major and minor key (C major – C minor, C sharp major – C sharp minor, D major – D minor, etc.).

In the case of black keyboard notes, Bach selects a single option, so there are no C sharp major and D flat major preludes and fugues doubled in each book. The one exception is that the fugue in E flat minor from Book I is sometimes published as D sharp minor.

What is the best recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier?

As subjective as this might be, below is a list of recordings generally considered to be of high quality and well-respected by the professional community.

Historical recordings

  1. Glen Gould
  2. Sviatoslav Richter
  3. Edwin Fisher

Modern recordings

  1. Andreas Shiff
  2. Angela Hewitt

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