Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier: The 48 Preludes and Fugues

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"Bach's Well-tempered Clavier (the 48 Preludes and Fugues) stands at the core of baroque keyboard music and has been a model and inspiration for performers and composers ever since it was written. This invaluable guide to the 96 pieces explains Bach's various purposes in compiling the music, describes the rich traditions on which he drew and provides commentaries for each prelude and fugue." In his text, David Ledbetter addresses the focal points mentioned by Bach in his original 1722 title page. Drawing on Bach literature over the past three hundred years, he explores German traditions of composition types and Bach's novel expansion of them; explains Bach's instruments and innovations in keyboard technique in the general context of early eighteenth-century developments; reviews instructive and theoretical literature relating to keyboard temperaments from 1680 to 1750; and discusses Bach's pedagogical intent when composing the Well-tempered Clavier. Ledbetter's commentaries on individual preludes and fugues equip readers with the concepts necessary to make their own assessment and include information about the sources when details of notation, ornaments and fingerings have a bearing on performance.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300097078
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2002
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 8.08 (w) x 7.94 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Table of Contents


List of illustrations....................x
1. The 1722 title-page....................1
2. Genesis and sources....................2
Part One: Concepts ONE Clavier....................13
1. Clavier....................14
2. Harpsichord....................16
3. Clavichord....................18
4. Spinet....................23
5. Organ....................25
6. Lautenwerk....................28
7. Pianoforte....................31
8. Summary....................33
TWO Well-tempered....................35
1. The background to Bach's tunings....................37
2. Bach and tuning to 1722....................41
3. Bach and tuning c.1740....................45
4. Summary....................49
THREE Preludes....................51
1. The Prelude and Fugue as a genre....................51
Book I....................53
2. Prelude traditions....................53
3. The traditional sectional Praeludium....................54
4. Figuration Preludes....................55
5. The Invention principle....................57
6. Sonata, Dance and Ritornello principles....................59
7. Other types....................64
Book II....................67
8. Types in common with Book I....................67
9. Newer types....................68
FOUR Fugues....................72
1. Definition....................72
2. The theoretical background....................73
3. Bach and the term Fugue....................75
4. Rhetoric....................76
5. Expression andcharacter....................80
6. Stile antico....................85
7. Types of invertible counterpoint....................87
8. Genera of counterpoint....................94
9. Verset fugues....................96
10. Partimenti....................98
11. The Concerto principle....................101
FIVE All the Tones and Semitones....................104
1. Circles and labyrinths....................106
2. Key integrity....................111
3. Ut Re Mi....................118
4. Solmisation and the Heavenly Harmony....................120
SIX Bach as Teacher....................126
1. Bach's educational tradition....................127
2. Bach's teaching programme....................129
3. Keyboard technique....................131
4. Composition....................138
Part Two: Commentaries SEVEN Book I....................143
EIGHT Book II....................235
Appendix A: Examples 7.30, 8.9, 8.21....................333
Appendix B: The problem of temperament....................343
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First Chapter

Bach's Well-tempered Clavier

By David Ledbetter


Copyright © 2002 David Ledbetter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09707-8

Chapter One


The unspecific nature of the word Clavier in early eighteenth-century Germany has left the question of Bach's preferred instrument for The Well-tempered Clavier open to much argumentation and assumptions based on personal prejudice. The main arguments for harpsichord and clavichord respectively were set out in a debate which ran through the first decade of the twentieth century: those on the harpsichord side by Karl Nef in two well-informed and rational articles (1903, 1909); those on the clavichord side by Richard Buchmayer (1908). Nef's arguments provided the substantive element in further articles by the arch-champion of the harpsichord, Wanda Landowska (1907, 1911), who added an element of her own hysterical prejudice against the clavichord. In spite of her knowledge of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century instruments, and even occasional public performances on them, her dislike of the clavichord was lifelong and passed on to generations of students. When Ralph Kirkpatrick broadcast Book I of the 48 on the clavichord in New York in 1945/6 Landowska is said to have remarked that it was a pity he could not afford aharpsichord.

The clavichord side was championed in the early part of the century by Arnold Dolmetsch, who recorded eight preludes and fugues as well as the Chromatic Fantasia in 1932, and later by Ralph Kirkpatrick, who recorded the entire 48 in 1967. Few recent recordings have been on the clavichord, and none on the sort of clavichord Bach might have used before 1740.

The articles of Nef and Buchmayer are refreshingly sensitive and objective, even if Buchmayer's repetition of Forkel's opinion that Bach would have found the harpsichord 'soul-less' does not necessarily reflect Bach's attitude. Later German writers suffered from a misapprehension of the nature of the harpsichord: Erwin Bodky (1960, but summarising writings going back to the 1930s) considered that the essence of harpsichord expression was in changing stops and manuals; Karl Geiringer (1967 p.259) thought that pieces without rests cannot be for harpsichord because manual changes are not possible. Such attitudes are difficult to understand now unless one remembers that from the 1930s to the 1960s the great majority of harpsichords made in Germany were of an 'improved' modern type which had neither the quality of sound nor the responsiveness of instruments of historical construction. Our knowledge of all keyboard instruments in Bach's environment, and particularly the harpsichord, clavichord, pianoforte, and even the Lautenwerk, has increased immeasurably since then.

1. Clavier

The most straightforward meaning of the term clavier is simply a keyboard. It is used when different types of keyboard are described, as for example by Johann Baptist Samber in his important organ tutor of 1704, who lists the possibilities as (1) fully chromatic; (2) with short octave; and (3) with split keys (subsemitonia) (p.89). Bach's Weimar cousin J.G. Walther, in his educational treatise for Prince Johann Ernst of Sachsen-Weimar, gives the same basic definition, adding that it may be for the hands (Manuale) or the feet (Pedale; 1708 pp.44, 55). Various contemporary dictionaries define the word clavier as the keyboard of clavichord, harpsichord, or organ. This is precisely the usage of Werckmeister in his 1681 title-page 'Wie ... ein Clavier wohl zu temperiren ... sey', and in his numerous tirades against split keys. In view of other similarities of terminology between Bach and Werckmeister, this is the most likely definition of the term in the Well-tempered Clavier title: linked to the term 'wohltemperirt', a fully chromatic keyboard, without split keys, tuned so that all 24 keys are usable as tonics.

Although towards the end of Bach's life the term clavier came sometimes to be used specifically for the clavichord, for most of his life it meant keyboard instruments in general. Usage was however variable, depending on context and phraseology. Mattheson in 1713 (pp.256, 262) expands on a distinction going back to Praetorius (1619) between organ, clavier (by which Mattheson means harpsichord) and Instrument (which includes other keyboards such as virginals, spinets, regals, positives, and clavichords). The use of the term Instrument for virginals or spinet stretches from Praetorius to Türk (1789), but the restriction of Clavier to harpsichord is unusual, perhaps because Mattheson was looking for an elegant German equivalent for the French clavecin. Clavier was also used in this sense in Bach's environment. In documents and title-pages having versions in both French and German, the German Clavier is commonly rendered by the French clavecin, though this is probably only because the harpsichord and spinet were the only two keyboard instruments in common use in France other than the organ. In the earliest account of the famous contest arranged between Bach and the French organist and harpsichordist Louis Marchand in Dresden in September 1717, J.A. Birnbaum, who was probably writing with Bach's assistance, many times talks of Bach's prowess on 'organ and clavier'. Marchand was 'the greatest man in all France on the clavier and the organ' and the contest was to have taken place on the clavier (1739; Dok.II p.348, NBR p.79). Jakob Adlung, who claims to have had the same story from Bach himself, uses the same terminology (1758; Dok.III p.121, BR p.445). It is most unlikely in this instance that clavier can mean anything other than harpsichord.

In its general sense the main question is to what extent the term clavier included the organ. In general descriptions of keyboard instruments it could include the organ, as in Adlung's list (1768 I p.3) where it covers organ, clavichord, harpsichord, clavicytherium, spinet, Lautenwerk, Violdigambenwerk 'etc.', which is obviously meant to cover every available keyboard instrument. This is the range of the term also in various Clavier-Übung collections, including Bach's own, which embrace organ (III), two-manual harpsichord (II and IV), and unspecified clavier (I). This inclusive usage was common in the titles of published collections of keyboard music, for obvious reasons.

There is however a distinction in the locution 'Orgel und Clavier' which is very common in describing people's accomplishments. This distinction is made in Bach's obituary, written mainly by C.P.E. Bach, and in Forkel's biography, where Bach as organist and as clavier player is the subject of two separate chapters. Bach himself made the distinction on occasion. For example in recommending G.G. Wagner for the post of cantor at Plauen in 1726, he lists among his accomplishments 'fernehin spielet er eine gute Orgel und Clavier' (Dok.I p.48). The same distinction is in the title-pages written around 1720, when Bach was rationalising and extending his teaching material, of the Orgel-Büchlein, and the Clavier-Büchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (Dok.I pp.214-15). Exclusion of the organ is implicit in the advertisement for the second and third Partitas in 1727, which is addressed 'denen Liebhabern des Clavieres' (Dok.II p.169), recalling the identical formulation in the title-page of the 1723 fair copy of the Inventions and Sinfonias (Dok.I p.220).

'Liebhaber' do not come into the 1722 title-page for Book I of the 48, their place being taken by 'those who are already skilled in this discipline', i.e. playing in all keys: Bach intended this collection primarily as the apex of his system of professional keyboard training, rather than for the delectation of amateurs. It is therefore more relevant to the 48 to consider the use of the term clavier in its educational sense, an equally common usage in the first half of the eighteenth century. It is a striking fact that during Bach's time at Weimar and Cöthen all documentary references to him having to do with a keyboard instrument other than the organ are explicitly to the harpsichord (clavecin, Clavicymbel etc.). But for his pupils the term is always clavier. P.D. Kräuter, for example, had a grant in 1712 'for learning clavier and composition' with Bach (Dok.II p.47), and formulations similar to this are common in accounts of pupils' activities throughout his career. With this instructional usage we are back to the keyboard itself, and only by extension to particular keyboard instruments. This is what was meant in the report of the committee responsible for appointing a new cantor for St Thomas's Leipzig in 1723, when they said Bach 'excelled in the clavier' (Dok.II p.94). He was a master of the keyboard. The crowning skill in that mastery was the ability to play with equal facility in all keys on the well-tempered keyboard.

2. Harpsichord

The only keyboard instruments, other than the organ, with which Bach is associated in references dating from his lifetime are the harpsichord, the Lautenwerk, the pianoforte, and the non-specific clavier. In works that have got a specific designation it is for harpsichord. From 1708 Bach was court organist at Weimar, but also court harpsichordist, and had to apply himself to harpsichord repertoire (C. Wolff 1991 p.27). Both here and at Cöthen he had responsibility for the maintenance of harpsichords (Dok.II pp.41, 70, 86), a task at which he excelled according to C.P.E. Bach (Dok.III p.88). His prowess as a harpsichordist must have been as notable as that as organist, if the story of the Marchand competition is anything to go by, and the fact that Prince Leopold appreciated this is reflected by the stream of ensemble works with virtuoso harpsichord participation that Bach produced at Cöthen, when his involvement with the organ lessened, works that include the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto and sonatas with obbligato harpsichord. This continued in Leipzig, with the second part of the Clavier-Übung (1735) and the harpsichord concertos in the late 1730s. Bach's continuing interest in the development of virtuoso harpsichord technique is well attested in such works as the C minor Fantasia 'per il Cembalo' BWV 906 (c. 1726-31) and the Goldberg Variations (1741), and there are some mild evidences of it in Book II of the 48 (c.1740).

One of the implications of the word clavier is that circumstances may well dictate which keyboard instrument to use. There can be no doubt that for Bach the harpsichord was the instrument for public performance. Even Forkel says that he regarded the clavichord as for study and private entertainment (1802 p.17, NBR p.436). It would therefore be natural to see pieces which use figurations and textures associated with public genres such as the concerto as more probably conceived for harpsichord. The aggressive virtuosity of the fugues in G major and A minor from Book I, the former with figurations strongly recalling the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, the latter with its Vivaldian drive and grand expansion of texture towards the end, requires the brilliance of the harpsichord to make its full effect. The 'concert' endings that Bach added to some of the preludes from W.F. Bach's Clavier-Büchlein as he assembled Book I may indicate a change from one instrument to another, or at least a dual usability: the étude for study, the virtuoso piece for performance. Both C.P.E. Bach and Marpurg recommend students of the keyboard to play pieces on both harpsichord and clavichord: the clavichord for expression, and the harpsichord for strength (C.P.E. Bach 1753 p.9; Marpurg 1765 p.4).

The conscious restriction of compass to four octaves (C-c"') in Book I in itself argues for a general usability in line with the educational dimension of the word clavier. Although this compass is the commonest one in Bach's keyboard works generally up to around 1726, there are numerous cases of its being exceeded in works either specifically for harpsichord (such as the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, which in the 1721 version requires BB-c"') or more likely to be for harpsichord. There is as little standardisation in pieces as there is in surviving instruments. While the Weimar manual concerto transcriptions taken as a whole require a compass of BB flat-d"', there are within them cases of transposition to keep within the four-octave compass (for a summary see Schulenberg 1992 p.401). Most relevant to Book I is the Clavier-Büchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann. The Book I preludes there (entered over the period 1720-2) stay within the four-octave compass, but the Menuet BWV 843 immediately before them (entered 1720-1) requires GG. Both the two-part Invention and the three-part Sinfonia in E major (BWV 777 and 792) require BB. At the other end of the compass, the Clavier-Büchlein does not exceed c"'. Alfred Dürr, in his survey of keyboard compass in the clavier works, concludes that Bach around 1720 must have had an instrument which went down chromatically to AA, but without GG since it is often avoided (1978a p.81), the GG in BWV 843 being unique in this respect. A clavichord with this keyboard would have been a rarity indeed, but harpsichords in Bach's area commonly extended to AA, GG or even FF (Henkel 1977, 1989). The fact that this compass is not exceeded does not of course preclude a number of pieces having been primarily or exclusively designed for harpsichord. As Dürr says, Bach's sons would hardly have been given the newest or most expensive instruments to practise on, and his other pupils must have had to make do with whatever instruments they owned or could get access to (1978a p.77). Even so, the inclusive educational meaning of the word clavier need not also mean an inclusive intention in composing individual pieces.

Over the last two decades much has been learnt about harpsichord types in Bach's environment. The two instruments at Charlottenburg have been identified through their decoration as the work of Michael Mietke, from whom Bach collected a harpsichord for the Cöthen court in 1719 (Krickeberg 1985, Germann 1985). More surprising has been the reinstatement of the so-called 'Bach-Flügel', long thought to have belonged to Bach, but whose connexion with him and even with eighteenth-century tradition was doubted by Friedrich Ernst (1955), who had been involved in restoring it for the 1950 bicentenary. From having been a jewel of the collection it languished for several decades in a semi-dismantled state in a cellar of the Berlin Instrument Museum until it was recognised by Dieter Krickeberg as the work of Johann Heinrich Harrass (d.1714) of Gross-Breitenbach in Thuringia. It had belonged in the late eighteenth century to Count Voss-Buch, who bought Bach manuscripts from Wilhelm Friedemann Bach in the 1770s. Wilhelm Rust, who knew members of the Voss-Buch family, reported in 1890 that by family tradition the harpsichord also had come from Wilhelm Friedemann, and indeed it is difficult to see how otherwise an instrument from a small town in Thuringia would have ended up with a well-to-do family in Berlin, which had its own flourishing harpsichord building tradition of Mietke and Rost. The connexion with Bach is by no means proved, but the possibility is intriguing given the unusual nature of the instrument. It has a five-octave compass (FF-f"'), rare even in French harpsichords before 1714, and an original disposition of 1 × 16' and 1 × 4' stops on the lower manual, and 1 × 8' (with buff) on the upper. Later the 4' was moved to the upper manual and another 8' added to the lower, an alteration that could have been made before 1714. So Wilhelm Friedemann may after all have grown up with a harpsichord of the celebrated 'Bach disposition', so long discredited. What is clear is that there was a strongly individual Thuringian tradition of harpsichord building, with 16' and even 2' stops not uncommon, perhaps because many harpsichord makers were also organ builders. This contrasts with the more cosmopolitan and Francophile centres of Berlin, Hamburg and Hanover, although Michael Mietke, or his sons, made at least two harpsichords with 16' stops. None of these types accords with the old view that German makers were indebted mainly to Italian models.


Excerpted from Bach's Well-tempered Clavier by David Ledbetter Copyright © 2002 by David Ledbetter. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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