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Heinrich Gerber's Manuscript of the Well-tempered Clavier: Bach's WTC

Gerber's Manuscript

Among the Riemenschneider Bach Institute's most-treasured items is a manuscript of Johann Sebastian Bach's Wohltemperierte Clavier (Well-Tempered Clavier) copied in 1725 by Bach's student Heinrich Nikolaus Gerber. The RBI has served as steward of this manuscript since Dr. Albert Riemenschneider purchased it in 1936. In 2019, the RBI obtained a grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), awarded by the State Library of Ohio, to restore and preserve the manuscript. The restoration work was performed in January 2020 and this exhibit was created in lieu of a physical exhibit planned to coincide with Baldwin Wallace University's annual Bach Festival.

The image above is of the first page of music in Bach's autograph score of book one of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Mus.ms. Bach P 415 at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - PK. The Riemenschneider Bach Institute expresses its thanks to the Staatsbibliothek for preserving this material and making it available to the world.

Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier

Bach’s Wohltemperierte Clavier (Well-Tempered Clavier) is a touchstone of the keyboard repertoire. Intended as educational exercises for young harpsichordists and as diverting repertoire for more experienced players, the set also serves as a thorough course in composition and counterpoint. Every pianist (or harpsichordist) who reaches any level of proficiency works through at least some of the forty-eight preludes and fugues in this monumental work. In more recent times, musicians have taken to performing and recording the entire work for its purely musical value.

The WTC actually consists of two separate books, composed at different times and in different places. Book One was initially composed in about 1722 in Cöthen, where Bach was serving as Kappellmeister, a post somewhat akin to music director. It consists of twenty-four preludes and fugues, one in each major and minor key, in chromatically ascending order from C major to B minor. Indeed, one of the purposes of the work was to demonstrate that all twenty-four keys could be used to compose effectively, a relatively new concept. Bach’s  tuning system was not equivalent to today’s even temperament, which divides the octave uniformly. Rather than a single system, “well-tempered” was more of an approach or concept, in which the tuning, especially of the thirds, is “tempered” so that each key can be used effectively without entirely losing its characteristic sound. The way the tempering was done might vary depending on the instruments and the context.

Book Two was compiled in the 1730’s and 1740’s in Leipzig and was not actually given the same title as Book One. Some of the works were composed much earlier and may have been revised during this period. The scope and arrangement of the preludes and fugues mirrors Book One.

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Paul Cary
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