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On-line Book Review



Dimension: 24.2 x 16.6 x 3.7 cm


Bach's Well-tempered Clavier: The 48 Preludes and Fugues by David Ledbetter.

PUBL. DETAILS New Haven and London: Yale University Press (2002) xvi+414p. Hardback. US$40 (£25 at
ISBN 0-300-09707-7
TO ORDER Yale University Press. 47 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3DP, UK. Email:
DESCRIPTION Comprehensive commentary of this celebrated work by Bach.
WORKS COVERED BWV 21, 29, 32, 50, 61, 64, 76, 78, 106, 110, 141, 147, 150, 154, 182, 198, 209, 232, 243, 244, 248, 527, 532, 538, 539, 540, 541-9, 564, 572, 582, 588, 590, 599-644, 612, 639, 645-6, 652, 660, 664, 669, 675, 677, 679-80, 682, 689, 696, 699, 734, 768, 772-801, 806-17, 819, 825-831, 843, 846-893, 894, 899-904, 906, 910, 912-3, 917, 923, 926, 930, 947, 963, 967, 971, 988, 992-3, 996-8, 1002, 1004-7, 1010, 1014, 1017-8, 1020-1, 1028-9, 1033, 1047, 1050, 1052, 1067, 1076, 1078, 1079-80, 1087.
READERSHIP students specialised in performance as well as scholars working on Bach’s keyboard works and beyond; informed amateurs of music.
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION Comprehensive discussion of WTC from historical perspective, esp. background issues; Bach's teaching methods.

I It was only four years ago when Alfred Dürr’s ground-breaking book (written in German) on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier appeared. While we are still waiting for the long-promised English edition from the Oxford University Press, the publication of this impressive monograph by Ledbetter may come as a surprise to some people.
As one may anticipate, this book addresses many issues of the work that one would anticipate finding here, for instance, the discussions on the work’s origin and historical background, genre and style, tunings, instrument, compositional techniques, and the in-depth commentary on individual movements, which are also covered by Dürr. Yet when we actually read what they say in their respective works, it becomes apparent that similarities are superficial. They are in fact very different.
Table of Contents

Part One: Concepts

1 Clavier

Clavier; Harpsichord; Clavichord; Spinet; Organ; Lautenwerk; Pianoforte; Summary

2.  Well-tempered

The backgrouind to Bach's tuning; Bach and tuning to 1722; Bach and tuning c.1740; Summary

3. Preludes

The Preludes and Fugue as a genre

Book I: Prelude traditions; The traditional sectional Praeludium; Figuration Preludes; The Invention principle; Sonata, Dance and Ritornello principles; Other types

Book II: Types in common with Book I; Newer types

4. Fugues

Definition; The theoretical background; Bach and the term Fugue; Rhetoric; Expression and character; Stile antico; Types of invertible counterpoint; Genera of counterpoint; Verset fugues; Partimenti; The Concerto principle

5. All the Tones and Semitones

Circles and labyrinths; Key integrity; Ut Re Mi; Solmisation and the Heavenly Harmony

6. Bach as Teacher

Bach's educational tradition; Bach's teaching programme; Keyboard technique; Composition

Part Two: Commentaries

7. Book I
8. Book II






 book that deserves thorough reading and digesting
Perhaps the most notable feature in Ledbetter’s approach is the way he presents the information and discusses it, “not to present finished analyses and conclusions, but to sketch background concepts and techniques in the commentaries and thereby equip readers to make their own journeys of discovery in contemplating the music for themselves” as he puts it. In his discussion of individual movements, for example, the technically-orientated analyses (such as the structural makeup of fugues) that are still found in Dürr’s monograph are absent.

I am not suggesting that Ledbetter’s contributions to scholarship are small; in fact, it is the opposite: Ledbetter covers an enormous range of background information as well as the views put forward by other scholars, which is very impressive. He also provides numerous examples of musical works by Bach as well as by Bach's predecessors and contemporaries in support of his argument, which furnish his argument superbly well. What I find most intriguing is his discussion of “prelude traditions” where he argues carefully how the teaching tradition in which Bach received his first instruction can be considered reflected in Niedt’s Musicalische Handleitung. The issue of Bach’s teaching has been discussed by various scholars in the past, but, in my opinion, no one has argued it so thoughtfully and convincingly as Ledbetter.

Nearly 60% of this book is occupied by the comprehensive commentary of individual movements where Ledbetter examines various issues that may help performers formulating their own idea to interpret the movement. While such controversial ones as the symbolism of various kinds that have been proposed by recent scholars are included, there are other areas that have not been given fresh consideration. Taking the opening prelude as an example, we are still unsure of the origin of the famous "Schwencke bar" that we find in many editions from the 19th century. (Recently I found a strong evidence suggesting that the bar was the addition by Neefe.) The omission of a chapter on "reception history" can be seen as another, although this subject would require another book of this size to do justice to the enormity of Bach's impact to the generations of musicians after him. But to be fair, it must be stressed that these omissions are insignificant compared with Ledbetter's mighty contributions to his target readers.

Having said all this, this is clearly a book that deserves thorough reading and digesting, not only by the students specialised in performance but also by the scholars working on Bach’s keyboard works and beyond. For university libraries, this is a "must have" book.

Published online on 10 February 2003

NB. The author supplied me an updated errata which can be viewed from this link (PDF, 193K, dated April 2008).
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