Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Well Tempered Clavier and Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues


Johann Sebastian Bach: Well Tempered Clavier

What is referred to as the Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC) is actually two separate sets of compositions, arrayed as Book One and Book Two. Each “book” contains 24 sets of preludes and fugues: one prelude and fugue in each major and minor key.

Book One is a mix-and-match collection that evolved from a series of preludes that Bach composed and compiled for his son Wilhem Friedmann in 1720. Over the next two years Bach extended and added to the collection, until – in 1722 – he went public with an album of 24 preludes and fugues. 

This first collection of 24 preludes and fugues – “Book One” – proved to be so popular that between 1738 and 1742 Bach composed a second set of 24 additional preludes and fugues, which was issued as “Book Two”. 

It was the WTC (Books One and Two) that kept Bach’s name alive during the decades of obscurity that followed his death in 1750. Throughout the second half of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, the WTC was considered to be the basic manual for keyboard training. 

Mozart was introduced to the Well-Tempered Clavier by his patron Baron Gottfried van Swieten in 1783. By his own admission, it changed his life.

Both Beethoven and Chopin were weaned on the WTC as children: they memorized all 48 preludes and fugues and carried them around in their heads for the rest of their lives.

In the 1830s, Robert Schumann referred to the Well-Tempered Clavier as “the pianist’s daily bread.”  

When the unmanned Voyager space explorer was launched in 1977, it carried a recording of a prelude and fugue from the WTC.

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues Op. 87

Shostakovich ca. 1950
Shostakovich ca. 1950

In 1950, the Soviet composer (and pianist) Dmitri Shostakovich was sent to the East German city of Leipzig (Bach’s home from 1723 until his death in 1750), there to be one of the judges of the International Bach Competition, which was held in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death.  

The pianist Tatiana Nikolayva was 26 years-old at the time. A graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, she was vaulted to international prominence when she won first prize (the “gold medal”) at the competition for her performance of selections from Bach’s WTC. But even more important, her playing of Bach’s WTC absolutely bowled over Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich was so inspired by her playing of the Bach that between October of 1950 and March of 1951 he composed his own set of 24 Preludes and Fugues and dedicated them to Nikolayva. She gave Shostakovich’s “24” its premiere on December 23, 1952 (in a performance that took over 2½ hours!) and recorded the set three times. Her third recording, made in 1991, won the 1991 Gramophone Magazine Award for best instrumental performance.

Tatiana Nikolayeva
Tatiana Nikolayeva ca. 1950

Bless her, Maestra Nikolayva went out with her boots on. She was performing Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues in San Francisco’s Herbst Theater on November 13, 1993 when she was stricken and collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage. She briefly regained consciousness before being stricken again. She died 9 days later at San Francisco’s California-Pacific Medical Center, never again having regained consciousness.

(FYI: over the last 20 years, I have lectured, performed, and had my music performed at that same Herbst Theater at least 60 times. I love the place, but I do NOT want to be carried off the stage!)

I own the second of Nikolayva’s recordings of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, made for the Melodiya label in 1987. Her playing is elegant, warm, spacious and nuanced. Since she had heard Shostakovich himself play the preludes and fugues, and since Shostakovich had heard Nikoleyva play them, we must assume that this is how Shostakovich himself wanted them to be played.


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