Valuable nuances of tuning for Part I of J. S. Bach's »Das wohl temperirte Clavier«

Mark Lindley

This set of Webpages is about the meaning for J. S. Bach – and the potential musical significance for performers today – of the expression wohl temperirt (meaning "well tempered") in the title of Das wohl temperirte Clavier (Part I, 1722). (A facsimile of the original title-page is available    here.)

Everyone agrees that Clavier meant "keyboard instrument," and that the word temperirte referred to an aspect of keyboard tuning. (  FN 1) Nearly everyone agrees also that Bach intended a single kind of tuning to accommodate the musical content of the work (preludes and fugues in twelve major and twelve minor keys). But there is disagreement as to whether he is more likely to have preferred uniform semitones (as normally in modern piano-tuning) and hence no nuances of intonation among the various keys, or, instead, subtle nuances giving each major and each minor key a more distinct acoustical character than those due merely to differences in overall pitch level. And, among those who think he preferred nuances there is disagreement as to exactly which kind.

One purpose of this set of Webpages is to give some answers based on my documentary, musical and craftsmanly research during the last 35 years. (  FN 2) There will be a few oblique references to relevant documentary (i.e. non-musical) evidence, but no attempt to offer a comprehensive survey of it as in some of my printed publications. Most of the presentation here will be like a long lecture-demonstration (much of it was a long lecture-demonstration), but with some of the material shunted to subsidiary pages accommodating the backgrounds and interests of different viewers/auditors.

I have another purpose as well: to show (as I believe the lecture-demonstration did successfully) that the nuances of a Bach-style, subtly unequal temperament can be of value not just to harpsichordists and organists but also to pianists when performing compositions which were in fact conceived implicitly in the context of such nuances.

Some additional pages will later be added to the ones listed below.

Apart from these introductory remarks, the other currently available pages are as follows:

  1. Text, diagrams and videos explaining some relevant acoustical rudiments.
  2. Text, diagrams etc. describing various theoretical schemes of well-tempered tuning.
  3. Text, musical examples and audio tracks of examples played on a modern piano.
     3-I. First part.
     3-II. Second part.
     3-III. Third part.
  4. Text and audio tracks from all the preludes and fugues performed on a Bach-style harpsichord.
  5. Text, musical examples and audio tracks of organ music.
  6. The French Background.

Please use high-quality earphones or speakers when listening to the audio material in these Webpages.


FN 1: Peter Williams has suggested that "For all one knows to the contrary, the intention in the Well-tempered Clavier could have been for the player to tune for each key as it was studied, something not requiring great skill." (   J. S. Bach: a life in music, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 336) But I consider it very unlikely that in 18th-century Germany a keyboard instrument would be considered well tuned if one had to adjust the tuning again and again.   back

FN 2: My first research-reports and musical demonstrations in regard to 18th-century keyboard tuning were to the American Musicological Society in 1974 during a pre-doctoral research fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution (during which I had been apprenticed informally for several months to a senior piano tuner in Washington, Orman Pratt). Columbia University later awarded me a Ph.D. degree for research findings published extra muros on historical temperaments. The Wikipedia entry under my name lists most of my relevant publications, and some of them are available at    www.academia.edu.   back