Before Traveling to Bach’s Eastern Germany, I Got Straightforward Instruction in What a Well-Tempered Harpsichord Can Do

There are 15 red-letter days on my calendar this year. Two of them have to do with Johann Sebastian Bach. 

One of those days, I’ll be at the Bachhaus in Eisenach, Germany, where Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685.  Another will find me at the Bach Museum in Leipzig, Germany, where Bach was choirmaster of St. Thomas Church for the last 27 years of his life.  At both places, I’ll see exhibitions about the composer’s life and work, and I’ll hear live music performed on original instruments from his day. 

My homework to prepare for these big events got started the other day, when I walked over to First Congregational Church for its March First Tuesday concert. Kevin Jones, the church’s minister of music, performed Bach’s Two-Part Inventions on a harpsichord. Ben Bechtel harpsichord, First Congregational Church

The Two-Part Inventions (BWV 772-786) are a collection of 15 short pieces that Bach wrote for his son, Wilhelm Friedemann, in 1723. Bach designed the works to provide “amateurs of the keyboard, and especially the eager ones,” with “straightforward instruction” in proper keyboard and compositional technique, he wrote. 

The Inventions are arranged in ascending order by key, starting with C major and ending with B minor, without duplication of keys, so it is thought that Bach intended them as a single work. When a music student accomplished the performance techniques conveyed in the Two-Part Inventions, he could move on to Bach’s Three-Part Inventions, which the composer called Sinfonias. 

The term “invention” has roots in rhetoric, I learned. Bach used the word to describe how an idea is developed into a composition. Delivering an oration is like performing a piece of music. 

Before he began playing, Mr. Jones explained Dr. Bradley Lehman’s theory of how Bach notated a specific method of keyboard tuning. Lehman, who earned a doctorate in harpsichord from the University of Michigan, believes that rather than expressing tuning in a format of theory or numbers, Bach drew a diagram for adjusting the tuning pins, working just by ear. This tuning method keeps the six main notes of the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G and A) in evenly spaced positions, in their normal places. The tuner then installs the keyboard’s six remaining notes (B and the sharps F#, C#, G#, D# and A#) in raised positions, with adjustments indicated by the diagram, so they can also serve as flats. This makes the keyboard ready to play music in all 24 major and minor scales. It also keeps the scales’ different expressive character, or Affekt. 

This flexible tuning method is also used in The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 846-893), a book of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys that Bach composed in 1722 “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study,” he wrote.  Well temperament, Mr. Jones explained, is a type of tuning where the 12 notes in the standard keyboard octave are tuned in such a way that it is possible to play music in most major or minor keys and it won’t sound out of tune. So that’s what “Well-Tempered” means, I thought! It’s complicated, so to see images of Bach’s tuning drawings, and to read more about Dr. Lehman’s theory, click here 

By tuning the Bechtel harpsichord to reflect Bach’s tuning method, Mr. Jones allowed us to hear the Two-Part Inventions the way that Bach wanted us to hear their melodies and harmonies. It was obvious that this is not easy music to play, but it certainly was wonderful to listen to! 

The harpsichord that Mr. Jones played was built in 2007 by Ben Bechtel, who was a member of First Congregational Church. While it is not a copy of a particular historical instrument, it follows many design features of a harpsichord built in 1769 by Pascal Taskin, the last of the great Parisian harpsichord builders, in the Raymond Russell Collection of Instruments at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. To make it easier to maintain and have a brilliant overall tone, Mr. Bechtel varied some of the instrument’s original design elements, like slightly altering part of the framework supporting the soundboard to enhance the resonance of the instrument’s upper register. The design of the harpsichord produces tones very similar to another kind of 18th-century harpsichord called a Lautenwerk, an instrument that Bach owned. The church’s harpsichord was the last instrument Mr. Bechtel built before he died in 2008. 

Before I darken the door of the Bachhaus, I’m going to read these books: Sebastian Bach: The Boy from Thuringia, by Opal Wheeler and Sybil Deucher; Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life in Pictures and Documents, by Hans Conrad Fischer; and Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment, by James R. Gaines.

This entry was posted in Churches, Germany, History, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

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