J.S. Bach and Roger Woodward: The Well Tempered Clavier


Today’s post is about one of music’s most fascinating and intriguing work, “The well tempered Clavier” composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, and its interpretation by the Australian pianist Roger Woodward. Until yesterday I was a fan of Glen Gould’s interpretation. Now that I have discovered Roger Woodward I feel richer.

I dedicate the post to Natalia, who loves music.

The Work

Few works have so often been reinterpreted as the 48 – two sets of 24 preludes and fugues, in every possible key in turn, written two decades apart that together form what pianists call their Old Testament. (Beethoven’s 32 sonatas constitute the New.)

In the 18th century, performing musicians and music theorists gave great importance to the emotional and affective characteristics of the different keys.

Begun as a pedagogical exercise for one of Bach’s sons, it became a work of towering genius, encapsulating music of all the main schools that had gone before, from Renaissance to regional Baroque, and looking forward across the centuries.

The term “well-tempered” as used by Bach refers to a tuning system in which all keys could sound well, if not identically so. This is because in Bach’s time, musicians employed a great variety of tuning systems. In most of these systems, some keys would be very well in tune, while others, most notably the extreme sharp or flat keys, would be discordant or out of tune. This is one reason why much Baroque music is written in a fairly limited range of keys, compared to the music of the 19th century.

Each pair within the Work features two different kinds of movement. The fugues are governed by highly specific compositional processes and techniques. the preludes are in an extremely free style with few specific rules governing their development.

The Pianist

Roger Woodward (right) with Iannis Xenakis (left)

In the website bearing his name, we read: ” The Australian pianist Roger Woodward performs both traditional and contemporary repertoire although his musical training is steeped in church music and the romantic repertory.  He rose to international prominence in prestigious collaborations with Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Jean Barraqué, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Toru Takemitsu, Franco Donatoni, Luciano Berio, Leo Brouwer, Iannis Xenakis, Arvo Pärt, Larry Sitsky, and worked with such contemporary German composers as Peter Michael Hamel, Rolf Gehlhaar, Hans Otte and Karlheinz Stockhausen.”

I run into Woodward from Iannis Xenakis. Xenakis dedicated three works to pianist and conductor Roger Woodward, with whom he forged an intimate working relationship that involved the major international music festivals with a wide range of orchestras, chamber ensembles and international radio and television networks ranging from the BBC, French and German Radio to networks in the USA, Poland, Italy, Japan, Israel and Australia. A long exerpt from an interview given to Angela Boyd in January 2010 is illuminating:

Was there a defining moment or breakthrough when you decided that music would be your life?

There were various impressions, but the most significant was when I first heard the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Nothing was ever the same again. From that moment on, I knew I would live the rest of my life with music. Not long afterwards, l began studying the keyboard suites, “The Well-Tempered Clavier”, and, from the age of thirteen, most of the organ works, some of the church cantatas, the passion music and B-minor Mass. Piano studies were spent sorting out fugues whilst reading the works of earlier and later composers. During this period l was lucky enough to have had access to a memorable instrument with four manuals at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney, and a magnificent cembalo.

The breakthrough, however, came a few years later, when I won the Commonwealth Finals of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Concerto and Vocal Competition. The series of concerto and recital appearances that followed formed part of the award and they provided an effective transition into the profession. It was from this time that I began playing concerts and teaching. However, this is only half the story, because I had also been smitten by the music of early twentieth century Russian composers, as well as Schoenberg, Webern, Bartók, Debussy, Messiaen and the music of Messiaen’s students – principally Xenakis, Stockhausen, Barraqué and Boulez. I left Sydney to continue studying at the National Chopin Academy in Warsaw where there was an annual showcase of new music called the “Warsaw Autumn”. From then on I played what was invariably described as either “modern” music or the “traditional” repertoire, when there seemed to be little or no difference between the two.

Music was always new at one stage or another and it certainly remained that way for me irrespective of when it was composed. Some of the programmes which I enjoyed putting together were of Frescobaldi+Gabrieli+Xenakis or Cage+Feldman+Bach or Schumann+Schubert+Schoenberg or Beethoven+Barraqué. Nowadays, this has become normal programming, although I enjoy directing the masterpieces of Xenakis and Bach in addition to playing keyboard instruments.

Xenakis has dedicated three pieces to you –Keqrops(1986);Mistsfor solo piano (1980) andPaille in the Winds(1992). How would you describe Xenakis’ place in the evolution of music?

Despite his own modest hesitations at the beginning of his career and the pejorative comments of his detractors, Xenakis somehow knew that he had inherited the sacred trust to carry the main body of Occidental music into the twenty-first century in the monumental traditions to which he belonged, spanning Josquin to Messiaen.

It would be an understatement to add that he engendered as profound a respect for his loyalty to human rights, as for his dedication to developing experimental achievements in the fields of architecture, mathematics, philosophy and music. He held a profound respect for peace and tolerance and, above all, human rights, which set him apart from others in the field. Takemitsu, and Feldman both shared his lofty spirit as well as Messiaen, who staunchly encouraged him at every turn. Like Bach before him, and despite similar criticism, Xenakis galvanized the essential codes which straddled two ages of thought and in this respect the two giants greet each other across the centuries with prolific outputs in ways that subsequently altered the destiny of western art-music.

Why have you made only two recordings of Xenakis’ music so far – a live performance of Keqrops with Abbado in Vienna and your own direction of Kraanerg with the musicians of the Alpha Centauri Ensemble?

These were recorded because I felt ready to make a statement about them and the composer was extremely pleased with both performances. It has taken me thirty years to feel the same way about his massive solo piano piece entitledMistsand so I find myself only now ready to record it, although I have recorded all his solo piano pieces at one time or another for radio or live concert situations.

The Recording

”Bach is always open. The music is never closed, which is why jazz musicians pick up on Bach. The most intelligent thing a musician has ever said to me is, ‘You can’t play this just by practising it, you must reflect over it because it is philosophy’.”

Woodward has certainly reflected deeply and believes he has recaptured the core of Bach’s musical vision, the legato-cantabile sound – a striking development in Bach’s day.

”It’s getting back to the idea of letting the voices sing,” Woodward says. ”It’s getting back to the ideas Bach enshrined in his teaching. Things should sing, and they should flow, and they should be smooth and even. I’ve done no more than follow what Bach advocated to his students.”

There is little instruction in the score, even of the speed of the music, let alone detailed phrasing.

But ”the infinite beauty of Bach’s simple dances and preparation of their tempi inevitably leads to an examination of the laws of musical movement, inner pulse, details of phrasing, legato and cantabile”.

Woodward has been delighted but surprised at the reception of his recordings and essay. The authoritative Gramophone magazine made it the editor’s choice this month, while German critics have been ecstatic, calling it a new departure.

Roger Woodward says: “The 24 Preludes and Fugues of J.S. Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ from 1722, together with a second book of 24 Preludes and Fugues composed two decades later, in all major and minor keys formed his keyboard masterpiece and were destined to become the Old Testament of the genre. This monumental treasure house of music was subsequently studied and performed by a long line of composers commencing with Johann Sebastian’s sons, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, and countless other musicians who were inspired by the glories contained throughout the its pages, including Dmitri Shostakovich. In Leipzig, 1950, the 43-year old Russian composer was inspired to compose 24 Preludes and Fugues of his own in all major and minor keys and the two brothers greet each other like across the centuries.”

One reviewer wrote: ”Woodward’s interpretation incorporates the organic structure of counterpoint, the exploitation of bold well-tempered harmonics, and a contemplative concentration on sound along with flashing virtuosity and a clarity of musical lines and orchestral effects.”

The pianist himself, who has worked a great deal with modern composers, says his approach is the same as always.

”I’ve tried to do what I’ve done all my life – consult the composer.”

If you really like the music, you must hear all 48 pairs of preludes and fugues. Just for a taste, I post the first prelude in C Major. Enjoy it.

1-01 The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book

Shiva meets Bach

…These recordings resulted in four-and-a-half stellar hours of the Bach discography. Because Woodward approaches the two cycles fluently and briskly as one unified work, because, as a graduate of the avant-garde he doesn’t need to shy away from any technical challenge, because he knows how to courageously take full advantage of the possibilities of the modern grand piano, because he relies less on interpretation than on fierily incendiary presentation, Woodward removes anything historical, elitist or alienating from this music; he understands Bach as a contemporary of innovators such as Xenakis, Cage, Feldman, and Ligeti. No looking back, no nostalgia, no more educational high-browism, no more old Europe. Never before did Johann Sebastian have such a future ahead of him.
Süddeutsche Zeitung, Munich
April 17, 2010…

There has been almost as much of a glut of Well-Tempered Claviers recently as commemorative Chopin editions, including interpretations from Daniel Barenboim and Maurizio Pollini; but this 5CD set of both Books I and II by Roger Woodward may well be the most significant since Glenn Gould’s revolutionary completion of the sequence.

The size of the set suggests unusually slow tempi, but Woodward is simply being scrupulously attendant to the demands of the music. Indeed, his thorough sleevenote In Search Of A Performance Practice, analysing the different approaches employed on various cembali, clavichords, organs, etc, may constitute the last word on this subject, as too may his performance. Remarkable.

Andy Gill

The Independent

19 March 2010


  1. πω πω

    τωρα με εχεις πεθανει
    καταπληκτικό εργο…
    κι εχω αδυναμια στο Johann Sebastian…

    φοβερη αποδοση του Woodward και τελειο το post σου
    και ολα τα λεφτα η αφιερωση…

    τι να πω μαιτρ? χαχαχα
    παρα μονο well-tempered το clavier και well-tempered η μουσική σου διάθεση…

    • μα εγω δεν θελω να σε πεθανω, να σε ευχαριστησω θελω!
      ειναι βεβαια γεγονος οτι η εκφραση αναφερεται και στην υπερβολικη χαρα και ικανοποιηση,
      οποτε το ειπες επειδη ισως αισθανθηκες και εσυ οπως ο Ολυμπιονικης Διαγορας!

      η αποδοση του Woodward ειναι μαγικη, δεν μπορω να βρω αλλη λεξη
      σε διακτινιζει!

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