Sunday, March 10, 2013

Prelude and Fugue in D minor BWV 851 – Chiara Massini

It’s late Saturday evening—& as we all know, with the time change it’s later even than it seems. As a result, I will make the Early Music Sunday post brief.

Our featured artist on Sunday this month is harpsichordist Chiara Massini, & the videos will feature her performances of five preludes & fugues from Bach’s masterpiece The Well-Tempered Clavier, which as it now exists is made up of two collections Bach compiled 20 years apart, with the Well-Tempered Clavier (Das Wohltemperierte Klavier) being compiled in 1722, & a book Bach called Twenty-Four Preludes & Fugues compiled in 1742. These collections are now considered book one & book two of the overall collection of 48 preludes & fugues—in other words, in each book one prelude & fugue in all 24 major & minor keys. 

Bach wasn’t the first composer to create a sequence of works that traveled through all keys, though his was early, coming at a time when tuning was shifting from a system we call meantone temperament to what is called well temperament, itself a precursor of the standard equal temperament used by modern Classical orchestras—not to mention midi & a high percentage of western musicians.

The problem well-temperament was trying to address had to do especially with a quirk in the meantone system. If you’ve ever taken piano lessons, you probably recall that the black notes can have more than one name—so the black note directly to the right of a C can be called C sharp or D flat. On a modern piano, the tones are identical, & that is the convention in western music overall; we call them "enharmonic" tones. However, that isn’t the case in all tuning systems, including meantone, in which it especially affected the enharmonic keys D sharp & E flat & also G sharp & A flat. Thus, to avoid dissonant intervals, one would need to retune a keyboard instrument when changing keys, especially in going from keys with several sharps to keys with flats. Well temperament addressed this issue, as displayed by Bach’s work—interestingly, the eighth prelude & fugue set in book one has the prelude written E flat minor, while the fugue is in D sharp minor, highlighting this.

Today, however, we just have regular old D minor, but played beautifully by Chiara Massini!

Image of Chiara Massini (with tuning wrench) links to its source at


  1. Another great start to a Sunday morning. Thanks John!

    1. Thanks for your support, Roy! Much appreciated.

  2. Thanks for posting these Bach performances. I usually listen to them done on piano (Glenn Gould) so it's nice to hear them played on a harpsichord.

    The very first prelude of "The 48" always reminds me of Werner Herzog's Herdsmen of the Sun, where he uses the "Bach-Gounod" version of the music. Incredibly emotional to watch, I think.

    1. Dominic: Glad you're enjoying these! I will check that out--at points in my life I have been a big Herzog fan, though I haven't seen his recent work.


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