Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier - a first edition

One never knows when a treasure will come to light, and I am delighted to share this treasure with you. Not only because it is a first edition, but also because we can receive a fascinating glimpse into how it was used and its provenance.

In June 2022, I discovered a Nägeli first edition of Bach’s Das wohltemperirte Clavier, oder, Präludien und Fugen durch alle Töne. 1er [2er] amongst a donation of orchestral and chamber music. This is perhaps Bach's best-loved keyboard work. Known in English as 'the 48' or The Well-Tempered Clavier it was composed "for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study" and used as a valuable teaching tool for his students.

Image: Cover of Das wohltemperirte Clavier, oder, Präludien und Fugen durch alle Töne.
1er [2er], 1808. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

Neither book of the Well-Tempered Clavier was published in Bach's lifetime. The first book was composed in 1722, during Bach's appointment in Köthen. Twenty years later in 1742, while he was in Leipzig, Bach compiled a second book of the same kind which became known as The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book Two.

Interestingly, there is some debate about which publishing house published this work first. Editions were published in Vienna & Leipzig (Hoffmeister) and in Zurich (Nägeli) almost simultaneously in the early nineteenth century. Simrock's edition is generally thought to have appeared first but the Nägeli edition of both books, which Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections' holds, were published in 1801. This was the same year Simrock published Book II (BWV 870-893). Simrock’s Book I (BWV 846-869) was not published until the following year.

Copies of the Well-Tempered Clavier were not difficult to obtain and it had a profound influence on the understanding of harmony and was an inspiration to many composers. For example, Mozart arranged several of the preludes and fugues for chamber‐music combinations - 5 Fugues from Well-Tempered-Clavier Book II, transcribed for string quartet, K. 405 and 6 Preludes and Fugues for String Trio (Violin, Viola & Cello) K. 404a. Beethoven's teacher, Neefe, gave a young Beethoven the Well-Tempered Clavier to study. Haydn also owned copies of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Many contemporary composers, such as Shostakovich, have been inspired by the work as well.

In the composer's time clavier, meaning keyboard, referred to the harpsichord or clavichord but could also be applied to the organ. Let us briefly look into the term 'well-tempered'.

Equal Temperament

The word 'temperament' is used to describe how we tune or create scales, the building blocks of western music. Equal Temperament is where the octave is split into 12 equal steps that we call semi-tones. In Bach’s day, the standard tuning method was called Mean-tone Temperament. The limitations of this system meant that a single keyboard could only play in 5 or 6 related keys. This means that you would have to have multiple keyboards to play in all the available keys.

So, the title The Well-Tempered Clavier simply means that a single keyboard is tuned in such a way that the performer can play in all 24 keys (12 major and 12 minor). It is not known if Bach had our modern method of tuning in mind, but he set out to compose a prelude and fugue in all 24 keys, both major and minor. The pieces were intended as pedagogical exercises to give keyboard players experience in working with the chords, scales, and arpeggios in each key.

If we take a closer look at this particular copy we can see it was clearly a working copy and used for teaching. The rear end page, shown below, has an inscription illustrating an harmonic analysis of Prelude No. 8 of Book I.

Image: The rear end page of Das wohltemperirte Clavier, oder, Präludien und Fugen durch alle Töne. 1er [2er], 1808. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

A list of all the 24 keys is on one of the end pages. Some of them show their enharmonic equivalents. One can imagine the teacher explaining the principle of equal temperament patiently to their student.


Inside the front board papers there are some delightful inscriptions, in German, which help us to trace the provenance of these volumes.

Image: Inside the front end pages of Das wohltemperirte Clavier, oder, Präludien und Fugen durch alle Töne. 1er [2er], 1808. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

The inscription in the front end page image above can be translated as:

To Professor Boeckh in fond memory (1845) from A. Gersbach.
Music teacher at the Seminar in Karlsruhe
(born 1803 in Saeckingen - 1848 in Karlsruhe)
(a student of Pestalozzi)

Anton Gersbach was known as a practical musician and was an excellent keyboardist who recognized Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier as his musical gospel. His teacher, Pestalozzi, was a Swiss pedagogue and educational reformer and known as the father of modern education. He founded several educational institutions both in Switzerland and wrote many works explaining his revolutionary principles.

In memory of my dear grandfather Ludwig Boeckh I received this work - whose high artistic merit he managed to explain to me from a young age - on the day of his death.
Karlsruhe, 16 September 1889
Georg Boeckh

In summary, Ludwig Boeckh received the two volumes from A. Gersbach (a music teacher and student of Pestalozzi) in 1845. Ludwig Boeckh then gave this to his grandson George Boeckh on his death in 1889. Somehow these volumes ended up in the hands of the Hafner family in the early twentieth century, between 1910 and 1930, and then came into the possession of Paul Hafner who brought them with him from Germany to New Zealand.

Many musicians have enjoyed and loved The Well-Tempered Clavier and will continue to do so. It is much more than a text book - Bach not only demonstrated the feasibility of equal temperament but he also created beautiful and expressive musical ideas to make something to capture the soul.

Listen to the recording of Gemma’s concert on 30 June 2022 which was part of the Thursday Heritage Concerts Autumn Series. Her programme starts with the Prelude no. 1 from Book II. 

Or watch the video of the same concert:  

Author: Marilyn Portman, Senior Librarian Music, Heritage Engagement.