Sometime during my childhood my father bought a Henle Edition of both books of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. I imagine he bought it in England because its price was indicated in pounds, and I believe it was used because there is handwriting in it that doesn't look like it belongs to anyone in our family.
My younger brother Richard studied piano all through his childhood, and these books were always on the piano. My older brother Marshall claimed one of the fugues as his "own" (the E minor in the second book), so I picked the D minor Fugue from the second book as "mine." I plunked it out as well as I could at the time: my eyes bouncing between the music and my fingers. Richard didn't do much in the way of piano playing after he graduated from high school, so his music went into the music room of my father's house, which is in the basement.
The basement flooded in 1979, and I believe that the water damage on the covers happened as a result of that flood:
A few years ago my father told me that I could have whatever music I wanted from the basement, so, in addition to tons of chamber music, I loaded a few boxes with a lot of my brother's piano music. After my slow journey through Richard's books of Haydn, Mozart, some Chopin, and some Beethoven, I decided it was time to go through the Well-Tempered Clavier from beginning to end. I started sometime in June, and I finished this evening. It was a profound experience, and before I turn around and start the whole thing again, I thought I'd mark the event with some observations.
My friend Danny Morganstern is reading Jan Swafford's new book about Beethoven (I'm waiting until I can get my hands on a library copy). Beethoven's teacher, according to Swafford, was from Leipzig. He taught Beethoven to play the piano using the WTC so that Beethoven would be able to play in every key. That is sound teaching. That's kind of what I thought I would get out of it too, but I learned through experience that one of Bach's points seems to be to leave the home key as many times as possible, and go off into adventurous places before returning to the home key in extremely clever and highly rewarding ways. Double sharps abound even in keys that don't have many sharps in their key signatures. Every one of the 48 Preludes and Fugues is unique.
I think that Bach wrote these preludes and fugues to offer possibilities in music that were not part of the normal musical practices of the day. Most non-keyboard instruments were severely restricted in their key possibilities, even after tempered tuning was invented. The majority of pieces for violin, with or without keyboard from the 17th and 18th centuries (and even in the 19th, but that's past Bach's time) are in keys that stay within three or four flats and sharps. Wind music from Bach's time is also quite restricted. Three flats is pushing it for clear intonation and fast fingering on the baroque flute, and music with three sharps is both difficult to finger and get in tune on the alto recorder. I do not play the baroque versions of other wind instruments, but I imagine that without keys (or with just minimal keys) they suffer the same difficulties as the flute and the recorder. In this work Bach got gave himself the chance to explore the strange new musical worlds (and there are moments that are pretty strange) that happen in between the keys that all the rest of the world lives in.
My first journey through the WTC was filled with all sorts of emotional highs and lows. While we were all waiting to see if Marshall would survive his accident, I was near the end of the first book. The B-minor Prelude and Fugue that ends Book One is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written (even by the standards of its WTC company). Playing it helped me a great deal. By the time I reached the E-minor Fugue in the second book, my brother was no longer alive. It was difficult for me to play it. It was difficult because it is difficult, it was difficult because it was Marshall's "property," and it was difficult because my experience with Marshall as my brother was now something that could only exist in memory. It will still always be "his fugue."
I'm hoping that my next journey through the WTC will offer fewer reasons to seek out Bach for solace.