In this article, I am going to explore some of the more famous works for the keyboard that JS Bach composed during his colourful life. Many of these works are now more commonly played on the piano rather than the harpsichord which should be kept in mind when listening to the performances.
There are many subtle differences in how these pieces would sound between these instruments, but what can be agreed is the ingenuity and skill with which Bach composed these works regardless of the instrument on which they are performed. In a way, it is all the more remarkable, as the compositions are perfectly convincing on modern instruments and do not detract from the genius of the work.
Bach’s Keyboard Pieces
1. 48 Preludes and Fugues BWV 846-893
The 48 Preludes and Fugues have become iconic in the Bach catalogue of works. They are a collection of pieces that span all twenty-four major and minor keys used in Western Music. Another important title for this collection of works is “The Well-tempered Piano”. The well-tempered part of the title refers to the fact that the establishment of a tonal system of keys was still a reasonably new idea following the fall from popularity of the modal system that dominated music before.
Bach begins his epic journey through all the keys in C major for the first Prelude and Fugue. He then moves to C minor for the second then chromatically upwards to C sharp major for the fourth and C sharp minor for the fifth and so on. The importance of these works cannot be overstated. They not only offer every aspiring pianist the opportunity to immerse themselves in the world and style of Bach but also to develop their polyphonic technique in playing fugues of three and four voices. One key consideration Tovey makes in his editorial notes to the ABRSM collection is that “Bach writes very accurately what is to be played but, he leaves the performer free as to how it is played.” Taking the time to understand the time in which these works were composed is also crucial regarding any decision in how they are played. Ensuring the clarity of Bach’s part-writing is paramount as is being able to mark the climatic moments in each piece. Bach could not have known how the piano of today would sound and this needs thought when approaching these works.
What Bach achieved here was monumental and in many ways opened the way for a whole new expanse of keyboard compositions. They are each little masterpieces and effortlessly capture the genius of Bach and his music.
2. The Goldberg Variations BWV 988
This set of variations are considered by many as the most important harpsichord work of the Baroque Period let alone one of Bach’s most ambitious projects. Bach composed the variations supposedly for an insomniac Count Keyserlingk who requested some pieces to cheer him through the long sleepless nights. Another story suggests that the Goldberg in the title refers to one of Bach’s pupils, John Gottlieb Goldberg but he would have only been about fourteen years of age at the time and an unlikely recipient of such a complex set of pieces. The Goldberg was not even included on the title page of the first printing so the origins of the work remain uncertain.
There are 32 pieces in the set of variations, all based on the same thirty-two note ground bass. The opening and closing Aria has been the source of much academic debate including doubts surrounding who composed the Aria. What we do know is that the Aria is in “Book Two for Anna Magdalena” (1725) copied out by the young girl herself. The Goldberg Variations stand as a remarkable achievement in musical invention and formal composition.
3. Six Partitas for Harpsichord BWV 825-830
At the time of writing, Bach was installed in the post of Cantor at the church of St. Thomas in Leipzig. Bach was well aware that his predecessor had made a significant contribution to educational works in his time as Cantor and it is reasonable to think that Bach will have been keen to celebrate this legacy with his own music. They were published originally under the title of “Keyboard Practice” giving a clear indication of their purpose. Their effect on the waiting world was nicely summarized by Forkel in his Bach biography ; “This work caused quite a sensation among his contemporaries in the world of music; such splendid keyboard compositions had never previously been seen or heard. Whoever learnt to perform any of these pieces to a high standard could make his fortune in the world”.
Each of the Partitas follows a well-established format that would have been expected at the time: Allemande; Courante; Sarabande and Gigue. As you might expect, Bach varies this structure to include a Capriccio in Partita No.2 and the occasional Rondeau that brings a change in colour to the work. The influence of both the French and Italian styles are elegantly managed by Bach in a way that still maintains the foreign influence without losing his own craftsmanship and flair.
4. Harpsichord Concertos BWV 1052-1059
This set of seven Concertos are amongst the very first for the instrument and in many ways pave the way for the numerous keyboard concertos that followed. These are for a single harpsichord although Bach also wrote Concertos for two, three even four harpsichords too. It is thought that some of these pieces may have been arrangements of previously composed works, possibly earlier Cantatas, that then were arranged for the harpsichord.
The Berlin State Library has an autograph of the single harpsichord concertos that includes orchestral parts but the soloist’s part is full of corrections and may not be the final copy Bach intended to be used for performance. Each of the Concertos is in a three-movement form and contains all the characteristics that one would expect from Bach. They are worthy of far more exploration and analysis than I can give here.
 Über Johann Sebastian Bach’s Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke (1802)