Johann Sebastian Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier

Lesson Time Required: 50 minutes

Grade Level & Conceptual Focus: Grade 8, Social Issues

Key Inquiry Question:  How did Bach contribute to the Baroque Era and how did his music reflect the social issues of their time and place? 

Required Resources & Materials: Computer with Internet to watch/ listen to The Well-Tempered Clavier and ability to display images of harpsichords. Map of Germany with the 8 highlighted cities, included. Trumpet (for the drama play), percussion shakers/ rhythm sticks. White/ chalk board with markers/ chalk.

Arts Education Goals Addressed: (Cultural/Historical, Critical/Responsive, Creative/Productive) All 3.

Arts Education Strands Addressed: Music, drama, and literature.

Connections to Other Subject Areas: CG8.2 Analyze abilities for responding positively to change in one’s life.

e. Re-examine personal management skills such as time management, problem solving, stress management, and lifework balance and evaluate one’s own strategies for dealing with personal change.

CC8.5 Create and present a variety of visual and multimedia presentations including an illustrated report, a role play that ends with a tableau, a dramatization, presentation software, a newscast with adequate detail, clarity, and organization to explain (e.g., an important concept), to persuade (e.g., an opinion on an issue, a mini-debate), and to entertain (e.g., a humorous incident).

a. Explore ideas and express understanding using various forms of representing (e.g., storyboarding, illustrating, role playing, e-mailing, preparing a concept map).

i. Use more than one type of media in a presentation.

Proposed Learning Outcomes & Indicators: 

CP8.8 Investigate and make choices about musical structures in sound composition. 

a. Use inquiry in music to extend understanding of the elements of music and principles of composition: 

• Pose questions to guide inquiry into how elements of music can be manipulated and structured to create balance and unity (e.g., What are the rhythmic and melodic possibilities/limitations with this instrument? What different timbres are possible with this instrument? What textures can be created by combining or layering a variety of vocal or instrumental sounds?). 

• Conduct a collaborative inquiry and experiment with voice and instruments to explore inquiry questions about musical structure (e.g., In what ways could we rearrange these motifs or phrases in different sequences?). 

• Collaborate with peers to document the inquiry process (e.g., traditional and/or invented notation, audio or video recording). 

Planned Learning Activities: Introduce Johann Sebastian Bach by having students “act” his life out, using the prescribed script as a guide. Allow for improvisation although the stated facts cannot be adjusted or modified. Encourage students to use more than one type of media in their presentation. 

“I am Johann Sebastian Bach and I was born about 335 years ago, in the year 1685, in Germany (show map, included, of Germany). Standing beside me represent my previous 5 generations (5 male progenitors), each involved in the music profession. My father was a court trumpeter (have the student acting as the father hold a trumpet). I was orphaned (students representing JSB’s family now return to their seats) by age 10 therefore my oldest brother, Johann Christoph, provided my musical training. I studied Latin, Greek, theology, loved to sing in choirs, played the violin, and was an excellent organist. I was also trained in instrument building and repair. 

When I was 20 years old (1705) I walked from Arnstadt to Lubeck (Germany) which was over 300 kilometers (the distance between Calgary and Edmonton) each way to meet the famous organist Dietrich Bustehude. I was so completely inspired that I stayed an extra 3 months without authorization. (female student comes forward to stand beside JSB) Bustehude offered me a job but only if I would marry his aging daughter. I declined (female student returns to her seat, while another female student comes forward) and chose to marry my distant cousin Maria instead. (2 male students come forward and introduce themselves as Maria and JSB’s sons, Carl Phillip and Wilhelm Friedemann and state they are successful musicians).

I moved my family to Weimar, Germany where I increased my fame as an organist. I played and composed exclusively for the Lutheran church, which included cantatas and chorale settings. In 1717 I received a salary advance for a new position at Cothen. (a different male student comes forward holding handcuffs, identifying himself as the Duke of Weimar and expresses anger that JSB took a new position so he throws JSB in jail for one month). 

I moved my family yet again, leaving Weimar and headed to Cothen where my sweet wife Maria died (1720) and (a different female student comes forward) a year later I married Anna who is a court singer. (2 male students come forward and identify themselves as JSB and Anna’s sons: Johann Christian and Johann Christoph and state they also became successful musicians).

I moved a lot within Germany, ending up in Leipzig for the last 27 years of my life. Here I am appointed Cantor of St. Thomas School in which I have many responsibilities which include: teaching, composing, directing choirs, and supervising musical activities in several churches. In 1729 (age 44) I became the director of Collegium Musicum which is a performing ensemble for university students and I write many large-scale works that include the Art of Fugue. I became expert at perfecting fugues, which are highly structured and imitative compositions. Fugues carry more than one independent melodic line however; a single theme prevails. Fugues are very busy because chords change on almost every beat. I did not invent anything new, I perfected existing forms of my time. Up until now, the major and minor tonal system did not exist- all tuning had to be done mathematically. My piece entitled “The Well Tempered Clavier” became an enduring and monumental contribution to keyboard literature and is a collection of preludes and fugues. It shows Bach’s mastery of the contrapuntal form in the new tuning method. It shows his mastery of the contrapuntal form in the new tuning method. The creation of this new tonal system meant keyboards no longer need to be re-tuned in order to change pitches. I traveled a lot to test new keyboard instruments. In 1747, just before I died, I visited my now adult son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who works for Frederick the Great at Potsdam and I wrote a contrapuntal work based on a theme provided by the king. 

In 1750, at the age of 65, I am blind and I died from a stroke.”

Let’s listen to The Well Tempered Clavier (only show a few minutes beginning at 21:23, it’s over 2 hours long).

Questions to discuss:

What instrument did the YouTube performer (Thomas Schwan) play? (piano) Schwan played The Well-Tempered Clavier, written by Bach. The word Clavier is a German word for keyboard instruments other than the organ. 

The instrument of Bach’s day was the harpsichord or clavichord because pianos were not invented yet:

See the source image

Is a harpsichord considered a clavier? (yes) Is a piano considered a clavier? (yes)

What are the rhythmic and melodic possibilities/limitations with this instrument, the piano? Examples may include, but are not limited to:

  • Pedals
  • More keys than harpsichord
  • Piano can be played using dynamics (soft or loud) (unlike harpsichords)
  • Play piano fast or slow
  • Piano’s are not portable
  • We want to sing along to recognizable tunes (ex: Happy Birthday)

What different timbres are possible with this instrument? Examples may include, but are not limited to:

  • Reedy     
  • Brassy
  • Clear 
  • Bright
  • Focused or unfocussed  
  • Breathy 
  • Dark
  • Rounded  
  • Piercing 
  • Strident
  • Harsh
  • Warm  
  • Mellow
  • Resonant
  • Heavy
  • Light
  • Flat
  • Having much, little, or no vibrato (a controlled wavering in the sound); or narrow or wide, or slow or fast, vibrato

What textures can be created by combining or layering a variety of vocal or instrumental sounds? Examples may include:

  • LH or RH can play, independent of the other
  • LH can be played simultaneously as the RH
  • LH & RH can play the same melodic line, or very different melodies at the same time

Have students listen to The Well-Tempered Clavier again, listening for examples of variety and excitement. Listen/ look for how Bach used additional elements such as dynamics (volume), LH or RH only, change of rhythm, voice, other instruments, etc. Bach decided to have a LH only part at 2:26. How does the LH only change the timbre? Notice when the RH joins back in, it repeats what the LH had just played. What changes at 1:34:35 compared to the first few minutes? (speed, timbre, dynamics) How would the texture of this song change if Bach had included lyrics? Or layered it with percussion instruments? Let’s try it using percussion shakers/ rhythm sticks and record ourselves playing along. Could we re arrange any of the motifs or phrases? How would this piece be different if Bach began with the intensity used at 1:34:35? Bach asked questions which led him to perfect the form (fugue) of his day. Baroque music had already been around for 100 years by the time he began perfecting music. He did not innovate, he absorbed influences of international styles. His music reflected the social issues of Germany such as combining 2 or more independent melodic lines and in the Lutheran Church he included their chorale tradition. The music in France had dance rhythms and ornamentation and Italy included Opera and writing for specific instruments (rather than generic). 

What about music now? We hear music all day long. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier may seem very different from the pop music we listen to today. Will one of you please tell me a pop song that is popular right now? Let’s listen to the pop song and listen for how it is the same/ different from the Fugue we just studied. (May choose to write responses on the board):

Very busy 
Chord changes 
Single theme prevails 
Can be mentally exhausting 

Bach moved many times, experienced the death of many close family members, spent time in prison, traveled extensively, and became blind. Think of your own strategies for dealing with personal change. Bach did not keep his setbacks from allowing him to grow. We can assume Bach developed time and stress management strategies while working as the Cantor (an important religious figure) of St. Thomas School because he then became the director of Collegium Musicum (= to the Dean of Music in a university nowadays), which was a performing ensemble for university students.

Plans for Assessment: Three-person dialogue: Each student works with 2 others to complete the assessment. On a blank sheet of paper, ask each student to write 3 words or phrases that represent the most important ideas, concepts, or points from the lesson. Write one at the top of the page, another in the center and another towards the bottom, leaving room below each to write a short paragraph about it. They choose one and summarize its meaning and significance briefly. They then pass their paper to the next person who will choose one of the remaining 2 concepts and write their summary. Do the same with a 3rd person. Papers are returned to the teacher with all three student’s names on all three papers. If there is one person left, make one group of four. One group of 2 is acceptable if 2 are without a group.

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