Hitherto unknown musical transcription of Psalms in Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II?

The old question revisited

Yo Tomita
A Paper read at the Eighth Biennial Conference of Baroque Music
at University of Exeter, 9-12 July 1998

I. Abstract

Although the histories of the compilation and revision of the WTC II are fairly well-researched, we know very little as to how individual pieces were conceived so as to fit into the image or function that Bach might have had in mind for the collection. So far as I can tell, the only person who have ever attempted to resolve this mystery was Hans Nissen. In an article published in Bach-Jahrbuch (1951/52), he boldly claims that Bach was inspired by the Psalms. He attempts to prove his theory by matching the numbers he found in the pieces (e.g. number of bars) to the Psalms themselves.

Today, his theory is completely rejected on the grounds of inadequate evidence and the lack of convincing arguments. This paper re-examines his work to see if there are any valid elements in his hypothesis, and then considers whether a similar but more reliable hypothesis can be offered in the light of recent Bach scholarship. 

II. Introduction

Bach conceived the famous Well-Tempered Clavier as a precious jewel box for his sons and pupils. In it he collected a fine assortment of delightful pieces which are not only educationally beneficial but also artistically entertaining. As we all know, the work proved to be very popular, and, even before it was published, it became widely known among prominent musicians of the day.
    As a collection, WTC is also a work of magnificent quality, for it maintains a fine balance between two conflicting ideas-coherence and variety. It, on the one hand, limits the membership to fairly short prelude-fugue pairs for the sake of coherence, while it, on the other, covers all the 24 keys, without duplication, and explores as many diverse styles of writing as possible in this form. The order in which the pieces are organised is both systematic and intelligible-arranged on the rising chromatic scale starting with C major with alternating major and minor tonalities until reaching the final B minor.
    A craft that is made with utmost care has often an additional dimension whence is expressed something different and profoundly interesting. It is indeed the case with many large-scale works by Bach wherein we can often identify certain sophisticated structural devices, such as the concept of symmetry that was widely practised in a broader spectrum of creative activities in his time. As the collection or the composer himself is being sanctified, however, there is always a temptation to seek beyond this undeniable aspect of the work's construction.
    Earlier this century, there was a boom trying to appreciate more detailed and obscure levels of architecture, as Bach's works attracted huge interest from such disciplines as theology and rhetoric. While some scholars claimed they had proven hitherto unknown truths about the works, others dismissed them on the grounds of conflicting interests in 'interpretation', that is often synonymous for 'imagination'. WTC I proved to be the most popular work, attracting several serious endeavours from the numerological side, such as the studies by Wilhelm Werker,(1) Henk Dieben,(2) Harry Hahn,(3) Kees van Houten and Marinus Kasbergen,(4) which are broadly considered speculative and unreliable by today's main stream musicologists. Even more recent attempts to explain Bach's indulgence in Quintilian's oratory, by Ursula Kirkendale(5) and Alan Street(6) in their respective studies on Musical Offering and the 'Goldberg' Variations are not universally accepted as credible views either.(7)
    It may not be coincidental that common to all these specific studies is the 'static' aspect which is very different from what an innocent listener can perceive, and all of them unfold a single, fundamental notional matter through which all the individual elements in the work are tactfully related. While this alone may never be the reason for eliminating the validity of individual interpretation, it is equally inappropriate to assume that the supreme plan and order are always hidden deeply into a level of the work where the creator alone knows.

III. Nissen's Approach to WTC II

It is an article by Hans Nissen entitled 'Der Sinn des "Wohltemperierten Klaviers II. Teil"' published in Bach-Jahrbuch (1951/52) that I am going to examine in depth as a recipe for my discussion. So far as I can tell, this is the only publication which ever attempted to explain the hidden 'meaning' of WTC II. Following the traditional approaches of Spitta, Schweitzer, Blume and Schering, he made attempts to read Bach's 'hidden message' from the aspects of Bach's 'tone-painting' technique, supplemented by the idea of number symbolism that he found in the number of notes in the fugue subjects as well as in the number of bars in each movement.
    Like any other hypotheses of an eccentric nature, a fascinating idea occurred to him when he was examining some unusual textual features in Bach's writing, which, in his case, had certain association with the biblical scenes. Pursuing this possibility, he came up with a musical picture of the drama of the Christian world, as shown in Table 1:

Table 1: WTC II as 'The Drama of Christian World' by Hans Nissen

The Old Testament 
WTC2 Prelude  Fugue Biblical Reference
The Spirit of God The Creation [Gen.1]
The Tempter Fall of Man [Gen.3]
The Flood  Covenant and Rainbow [Gen.7; 9]
God's Call to Abraham  The Promise [Gen.12; 22]
Departure from Egypt  Song of Praise [Exodus]
Moses' Spring  All drink from this [Exodus, 17]
Sanctification, Listening to God’s Act  The Laws from Mt Sinai [Exodus, 20]
David, the King  David, the Psalmist [2 Samuel]; Psalm 16,10
Solomon's Judgement  The Temple Building [1 King, 3]; Psalm 43
The Search for Redemption  Humanity in need of Redemption  
The Prince of Peace  He shall smite thee with a rod, and shall lift up his staff against thee [Isiah, 9; 10]
'He loaded on himself our grief'nbsp; The Lamb of God  
The New Testament 
WTC2 Prelude  Fugue Biblical Reference
Bethlehem The Word became Flesh  
The twelve-year old Jesus in Temple The Answer of twelve-year old Jesus Psalm 43
Jesus' Baptism God's voice  
Call to the death on the cross Obedience to God  
Come here to me all [communion] This is my blood of New Testament  
Stay awake and Pray! Gethsemane Psalm 143
Farewell  Arrest Pr, 33 bars = life of Jesus
The Passion The Crucifixion  
Today you will be with me in Paradise Redemption of the Sin Psalm 93
Death of Jesus Burial  
Resurrection and Ascension Seated at the Right hand of God Psalm 46; Psalm 103/104
Return Resurrection of the dead  
Biblical reference: [ ] in the OT -- reference not explicitly given by Nissen and I have supplemented

His theory is of particular interest, not only because many of his descriptions of each movement actually do not present a sharply conflicting image with the inherent character of the piece, but also because he successfully portrays a coherent picture of the work.
    But once we examine his arguments in greater depth, we soon realise that his hypothesis is based on an extremely fragile foundation; on the one hand, his description of tone-painting, in particular, is not substantiated with sufficient evidence, on the other hand, he makes abundant mistakes in counting the number of notes in the fugue subject(8) or number of bars,(9) which he sometimes uses to support his argument.
    The description of 'Covenant and Rainbow' he arrived at for Fg.C#, for example, appears to be based solely on his imaginary interpretation of the shape of the subject, for, as far as I can gather, this particular figure has never been associated with the pictorial image of a 'bow' in Bach's music, but rather a vivid description of urging joyous spirit, such as 'wacht auf!' (wake up) in the Bass arias in two of his cantatas 'O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort' (BWV 20/8) and 'Unser Mund ist voll Lachens' (BWV 110/6), as well as the choral movements 'Halleluja' in a cantata 'Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele' (BWV 143/7), 'Sanctus' (BWV 238/1) and in a cantata 'Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir' (BWV 130/1), as shown in Example 3.

Example 3:The Fugue subject of Fg.C# and similar motives in Bach’s vocal works (for music examples, see Schmieder's BWV)

    A similar case study can be conducted on his association of WTC II movements with Psalms. Out of 24 movements, Nissen mentions seven Psalms only. One of them he associates with the number of notes in the fugue subject,(10) and the rest with the number of bars in the movement. Among the six, Nissen quotes Psalm 43 twice - Fg.E (which speaks of 'temple') and Pr.f# ('come to the Altar of God'). Not only do these two movements function totally differently from each other in his plan of 'Christian World', they are musically quite different from each other, too. It is also very unlikely that any of Bach's other works containing movements of 43 bars can be associated with Psalm 43,(11) for, while it is true that Bach frequently used text from Psalms in his sacred cantatas, Psalm 43 is not one of them.(12)
    Such is the sloppy nature of his discussion that his central hypothesis can no longer stand.

In the rest of this paper I am going to pursue one such possibility, similar to Nissen, but instead of immersing myself in imagination, I shall take a more cautious approach to discuss a contestable case. Contrary to the previous scholars, I am not going to claim that there is a key to unlock the door through which one can appreciate Bach's intended supreme organic shape of the work. I do not think that it is a realistic proposition at the moment, for presently I do not see that Bach brought WTC II to the equal level of perfection as those of the other contemporary works that were published in his lifetime. The recent source studies of the work, for instance, indicate strongly that the work was somehow left incomplete.(13) It is also obvious that when we follow the footsteps of his creative activities in the last decade of his life, we can see a shift of Bach's interest towards monothematic compositions and their publication.
    Still, I consider it is perfectly legitimate to suppose that when Bach was compiling individual pieces of WTC II he had specific ideas about each piece as a component of the collection, and did not select and transpose without assignable cause as others might wish to claim. This is the bottom-line of my working hypothesis. From various possibilities within this constraint, I will remove from the list all the fancy theories that claim Bach's indulgence with constructing an architecture which can only be achieved through the careful planning of writing the piece contiguously from the first prelude in C major to the last fugue in B minor. It is important that Bach did not follow such a pattern when compiling the work. In an early stage, he wrote the piece in commonly used keys, and then moved on to the piece with rarely used keys. In fact C major was one of the last pieces to be filled. What remain in my list of hypothesis are those possibilities I have mentioned earlier-the number symbolism in the specific order of each item and the key characteristics. Here I shall discuss two such specific examples showing the relations between Psalms and preludes that are written in the keys that were not commonly used.(14)

IV. Prelude No.22

Our first example is the Prelude no.22 in Bb minor, which can seriously be considered to be related to Psalm 22.(15)
     This prelude is written in a style of three-part invention, using such common fugal techniques as stretto and inversion to an extent that it is almost a fugue. The key, Bb minor, is rarely used in Bach's time, and in fact the pieces in WTC are the only example of Bach's use of this key in his instrumental music. In his vocal music, however, there is some evidence of Bach's use of this rare key mainly as one of transitional tonality in recitatives. Interestingly, the Bb minor tonality is frequently associated with such words as 'Grab' (BWV 54/2, bar 9 f; BWV 134/3) 'Tod' (BWV 134/3; BWV 245/35) and 'Kreuz' (BWV 2/4, bar 3; BWV 245/25a); this suggests a strong tendency towards Bach's use of this key in a specific way, relating almost exclusively to Jesus' suffering and death.
    The most important example in this context is the phrase in St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) where Jesus cries out 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!' (recitative 61a, Adagio), where there is a direct reference to Psalm 22 (= Matthew 27, 46).(16) It is hardly a coincidence that both passages in question show unmistakable congruity in both melodic contour and harmonic language, as given in Example 4.

Example 4: The motivic similarities between Pr.bb and St Matthew Passion, recitative 61a

One should, of course, take into account the fact that under many unequal temperaments of his day, Bb minor would create unbearable dissonant intervals between Bb and Db, and for this reason, the key could have been considered suitable to describe such bitter emotions as 'death' and 'crucifixion' in music.(17) The association between Psalm 22 and Bb minor may indeed be coincidental, but it is difficult to assume that Bach did not notice the reference of number '22' when he initially composed the relevant recitative of St Matthew Passion. Its significance should not be underestimated especially since Bach produced a beautiful score of the work in 1736, only a few years before he started compiling WTC II.

V. Prelude No.23

Another example is the following Prelude no.23 in B major; I am going to suggest that Bach was inspired by Psalm 23 and transcribed it verse by verse. Psalm 23 is indeed one of the best-loved passages of the Scripture, and many composers transcribed it into music, for, in Luther's words, 'David lauds and magnifies this noble treasure most beautifully in delightful figurative and picturesque language and also in metaphorical expressions taken from the Old Testament worship of God.'(18)
    Bach wrote three cantatas that use the text based on this Psalm, which are all performed on the day of Misericordias Domini (Second Sunday after Easter) - 'Du Hirte Israel, hore' (BWV 104) in 1724, 'Ich bin ein guter Hirt' (BWV 85) in 1725, and 'Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt' (BWV 112) in 1731. In the earlier two cantatas Bach used Verse 1 of the adaptation of Psalm 23 by Cornelius Becker (1598) in one of the chorale movements (BWV 104/6 and BWV 85/3), while in the remaining one, which is a Choral Cantata, he used a metrical paraphrase of Psalm 23 by Wolfgang Meuslin (1497-1563). It seems rather strange, therefore, that Bach never wrote a piece using the original verses from Psalm 23, although he actually used the text of more than 30 Psalms in his sacred cantatas.(19) Clavier pieces like this prelude are quite different in many respects, for there are no longer such technical constraints involved with cantata composition as rhyme scheme and metrical pattern, and so there would be a real chance for Bach to express freely his theological understanding in music.
    Stylistically speaking, this charming prelude is quite antithetical to the previous example we have examined; the ideas presented in the commencing bars are almost completely lost in space until what appears to be a quasi-reprise in bar 37, but then, the texture has been changed so many times by this stage that its formal identity cannot be brought to the surface. Such is the unique character of this movement that it does not belong to any of stereotyped categories of genre that we are aware of. Cecil Gray takes much pain in describing it in a vague term-'rather in the nature of a free fantasy or improvisation of a toccata-like character.'(20) Not only the changing texture and structure but also the broad range of motivic ideas employed makes this movement unique in WTC II.
    This stylistic aberrance in Bach's writing is something that requires explanation. For Hermann Keller, it seems to have been sufficient to point out its stylistic identities with the pieces Bach composed in his 'youthful' days.(21) This impression of Keller's is perfectly sound. It is quite possible that as Fg.C# (BWV 872/2) was transposed from a shorter piece Bach composed earlier,(22) this prelude may also have been revised from a shorter earlier piece, possibly in A major. But the sheer bluntness that the texture is changed so frequently suggests much more than 'free fantasy or improvisation', something approaching a sort of programme music, similar to Duetti of the Clavierubung III that David Humphreys attempts to explain.(23)
    Supposing Bach did go about transcribing Psalm 23 in this prelude, he would need to work out two separate stages, namely, (1) to depict clearly the unique character of each verse; and (2) to unite all of them so as to portray one fundamental message of this Psalm. This seems fine, for while this prelude is clearly segmented into many sections by the melodic devices and texture employed therein, the piece is bound by quasi-ternary form in B major. Remember that Bach possessed Luther's Psalm Commentary(24) as well as Calov's Bible Commentary (1682) which he purchased in 1733,  and Luther's works in 8 volumes (Jena, 1588-61) by the time he composed this prelude,(25) Bach had plentiful resources to study Luther's commentary on Psalm 23 if he wished to clarify the theological implication of each verse.(26) So now we require an in-depth study of what Luther had said, and how Bach could have transcribed it musically. The result of this comparison is summarised in an Appendix.
    The opening bar presents a rising scale from b, immediately followed by a falling scale. If we force ourselves to read Bach's use of symbolic language in this context, they may well represent the Incarnation of Christ. A similar parallel can be found in the choral movement that closes the first half of the St Matthew Passion (BWV 244/29), where the continuo symbolises the Incarnation.(27)
    Immediately following the scales, we find a canonic passages in two octaves apart at the time interval of two beats. The melodic imitation is not exact, and this must be deliberate on Bach's part. In all probability, the leading line represents the Shepherd, who is followed by his sheep (bar 2, LH). In this disjointed line on the part of the sheep, Bach may have intended to describe the traits and characteristics of a 'poor, weak, simple little beast'.(28) It is worth noting that this specific figure that described the Shepherd frequently appears in above-mentioned cantatas composed for Misericordias Domini which describe the Shepherd in the context of Psalm 23, such movements as BWV 85/1, 85/3, 112/1, as shown in Example 5.(29) Moreover, the melody that it formulates is the famous tune known as German Gloria 'Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr' ('Alone God on high be honoured', BWV 260). This tune was also used as the basis in all the three Misericordias Domini cantatas, as shown in Example 6. Thus in the opening two bars, there is compelling evidence for Bach's using the idea he used previously to describe Psalm 23. By combining the symbolic representation of the Incarnation, Shepherd, sheep and Gloria, Bach sets the scene firmly with his interpretation deeply rooted on an orthodox Lutheran theology. The musical transcription of Psalm 23, Verse 1 'The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want' is thus accomplished.

Example 5: Shepherd motive in Pr.B and Cantatas 85 and 112 (for music examples, see Schmieder's BWV)

Example 6: 'Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr' in Pr.B and Cantatas 85, 104 and 112 (for music examples, see Schmieder's BWV)

    From bars 3 to 7, Bach moves on to depict a peaceful pastoral scene, referring to Verse 2, 'He maketh me to lie down in green pastures'. Starting with the dominant chord, Bach gradually increases musical tension with the help of steady V-Ib-Vb7-I progression, as if he depicts the well-fed sheep growing strong by eating the fine grass.(30)
    In the next section from bars 7 to 8, we see a gradual change of texture from pastoral broken-chords to gently falling scalar figures, which portrays the streams of fresh water, as he now depicts the second half of the verse 'He leadeth me beside the still waters'.
    Bars 9 to 12 describe the first half of Verse 3 'He restoreth my soul', where the rising scale passage starting with the LH is passed on to the RH, then falling scales echo back from the RH to the LH. The return to the original symbolic language of bar 1 seems to suggest the return from the figurative speech, the 'soul' that is restored through Christ.
    From the cadence on the dominant chord in bar 12, it depicts the second half of Verse 3, 'He guideth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake'. Here closely-knit dialogues in rising chromatic scales in the RH symbolise the sheep carefully guided along the path of safety. Beneath them we identify the wildly moving LH in the relative minor tonality depicting wilderness. That tonal-harmonic procedure is involved to describe expressive as well as structural roles is interesting; this surely follows the tradition of musical allegory used for programmatic purposes by Bach's predecessor, Johann Kuhnau in his Biblical Histories.
    Texture is reduced virtually to a single line between bars 17 and 23, where it depicts the first half of Verse 4, 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me'. The rise and fall of disjointed scales depicts a journey through danger and misfortune creating a restless harmonic labyrinth using the circle of fifths, starting with the relative minor.
    From half-way through bar 23, the meadowy broken-chord texture returns to the LH, creating a peaceful mood once again. The Psalmist sings the second half of Verse 4, 'Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me'. Here we see two contrasting figures echoing each other, symbolising 'rod' and 'staff', which Luther explains as Words of God that 'strengthen' and 'comfort' us.
    From bar 28, the texture unexpectedly returns to a single voice, similar to bars 17-23, followed by the texture we have already seen in bars 3-7: the respective musical references, 'fear' and 'eating of grass', must have been made deliberately to convey the meaning of the first half of Verse 5 - 'Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies'. The piece indeed prepares for the reprise in bar 37, but on the dominant pedal in bar 35, a sharp dissonance depicts our enemies, namely devil and the world, that are eventually to be conquered.
    The second half of the Verse speaks of oil and overflowing of the cup, 'Thou hast anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over'. Though the figure with trills found in LH of bars 37-38 is based on the figure which was interpreted as 'sheep' in bar 2, it could be redefined here as oil and the overflowing of the cup, as the descending scale is attached to the latter, graphically depicting the image.
    The remaining section, bars 40-46, could be associated with Verse 6; but so far I am unable to see any link either symbolically or pictorially to the contents of the Psalm, although the very unusual abrupt end to the piece is meaningful. It is conceivable that Bach stopped describing Psalm 23 at this point, however; for in his lecture, Luther clearly distinguishes the first five verses from the last, describing the first five verses as David's conveying of 'thankfulness and praise', which conforms to Bach's use of tune 'Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr', whereas the last verse is defined as prayer, explaining 'sincerely pray and ask Him that we may keep this possession and never fall away from His holy Christian Church'.(31)
[Click here to Play Music]

VI. Wider Context as Preludes of WTC II

Having discussed two selected preludes from WTC II in an imaginative way, attempting to reveal Bach's emotional and intellectual integrity, I am fully aware of the danger that is always associated with 'interpretation'. Although I have tried to keep a distance from pressing hard to justify my subjective readings of Bach's intention, it is always difficult to perceive the degree of certainty to which we can read Bach's mind. The probability of such cases will increase as we know more about his compositional processes, especially how he conceived various ideas for a piece, the protocols with which the idea was processed, and how he ultimately accommodate such a delicate balance between the retention of vivid musical images and the organisation of these various ideas into a single organic shape that constitutes a piece.
    The next stage of this, as far as WTC II is concerned, should address two issues. Firstly, we must examine a similar possibility for the rest of the preludes; and secondly, the function of preludes within the context of a pair of pieces, preludes and fugues in WTC II, has to be re-examined in the light of this paper. It is a well-known fact that preludes in WTC II have grown in size and proportion to such an extent that they no longer function as 'prelude' in the original sense to establish the tonality for the main piece to follow, i.e. fugues. Such studies may eventually unveil some hitherto unknown reasons as to why Bach wrote the second volume of WTC twenty years after he first wrote Book I.

Appendix: Correspondence between Psalm 23, Pr.B, and Luther’s Lecture

Psalm 23 Pr.B: Bars and Bach's musical language Relevant passages in Luther’s Lecture [page reference]
1 The Lord is my Shepherd; Bar 1: rising and falling scale passages symbolically depicting the Incarnation of Christ, Son being separated from God. First he compares himself to a sheep. God Himself is carefully tending it as a faithful, diligent Shepherd. [148]
  I shall not want. Bars 1–2: two slightly contrasted ‘Shepherd’ motives, one smooth, other disjointed. 

canonic motion describing ‘Shepherd guiding sheep’ with the tune ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’ in praise of God.

His Divine Majesty to a pious, faithful, or as Christ says, ‘good shepherd’ (John 10:14), and compares us poor, weak, miserable sinners to sheep. [153] 

 It also has this virtue – and this is to be marked well, because Christ praises it especially in His sheep (John 10:4) – that it very carefully and surely hears and knows its shepherd’s voice, is guided by it, does not let itself be turned away from it, but follows it without swerving. [153]

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: Bars 3–7: gentle broken-chord texture depicting a pastoral scene, establishing itself steadily. ... fine, lush, heavy grass, from which it will grow strong and fat. [160]
  He leadeth me beside the still waters. Bars 7–8: gently falling scalar figures depicting streams of fresh water. ... fresh water, with which it can refresh and restore itself whenever it likes; and it has its joy and pleasure there, too. [160]
3 He restoreth my soul: Bars 9–11: symbolic representation of Christ [cf. m.1] qualifying the meanings conveyed so far. Here the prophet himself explains what kind of pasture and fresh water he has been discussing, namely, that kind by which the soul is strengthened and restored. [164]
  He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Bars 12–15: Two closely knit dialogues in RH symbolising carefully guided sheep, being placed above fast running passages depicting wilderness in LH. ‘The Lord,’ he says, ‘does not stop with feeding me in a green pasture and leading me to the fresh water and thus restoring my soul. He also leads me in the right paths so that I may not go astray, get into the wilderness, and thus perish. ...’ [165]
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; Bars 17–23: disjointed scale passage-work in unsettled harmonic labyrinth depicting a journey through danger and misfortune. Now he goes on to teach that those who are this Lord’s sheep are surrounded by much danger and misfortune. But the Lord, he says, not only protects them but also saves them from all temptations and distress; for He is with them. [167]
  Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Bars 24–27: two contrasting figures symbolising ‘rod’ and ‘staff’ in RH, possibly representing ‘strength’ and ‘comforts’ respectively, while depicting secure, peaceful scene in LH. It is as though he would say: ‘In all of my anxieties and troubles I find nothing on earth that might help to satisfy me. But then God’s Word is my rod and my staff. To that Word I will cling, and by it I raise myself up again. I will also learn for sure that the Lord is with me and that He not only strengthens and comforts me with this same Word in all distress and temptations, but that he also redeems me from all my enemies contrary to the will of the devil and the world.’ [169]
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Bars 28–36: a highly dissonant dominant chord preparing the reprise while gradually cleansing away its dissonant character before it successfully resolves into the tonic. Here you shall hear how highly blessed David exalts and praises the dear Word, namely, by telling us that by means of it the believers gain the victory over the devil, the world, the flesh, sin, conscience, and death. [172–3]
  Thou anointest my head with oil;  
my cup runneth over.
Bars 37–38: brimming over of the oil figuratively described by the trills in LH, while the high register uplifts the emotion. With these words, ..., the prophet, then, wishes to indicate the great, rich comfort that the believers have through the Word, that their consciences are sure, happy, and well satisfied amid all temptations and distress, even death. [175-6]
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:   ... the prophet here at the end earnestly asks that God, who has given him this treasure, would also keep him in it to the end. [178]
  And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.    


The ideas of this paper originated in the days when I did my MMus degree in performance at Leeds University in 1986. I am enormously grateful to the following people who have patiently listened to my original hypothesis and generously given me various ideas about how to bring about this theory to the present shape - Clemens von Gleich, Richard Greene, Stephen Jan, David Ledbetter, Tadashi Inoue, Richard Jones, David Piekaar, Richard Rastall, Julian Rushton, Grete Wehmeyer and Philip Wilby.
1 Wilhelm Werker, Studien uber die Symmetrie im Bau der Fugen und die motivische Zusammengehorigkeit der Praludien und Fugen des 'Wohltemperierten Klaviers' von Johann Sebastian Bach (Leipzig, 1922)
2 According to Hans Brandts Buys, Het Wohltemperirte Clavier van Johann Sebastian Bach (Arnhem: van Loghum Slaterus, revised edition, 1984), 82, which quotes Dieben's 'magische rechthoek' (magic rectangle), Dieben's article is reported to have been published in 1954/55, but I have so far been unable to trace the original publication.
3 Harry Hahn, Symbol und Glaube im I.Teil des Wohltemperierten Klaviers von Joh. Seb. BaCh. Beitrag zu einer Bedeutungskunde (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Hartel, 1973)
4 Kees van Houten and Marinus Kasbergen, Bach en het getal. Een onderzoek naar de getallensymboliek en de esoterische achtergronden hiervan in het werk van Johann Sebastian Bach (De Walburg Pres Zutphen, 1985)
5 Ursula Kirkendale, 'The Source for Bach's Musical Offering: The Institutio Oratoria of Quintilian', Journal of American Musicological Society XXXIII (1980) 88-141.
6 Alan Street, 'The Rhetorico-Musical structure of the "Goldberg" Variations: Bach's Clavierubung IV and the INSTITUTIO ORATORIA of Quintilian', Music Analysis VI/1-2 (1987) 89-131.
7 See reviews by Peter Williams in his article 'The Snares and Delusions of Musical Rhetoric: Some Examples from Recent Writings on J. S. Bach', in Alte Musik: Praxis und Reflexion, edited by Peter Reidemeister and Veronika Gutmann (Winterthur, 1983), 230-240, and 'Encounters with the Chromatic Fourth ... or, More on Figurenlehre' in The Musical Times CXXVI/1707 (1985) 276-278, and Christoph Wolff, Bach: Essays on His Life and Music (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Univ. Press, 1991) 421-423.
8 The following are the number of notes in the fugue subject Nissen presents and the number(s) I think it should be - Fg.c#: 21 / 19 (or 22 when we see it as a phrase); Fg.d#: 16/13; Fg.E: 5/6; Fg.F: 90/20; Fg.f: 30/21, 25, 28 or 29; Fg.g: 17/18; Fg.B: 17/7 or 12.
9 The following are the number of bars Nissen presents and the number I think it should be - Fg.c#: 70/71; Pr.Eb: 70/71; Fg.Eb: 10+7 [!]/20 or 21?; Pr.F: 70/72; Fg.F: 84/99; Fg.f: 84/85; Fg.bb: 100/101
10 Fg.d#. See also footnote 27 above.
11 Other movements in 43 bars are as follows- Versus 6 'So feiern wir das hohe Fest' from Cantata 'Christ lag in Todes Banden', (BWV 4/7); Aria 'Ein unbarmherziges Gerichte wird uber dich gewis ergehen' from Cantata 'Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim?' (BWV 89/3); Aria 'Jesu, las dich finden las doch meine Sunden' from Cantata 'Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren' (BWV 154/4); Aria 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus' from missa breves in G major (BWV 236/5); Aria 'Esurientes implevit bonis' from Magnificat (BWV 243/9); 'Praeludium' in G minor (BWV 535/1); 'Praeludium' in D minor (BWV 539/1); Choral Prelude 'Ach, was ist doch unser Leben' (BWV 743);  'Partita II' from 'O Gott, du frommer Gott' (BWV 767/2); 'Largo' from Concerto in G minor (BWV 975/2); Prelude in C minor for Lute (BWV 999).
12 According to Wetzel, Bach used Psalms 17 places in his cantatas. See Christoph Wenzel, 'Die Psalmen in Bachs Kantaten im Detempore der Leipziger Schaffensperiode', in Bach als Alsleger der Bibel. Theologische und musikwissenschaftliche Studien zum Werk Johann Sebastian Bachs, edited by Martin Petzoldt (Gottingen, 1985) 131-150.
13 Richard Jones, 'Further observations on the development of "The Well-Tempered Clavier II", The Musical Times CXXXII/1786 (1991), 609. See also footnote 17.
14 Prautzsch, Vor deinen Thron (1980), 13, suggests that certain number association can be made to the Psalms that are listed in Calov's Bible Commentary Bach possessed as 'prophetic psalms'. Among 31 Psalms listed under this category, 22 and 23 are among them. See English translation in Robin Leaver, J. S. Bach and Scripture, Glosses from the Calov Bible Commentary (St.Louis, 1985), 186-7.
15 Nissen, 76, describes the prelude as 'the death of Jesus' although he does not mention the relation to Psalm 22. He assigns to the tune of the prelude an interesting text 'Jesus starb am Kreuz fur mich den Tod'.
16 See Martin Petzoldt, 'Passionspredigt und Passionsmusik der Bachzeit', in Johann Sebastian Bach: Matthaus-Passion BWV 244. Vortrage der Sommerakademie J. S. Bach 1985 (Kassel, 1990), 8 f.
17 It is interesting to add that Jean-Philippe Rameau also describes this key as 'mournful songs' in his Traite de l'harmonie (1722). English translation is by Rita Steblin, A History of Key Characteristics in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (New York, 1996), 301.
18 'Psalm 23 (Expounded One Evening After Grace at the Dinner Table by Dr. Martin Luther 1536', Luther's Works, edited by Jaroslav Pelican, vol.12 (St Louis, 1955), 147. See also Earl K. Scott, 'Bach and the Twenty-Third Psalm', The Choral Journal XXII (1982) 39-42.
19 The list of Psalms and reference to Bach's cantatas are conveniently given in Die Kantaten Johann Sebastian Bachs im Gottesdienst (Neuhausen-Stuttgart, 1985), 67.
20 Gray, 142.
21 Hermann Keller, The Well-tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach (London, 1976), 196.
22 There are two early versions, both in C major - the one in 19 bars in length and the other in 30 bars. For the detailed discussions of Bach's revisions, see James A. Brokaw II, Techniques of Expansion in the Preludes and Fugues of J. S. Bach. (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1986), 213 f., and Yo Tomita, J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II: A Study of its Aim, Historical Significance and Compiling Process  (PhD diss., Leeds University, 1990).
23 Humphreys, Esoteric Structure, 7-18.
24 See Hans Preuss, Johann Sebastian Bachs Bibliothek (Leipzig, 1928), 5.
25 Robin Leaver claims that the additional work of Luther Bach purchased in September 1742 was that of the Altenburg edition in 10 volumes (1661-63), which is an expanded reprint (with an extensive index volume) of the Jena edition he already possessed. See his article, 'Bach and Luther', Bach IX/3 (1978),  9-12; 25-32. Leaver slightly amends his earlier theory of Bach's working with the bible in his book J. S. Bach and Scripture (St.Louis, 1985), 33. Although the paper and rastrum used for this prelude (Add. MS 35021, f.20, in the possession of the British Library, London) themselves are not datable, the musical text itself can be dated to c.1740, and it is unlikely that the purchase of this Altenburg edition is related to the composing of this prelude.
26 Leaver, 'Bach and Luther', 27, takes the same view.
27 Lecture given at International Sommerakademie Stuttgart 1985. [Information may be found in Helmuth Rilling, Johann Sebastian Bach: "Mattaus-Passion". Einfuhrung und Studienanleitung (Frankfurt.a.M., 1975)]
28 'Psalm 23', 153.
29 It may be worth mentioning that Allemande of Suite V from the French Suite (BWV 816/1) starts with this motive. Written in G major (same as BWV 112/1 !), this movement also has pastoral character.
30 It may be worth noting that there is an interesting parallel in the change of texture between this prelude and an early version of Pr.d (BWV 875a/1).
31 'Psalm 23', 150.

(c) Yo Tomita 1998

This paper is an extract (30 minutes reading time) from a much longer article which is currently being prepared for publication from BACH, 32/1 (2001). If you have any comments, please let me know. My email is y.tomita@qub.ac.uk.