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Royaumont Abbey

Royaumont Abbey

The exploration of the mysteries of harmony that began in the sixteenth century has much in common with the exploration of the real world with the help of the natural sciences and critical thinking. Similarly, the journeys into the most remote key areas were only possible after composers had learned to look behind the rigid system of modes and hexachords and began to see the sheer unlimited possibilities of transposition and modulation. Since these harmonic experiments were long considered a secret art, it is no surprise that they were confined to solo keyboard instruments, where chords and their progressions could be handled by the ten fingers of the two hands and where the composer and the performer were often the same person. Yet at first the keyboard with its preset and fixed tuning allowed excursions into remote key areas only to a limited degree. As a consequence, adjustments to the old Pythagorean tuning were necessary, and this led to various forms of mean-tone and irregular temperament culminating in the establishment of equal temperament in the early nineteenth century.

J. S. Bach’s monumental double cycle of The Well-tempered Clavier (BWV 846-93) has always been regarded as a major landmark in the history of keyboard music and the utilization of the full spectrum of keys. The first part, containing preludes and fugues through all twenty-four major and minor keys, was completed in 1722; the second, of the same scope, followed around 1739/40. Although The Well-tempered Clavier is often associated with the use of equal temperament, we know from various documents that Bach – like most of his contemporaries – actually favored a pragmatic temperament that made playing in remote tonal areas possible but at the same time kept the variegation of the individual keys. The unique artistic value of Bach’s double cycle lies not merely in the comprehensive treatment of this key system, but rather in the idea of combining the richness of harmonies he explores with an equally comprehensive richness of musical styles and composing techniques.

Bach drew his inspiration from various models – some of which will be introduced 22-27 June 2014 during the keyboard program presented by Andreas Staier and Peter Wollny at the thirteenth-century Royaumont Abbey north of Paris. One of the earliest journeys through the key areas is taken in John Bull’s Fantasia Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, which leads a simple diatonic subject set in a strictly contrapuntal fashion by means of transposition through a labyrinth of harmony. Another way of exploring the spectrum of keys is the free improvisatory style called stylus phantasticus in the seventeenth century. A fine example of this type of composing is Georg Böhm’s Praeludium, Fuga et Postludium in G minor, a piece transmitted in a manuscript copy from Bach’s circle.

Bach and his German contemporaries devoted much of their compositional efforts to adapting and merging the French and Italian national styles. Thus Bach studied and held in high esteem the works of Antonio Vivaldi and François Couperin. The combination of German, Italian and French elements eventually yielded the highly expressive and galant mixed style that became the great composer’s legacy to his sons and students.

Peter Wollny La Fondation Royaumont