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Elbe Watershed (Wikimedia Commons) Click to enlarge
In 2017, the North German Radio Orchestra will have a new home: they’ll move into the Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic Hall), now under construction high above the banks of the Elbe River in Hamburg.
The Elbe is one of Europe’s most important rivers. Its source is in the Czech Republic, in the Krkonoše Mountains. It flows from there through Germany to the North Sea at Cuxhaven. Its many tributaries include the famous Moldau.
The city of Hamburg traces its origins to the 9th century. The confluence of the Elbe with the Alster – another of its tributaries – was the perfect place to locate a city.
Not surprisingly, Hamburg became a major European trading center. A vital, bustling industrial region grew up round its port. Even in this grim post-industrial 21st century, even with its once-thriving shipbuilding business in a free-fall, Hamburg is still Europe’s second busiest port.
The Elbphilharmonie will extend Hamburg’s musical heritage out to the Elbe River. But the Elbe has had centuries of links to music, and it can thank Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann for at least part of that.
Telemann moved to Hamburg in 1721 to become the city’s music director. He was in charge of teaching singing, theory, and music history to the boys at the Johanneum Lateinschule (Latin School), and served as composer and music director for the city’s 5 largest churches. (And you thought you had a full plate at work. Imagine all that and classrooms full of adolescent boys too.)
Although he once came close to defecting to Leipzig because of a dispute over his rights to publish his own music, Telemann remained in Hamburg for the rest of his life.
Hamburg’s prosperity was dependent on the trade rolling in and out of its bustling port. With Europe unstable and war-torn in those days, the city developed its own admiralty for defense. Every year Hamburg paid tribute to her fleet with a celebration. Yet another part of Telemann’s endless job was to compose the Kapitänsmusik (Captains’ Music) for that festival. It comprised a sacred oratorio and a secular instrumental piece.
Alas, most of the Kapitänsmusik pieces are lost. Fortunately, a few have survived. Probably the most famous survivor is the one Telemann wrote for the admiralty’s centennial in 1723. It includes the suite Hamburg’s Tides (also called Telemann’s Water Music). If you’re a regular Baroque Era listener, you may remember hearing Hamburg’s Tides.
Although we don’t have a definite date for it – far too few of Telemann’s pieces have come down to us as dated manuscripts – it’s possible that he composed the Alster Overture for another of these Kapitänsmusiken. He also might have written it for a 1725 Hamburg visit by the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg.
The Alster Overture is a mildly chaotic mix of images. Greek mythology kicks in Pallas, Pan and Peleus. Nature and the works of humanity make appearances through the Alster Echo and Hamburg’s church bells. Sailors and nymphs dance through, and a band of village musicians marches by. A swan sings its song and, infamously, a chorus of frogs and crows makes its presence known:
In 2013, the Elbe River is still a vital part of life, musical and otherwise, in Germany and the Czech Republic. But living near any river has its risks, and earlier this month (June 2013) spring rains swelled the Elbe beyond its banks. The flooding drove several thousand residents from their homes. Ten villages had to evacuate everyone.
The Elbe is back in its banks now. Below you can see how it looks today, courtesy of the webcam at Opentopia.com.
If you don’t see anything below, maybe your computer or tablet doesn’t understand Flash. See other viewing options here.
Bach was only 19 in 1704, working at his first church gig (or second, depending on how you count what amounted to lackey toil at Weimar) when a rare opportunity arose.
I’m neither clergyman nor Lutheran, but my understanding of the Lutheran Church Year – the calendar by which Bach effectively lived his work life – is that it begins with Advent, the 4 weeks before Christmas. The calendar’s other major anchor point is Easter, if I can call a floating date an anchor. Easter is the first Sunday after the full moon after the Spring equinox, and that date determines all the dates from Epiphany on.
To account for this movable feast, the Lutheran calendar has a variable number of Sundays after Trinity. Usually it’s between 23 and 26. Only rarely – when Easter falls between the 22nd and 26th of March – does the Lutheran calendar have a 27th Sunday after Trinity. Bach’s rare opportunity to compose a work for Trinity 27 came in 1704. And for that special day, Bach composed – nothing special.
But that shouldn’t be a surprise. It wasn’t in his contract! Bach’s job was playing organ at Arnstadt’s New Church. Yes, he was one of a long line of Bachs who had done that job (and a well paid one it was, despite the church’s feeble budget). But nothing formally or legally compelled him to compose a special large-scale work for the 27th Sunday after Trinity in 1704.
Special large-scale works weren’t part of his job; yet not even a year hence, Bach would feel the sting of rebuke when the church’s elders berated him for not composing enough of them. (Of course, that might have been just piling-on, while they were about chastising him for getting into an altercation with one of the church’s musicians. Remember, Bach was then what we would consider college age.)
Did Bach carry a vivid memory of this verbal caning for over a quarter-century? Is it possible that he simply regretted not having written anything for Trinity 27 in 1704? Could one or both of these be the reason, or reasons, that the cantata he composed at Leipzig in 1731 is such a masterpiece?
Some historians and commentators think Bach put the extra time and effort into Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme simply because Trinity 27 was such a rare event. Maybe. But Bach was an eminently practical musician. Many of his Leipzig cantatas show clear evidence of his compositional short-cuts. Wachet Auf, though, is as finely wrought as anything he could have expected to use year after year, despite the fact that he had only one other chance to use it in his 16 years in Leipzig.
Bach did borrow his chorale melody and part of his text – an entirely normal practice. He got them from Philipp Nicolai’s hymn of the same name. In 1599, when he composed it, Nicolai had just survived a plague epidemic. If that left him feeling especially inspired, that would certainly be understandable!
Nicolai’s work accounts for 3 movements of this symmetrically-structured cantata, including the most famous, the central one. Who wrote the text for the other movements? We don’t know. Picander is one possibility; Bach mined his words for other works. Some scholars even suggest that Bach himself may have been the poet.
Nicolai’s text is the Biblical parable of the bridesmaids awaiting the bridegroom. There’s a visual trick behind this text that Bach, numerologist that he was, surely would have appreciated. Look at the shape of the lines when you center them (first verse only shown):
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,
Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem!
Mitternacht heisst diese Stunde
Sie rufen und mit hellem Munde:
Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen?
Wohl auf, der Bräutgam kömmt;
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt!
Macht euch bereit
Zu der Hochzeit,
Ihr müsset ihm entgegen gehn!
It’s unmistakably the chalice, the symbol of the Eucharist – and in fact in early editions Nicolai’s hymn was printed this very way.
But Nicolai and Bach are not so pious that they miss the chance to connect at a worldly, even earthy, level with their readers and listeners.
For one thing, Nicolai evokes the medieval song form called Aube (morning song) in France and Wächterlied (watchman’s song) in Germany. These are thoroughly secular love poems! The watchman’s role in these songs is to alert the (illicit) lovers to the impending dawn, when they must part to avoid discovery and preserve their reputations – or their lives. In Wachet auf, the watchman’s job is to alert the negligent bridesmaids (the Church) to the approach of the bridegroom (Christ).
But that’s not all. Picander’s (or Bach’s) verses include an ardent love duet (movement 6), and introduce vivid images from the Bible’s fevered, almost erotic Song of Songs.
Here we find "My beloved is like a roe or a young hart" (2:9); Bach says, "The bridegroom comes, like a buck and a young stag." "His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me." (2:6); Bach’s bridegroom tells his bride, "At my left hand you shall rest, and my right hand shall embrace you." The Song of Songs poet writes, "My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies." (2:16) Bach says, "My beloved is mine, and I am his … you shall revel [graze] in Heaven’s roses." We even find watchmen in the Song of Songs: "The watchmen that go about the city found me: to whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?" (3:3)
Even though Bach programmed this cantata no more than twice in his lifetime, today it’s one of his best known and most frequently performed. In fact its central chorale is one of his most oft-played works of any type, with arrangements available for nearly every imaginable instrument, from clarinet to ukulele. You may know that chorale better by its English name: Sleepers, Awake.
Bach: Cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, S140
Donna Brown, soprano; James Taylor, tenor; Michael Volle, bass
Bach Collegium, Stuttgart
Helmut Rilling, conductor
Recorded on 28 November 1998
Movement 1 (chorus)
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Wake up, the voice is calling us
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,
Of the watchmen in the high, high tower;
Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem!
Wake up, you city of Jerusalem!
Mitternacht heißt diese Stunde;
The hour is midnight;
Sie rufen uns mit hellem Munde:
They call to us with ringing voices:
Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen?
Where are you wise virgins?
Wohl auf, der Bräutigam kömmt;
Come on, the bridegroom comes;
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt!
Rise up and take your lamps!
Macht euch bereit
Make yourselves ready
Zu der Hochzeit,
For the wedding,
Ihr müsset ihm entgegen gehn!
You must go to meet him!
Movement 2 (recitative)
Er kommt, er kommt,
He comes, he comes,
Der Bräutgam kommt!
The bridegroom comes!
Ihr Töchter Zions, kommt heraus,
Come forth, you daughters of Zion,
Sein Ausgang eilet aus der Höhe
He rushes forth from the heavens
In euer Mutter Haus.
To your mother’s house.
Der Bräutgam kommt, der einem Rehe
The bridegroom comes, like a buck
Und jungen Hirsche gleich
and a young stag,
Auf denen Hügeln springt
Leaping on the hills
Und euch das Mahl der Hochzeit bringt.
And takes you to the wedding feast.
Wacht auf, ermuntert euch!
Wake up, bestir yourselves!
Den Bräutgam zu empfangen!
To receive the bridegroom!
Dort, sehet, kommt er hergegangen.
There, look, he comes to meet you.
Movement 3 (aria: duet)
Wenn kömmst du, mein Heil?
When are you coming, my salvation?
(Ich komme, dein Teil.)
(I am coming, your share.)
Ich warte mit brennendem Öle.
I am waiting with burning oil.
(Zum himmlischen Mahl.)
(For the heavenly feast.)
(Komm, liebliche Seele!)
(Come, lovely soul!)
Movement 4 (tenor solo or chorus)
Zion hört die Wächter singen,
Zion hears the watchmen singing,
Das Herz tut ihr vor Freuden springen,
Her heart springs for joy,
Sie wachet und steht eilend auf.
She wakes and hurries to rise.
Ihr Freund kommt vom Himmel prächtig,
Her beloved comes from heaven with glory,
Von Gnaden stark, von Wahrheit mächtig,
Strong with grace, mighty with truth,
Ihr Licht wird hell, ihr Stern geht auf.
Her light grows bright, her star rises.
Nun komm, du werte Kron,
Now come, you precious crown,
Herr Jesu, Gottes Sohn!
Lord Jesus, God’s Son!
Wir folgen all
We all follow
To the hall of joy
Und halten mit das Abendmahl.
And take part in the communion.
Movement 5 (recitative)
So geh herein zu mir,
So, come in to me,
Du mir erwählte Braut!
You, my chosen bride!
Ich habe mich mit dir
I have entrusted myself
Von Ewigkeit vertraut.
To you eternally.
Dich will ich auf mein Herz,
I want to set you on my heart
Auf meinen Arm gleich wie ein Siegel setzen
and on my arm, just like a seal,
Und dein betrübtes Aug ergötzen.
And bring pleasure to your troubled eye.
Vergiß, o Seele, nun
Forget now, oh spirit,
Die Angst, den Schmerz,
The fear, the pain,
Den du erdulden müssen;
Which you have had to endure;
Auf meiner Linken sollst du ruhn,
At my left hand you shall rest,
Und meine Rechte soll dich küssen.
And my right shall embrace [kiss] you.
Movement 6 (aria: duet)
Mein Freund ist mein,
My beloved is mine,
Und ich bin sein.
And I am his.
Die Liebe soll nichts scheiden.
Nothing shall separate our love.
I wish to,
in Himmels Rosen weiden,
Revel [graze] in Heaven’s roses,
Da Freude die Fülle, da Wonne wird sein.
There we shall find satiety and bliss. 1
Movement 7 (chorus)
Gloria sei dir gesungen
Gloria be sung to you
Mit Menschen- und englischen Zungen,
With human and angel voices,
Mit Harfen und mit Zimbeln schon.
With harps and cymbals to boot.
Von zwölf Perlen sind die Pforten,
The gates are made of twelve pearls;
An deiner Stadt sind wir Konsorten
In your city we are consorts
Der Engel hoch um deinen Thron.
Of heavenly angels round your throne.
Kein Aug hat je gespürt,
No eye has ever seen,
Kein Ohr hat je gehört
No ear has ever heard
Des sind wir froh,
Thus we are glad,
Ewig in dulci jubilo.
Eternally in sweet rejoicing.2
1Here the poet is indulging in poetic wordplay, with multiple shades of meaning. Weide (n): pasture; weiden (v): graze, pasture, turn out to pasture; revel in something. Füllen (n): foal, colt, or filly; füllen (v): stuff, fill to satiety. A Füllhorn is a horn of plenty.
2 Io is pronounced “ee-yo.” It’s an expression of religious rejoicing from classical Latin. You can also find it in the second verse of the Christmas song Ding Dong Merrily on High: "E’en so here below, below / let steeple bells be swungen, / And i-o, i-o, i-o, / by priest and people sungen."
Translation: David Roden – Creative Commons 3.0 BY/NC/SA
Incipit (cantus part) from Canticum Trium Puerorum (Renato Calcaterra) Click to zoom
Now and again music history gives us personalities whose accomplishments range far and wide, well beyond composition. One such musician is Michael Praetorius. Not only did he leave us a good-sized body of music both sacred and secular, he created a reference volume that generations of early music researchers and performers have found invaluable: Syntagma Musicum, describing performing practice and musical instruments in the late Renaissance era.
Among Praetorius’s many publications of Lutheran church music is the collection Musarum Sioniarum: Motectae et Psalmi Latini. The 34th item in that volume is a setting of a text from the Latin Vulgate Bible.
In the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – also called Ananias, Azarias and Misael – the three men refuse to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, so Nebuchadnezzar has them thrown into a furnace. There, the story goes, they’re protected by an angel. They walk about in the flames, unscathed, praying and singing.
This text has come to be called The Prayer of the Three Holy Children. In the Latin Praetorius used, it’s Canticum Trium Puerorum – the song of the three boys. It’s not clear to me why they’re called boys or children when all of the biblical text refers to them as men, but those seem to be the terms used.
If Bach was the master of number symbolism (more detail here and here), Praetorius excelled at word-painting, at least in this work. Where his text is "bless the lightning and clouds," at "fulgura" (lightning) he zig-zags the music across the voices. At "nubes" (clouds) the music gets softer and darker.
But Praetorius’s best word-painting is the trick he plays on us throughout the entire work.
Praetorius structures Canticum Trium Puerorum as a series of verses and two alternating refrains, on a text which exhorts all of Creation to bless the Lord. In the first verse, two high voices (they would have been the boys of his choir) speak of the angels and heaven.
With each verse, Praetorius adds more voices. By the time he reaches the last lines of the text almost 20 minutes later, all of Creation is indeed singing – or at least all 8 voices in his choir.
Our recording is from 1980 (regrettably, out of print). It was produced by Erato Records of France, with the Audite Nova Chorale of Paris and director Jean Sourisse. The choir is doubled in the refrains by a small cornett and sackbut ensemble. In general, when it comes to Renaissance music, there’s ample evidence to support the use of such doubling. However, some purists might insist that since Praetorius didn’t specify an instrumental ensemble, a pure choral reading would be safer, if you’re going for authenticity.
A reviewer for Gramophone also sniffed that the 38-voice choir was too large for Praetorius. I’ll stay out of this one and let that reviewer work it out with Praetorius, should they ever meet. I will say, though, that I suspect that reviewer would wax apoplectic if he heard Erato’s earlier recording of this work.
That older performance was my own introduction to Canticum Trium Puerorum, back when I was little more than a pup, musically speaking. This was long before the historically informed performance movement had made any real inroads, and it made no claims whatsoever to authenticity. Praetorius’s modest notes were sung by a massive 500-voice choir, doubled in the refrains by a blaring modern brass band (the Paris Police Force brass ensemble, if you can imagine that). It produced the sort of effect that, as the recording’s annotator pointed out, Praetorius could only have dreamed of.
That recording was distributed in the US over a half-century ago under the Westminster label, and later by Musical Heritage Society. It’s many years out of print. We’ll just have to make do with 38 voices.
Latin text to Canticum Trium Puerorum From the Vulgate Bible (Daniel 3)
Bach was only 22 when he landed his third church job, as organist of St Blasius in the city of Muehlhausen. His audition was on Easter Sunday of 1707 – imagine the stress! – and there’s a good chance that his audition piece was this very cantata.
If so, it was a good choice. The Muehlhausen city council met a month later and no one even discussed any other musician. His second interview was on the 14th of June. The very next day, Bach signed his contract.
For this cantata, Bach used a text by Martin Luther. Unlike some of his later Easter Sunday works, it’s not a bright, joyous piece – but it’s not by any means dark. It’s celebratory, all right, but in a reserved, pensive way.
Bach opens with the chorus, the sopranos carrying the melody and the violins adding florid decorations. He keeps the mood relatively somber until the text says "des wir sollen fröhlich sein" ("thus we should be joyful"). Finally, then, he starts to open things up.
Bach was both a sensitive musician and a devout one: he wrote the letters SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, or glory only to God) at the end of every sacred manuscript. Thus he didn’t hesitate to use word-painting to illuminate the religious meaning of this cantata. He writes scales around "Menschenkinder" and "Tod," ("mankind" and "death") and assigns strong chords to the words "Recht" ("rule") and "Gewalt" ("power"). He paints the phrase "Tods Gestalt" ("death’s empty shell") in a dim, hazy light. His voices chase each other as "Tod und Leben ringen" ("death and life battled"), and "ein Tod den andern fraß" ("one death ate the other").
Then Bach drives home his point. A low part for the bass and a surprisingly dissonant orchestral part represent the Passion – and then rising scales in the violins symbolize the Resurrection. He ends with an elegantly direct setting of the gospel lesson for the day, "Christus will die Koste sein" ("Christ will be the sustenance").
Bach must have thought this cantata was effective, because he didn’t let it gather library dust forever. In his harried, overworked Leipzig days, he revived it not once, but twice – for Easter Sunday of 1724, and again on Easter of 1725.
2. Coro [Versus I]
Christ lag in Todesbanden
Für unsre Sünd gegeben,
Er ist wieder erstanden
Und hat uns bracht das Leben;
Des wir sollen fröhlich sein,
Gott loben und ihm dankbar sein
Und singen halleluja,
2. Chorus [Verse 1]
Christ lay in the bonds of death,
For our sin was given;
He is risen again
And has brought us life;
Thus we should be joyful,
Praise God and be thankful to Him
And sing hallelujah,
3. Duetto [Versus II]
Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt
Bei allen Menschenkindern,
Das macht alles unsre Sünd,
Kein Unschuld war zu finden.
Davon kam der Tod so bald
Und nahm über uns Gewalt,
Hielt uns in seinem Reich gefangen.
3. Duet [Verse 2]
Death could capture no one
Among all mankind;
[But] As a result of our sin,
There was no innocence to be found.
Thereby death quickly came,
And seized power over us,
Held us captive in his kingdom.
4. Aria [Versus III]
Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn,
An unser Statt ist kommen
Und hat die Sünde weggetan,
Damit dem Tod genommen
All sein Recht und sein Gewalt;
Da bleibet nichts denn Tods Gestalt,
Den Stachel hat er verloren,
4. Aria [Verse 3]
Jesus Christ, God’s own Son,
Has come to our abode
And has cleared away the sins,
Thereby from death is taken
All his rule and all his power;
Here nothing remains but death’s shell,
He has lost his sting.
5. Coro [Versus IV]
Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg,
Da Tod und Leben rungen,
Das Leben behielt den Sieg,
Es hat den Tod verschlungen.
Die Schrift hat verkündigt das,
Wie ein Tod den andern fraß,
Ein Spott aus dem Tod ist worden.
5. Chorus [Verse 4]
It was a wondrous struggle,
When death and life battled;
Life seized the victory,
It has devoured death.
The Scripture has proclaimed,
How one death ate another;
Death has been made a mockery.
6. Aria [Versus V]
Hie ist das rechte Osterlamm,
Davon Gott hat geboten,
Das ist hoch an des Kreuzes Stamm
In heißer Lieb gebraten,
Das Blut zeichnet unser Tür,
Das hält der Glaub dem Tode für,
Der Würger kann uns nicht mehr schaden.
6. Aria [Verse 5]
Here is the true Easter lamb,
Of which God has commanded;
It is high on the cross’s trunk
Burning in ardent love;
The blood makes a sign on our door,
That the faith regards as death,
The murderer can no longer harm us.
7. Aria (Duetto) [Versus VI]
So feiren wir das hohe Fest
Mit Herzensfreud und Wonne,
Das uns der Herr erscheinen läßt,
Er ist selber die Sonne,
Der durch seiner Gnaden Glanz
Erleuchtet unsre Herzen ganz,
Der Sünden Nacht ist verschwunden.
7. Aria (Duet) [Verse 6]
So let us celebrate
With heartfelt joy and pleasure
the high feast the Lord lays before us;
He is himself the sun,
And through His graceful brilliance,
He fully illuminates our hearts;
The sin-filled night has vanished.
8. Choral [Versus VII]
Wir essen und leben wohl
In rechten Osterfladen,
Der alte Sauerteig nicht soll
Sein bei dem Wort der Gnaden,
Christus will die Koste sein
Und speisen die Seel allein,
Der Glaub will keins andern leben.
8. Chorale [Verse 7]
We eat and thrive
On this true Easter wafer;
The old leavening shall not
Remain in the grace of the Word;
Christ will be the sustenance
And feed the soul alone,
Faith will live on nothing else.
Well Tempered Clavier Title Page (Wikimedia Commons)
Well-Tempered Clavier. What kind of a title is that, anyway? If you have a vague idea that it has something to do with how good the clavier (whatever that is) sounds, you’re cruising round the right neighborhood.
The musical octave – from C to C on the piano keyboard, for example – is a basic building block of music. Within the octave, there are certain intervals – the difference in pitch between one note and another – that have given us the fundamental sounds of Western music since the Middle Ages. These include the fifth and the third.
But here’s the problem: these intervals don’t quite come out even with the octave. To put it another way, the intervals that make an octave sound good and true and right to our ears aren’t compatible with the pitch intervals that make for a velvet-smooth third or a sweet, consonant, glorious fifth.
Suppose you have an instrument with the 7+ octave compass (range of pitches) of a modern piano, but where the pitch of each note is completely under your control. (One candidate that comes immediately to mind is the Theremin, one of the earliest electronic instruments. You can hear a Theremin in, of all things, the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations.)
Play your instrument’s lowest note. Now, play 12 ascending perfect fifths. When you get to the last note, it should be exactly 7 octaves above the first note. (Count ‘em for yourself.)
But it isn’t! It turns out that when you play 12 consonant perfect fifths, the last note overshoots 7 octaves by just a little. Not a lot – not even a half step – but enough to be noticeable.
Herein lies the reason for temperament. Temperament systems cram fifths and thirds into a mathematically perfect octave by main force – by making the thirds and fifths something less than perfect. It’s kind of like the calendar, where some months have 30 days, some have 31, and one has 28 – or, some years, 29. The tweaked intervals won’t sound quite as rich, quite as right, but the octaves will come out even.
The obvious way to do this is to simply make all 12 notes of the octave evenly spaced. This is called equal temperament. It was probably the first temperament system invented, and it’s still used today. In fact, that’s the way the modern piano is tuned, which is why you couldn’t do this experiment on a piano.
Equal temperament may have been the first solution to the problem, but it was far from the last. Quite a few musicians just didn’t care for the way it sounded, so they made up their own temperaments, different ways of distributing the error round the octave, adding a little here, subtracting a little there. Usually, they managed to make thirds and fifths sound close to perfect in some (not all) of the possible key signatures. The tuning systems they devised are generically called mean-tone systems.
In mean-tone systems, the varying distances between notes of the scale meant that different keys had different musical characteristics. C major might be (and was) described as the key of joy and sunlight. D major was called the key of triumph. G minor was the key of darkness and despair. For example, Mozart’s powerful 40th and 25th symphonies are written in G minor.
Into this minefield of different tunings steps Bach (if it isn’t too much of a nonsequitur for me to bring him in after Mozart).
I’m no Bach scholar, but everything I’ve read about him suggests a man almost obsessed with numbers and mathematics. For Bach, numbers had deep spiritual meanings. He attached significance to the numeric intervals in a fugue’s subject, its length in number of notes, the number of measures between entrances, and much more. Some musicologists have built their entire careers (or at least their master’s theses) on unearthing and divining the meaning of these arcane relationships.
Now, Bach’s life was music. For him, this flaw in his world must have been an endless source of frustration. But his answer wasn’t equal temperament; that’s not what the Well-Tempered Clavier was about. Nor was Bach showing off some new system of temperament he’d invented.
Rather, the Well-Tempered Clavier was Bach’s argument for a tuning system – someone else’s invention – that he called "well temperament."
Remember what I said above: mean-tone systems make different key signatures sound different. They make some keys sound better – more in tune, with those nearly-perfect thirds and fifths – and some worse. Most keyboard players and composers dealt with this by simply avoiding the keys that didn’t sound good to them.
Bach threw that practice back in their faces. The Well-Tempered Clavier comprises two books of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys. The keyboard player who bought a copy, but insisted on sticking with mean-tone tuning, would have only two choices. He could either put up with certain intervals being out of tune in the more remote keys (the ones with lots of sharps and flats), or else just not play those pieces.
The question is, how did Bach tune his harpsichords? Exactly what is this tuning system he promoted, the one he called "well-tempered," giving it the name we still use today?
The sad fact is, we don’t really know for sure. (We do know, though, that no one else could tune a harpsichord to his satisfaction.)
However, we can guess at a few candidates. The one most often suggested is a system invented in 1691 by organist Andreas Werckmeister, which Werckmeister said was for the "chromatic genius." You could say that Werckmeister’s system is a compromise between mean-tone and equal temperament. It preserves much of the distinctive character of the different keys, but makes all 24 major and minor keys – and all of Bach’s WTC preludes and fugues – playable.
Bach made his point. In the end, though, he lost – not to the mean-tone mavens, but to equal temperament. Today, few harpsichordists and pianists routinely tune their instruments in any system Bach would say was "well-tempered." Ironically, the simplest and most direct answer to the problem won out. For today’s keyboard instruments, equal temperament is nearly universal, even among musicians who otherwise embrace the principles of historically informed performance.
Before I close, one last thought about the Well-Tempered Clavier. What’s a "clavier"? Is that a clavichord, as in Well-Tempered Clavichord, the title you used to see on recordings many years ago? Well, it can be, but it’s not just that. Clavier means keyboard – that is, the part of the instrument your fingers actually play. Bach simply intended the WTC for any instrument that has a keyboard. You can find modern recordings of the WTC played on the the harpsichord, the organ, the piano, and – yes – even the clavichord.