|43 Bach's Well-Tempered Scale 1722
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH wrote in every known musical genre except opera. But it was a collection of keyboard pieces, written when the German composer was 37, that marked a watershed in Western music. By publishing Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, with a prelude and fugue in each of the 12 major and 12 minor keys, Bach threw the weight of his genius behind what eventually became equal temperament, the dividing up of the scale into 12 equal semitones. Bach's system enabled musicians to explore the full harmonic range of the keyboard. Until then they had been restricted to a limited number of keys in order that important intervals, such as the third and the fifth, could stay perfectly in tune.
Bach was not the first to rework the keyboard's possibilities, but he did it best: His music is gorgeous. And even though he never wrote for the piano, he opened the door to the rich tapestry of sound we associate with that instrument. By the 19th century it was a dominant force in Western music and an essential element of evening entertainment in living rooms across Europe and America. The stage was set for the pyrotechnics of Chopin and Liszt, for the crashing fortissimos and feather-soft pianissimos of Tchaikovsky--and for millions of humbler piano recitals.
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