I know JS Bach's Well-Tempered Claviers (Books I & II) very well — on account of obsessively listening to one song at a time for hours on end. (See picture below.)

well-tempered claviers

Lately I've noticed that (JS) Bach also wrote easier preludes (see picture below), ones accessible to an RCM level 4-6 student, whereas all the WTCs are at RCM levels 8-9. Those easier ones are often labeled (unofficially, i.e. neither by Bach himself nor by his transcribers) the "little" preludes. (Aside, the "little" description is unfortunate, because it means that less than very secure concert pianists might forego listing them on their programs.)

js-bach little preludes and fugues

But then (JS) Bach also wrote the frighteningly beautiful Prelude and Fugue in A minor BWV 543 (for organ), a composition that Liszt somehow managed to turn into something even more profound. The BWV 843-848 are labeled (by whom?) the great preludes/fugues.

bach-liszt piano transcriptions

Do WTC, "little", and "great" constitute a partition of Bach's preludes?

  • You mentioned the fact that these labels are "unofficial." One can of course create any unofficial personal categorization that one chooses. I imagine your real question is "Do others use these labels, and are there any others?" Note, Bach didn't categorize them like this, and I'm guessing that outside of the BWV indexing, there isn't enough perceived need to sort all the preludes. Commented Jun 20 at 13:58
  • @AndyBonner By "unofficial" I meant that neither JS Bach (or his kids) nor his transcribers used these names. Still, these names seem to be more or less firmly attached, if perhaps as a way to distinguish them from the WTC. I'm here only interested in JS Bach, not in any other composers. By "classification" I just mean a subdivision into non-overlapping subsets, but ones that provide full coverage (as we would use in math).
    – Sam7919
    Commented Jun 20 at 14:07
  • I've only heard of "little" fugues by Bach, not preludes.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Jun 20 at 14:17

1 Answer 1


...Do WTC, "little", and "great" constitute a partition of Bach's preludes?

You linked to a math page.

I suppose it depends on how someone groups the preludes whether it fits the mathematical definition. Personally, I could group the WTC preludes into categories or "little" and "great", meaning categories would overlap, and that would not fit the definition of a partition of a set.

If you want some kind of classification of Bach's keyboard works, which is based on Bach's own sensibilities, rather than an editor, probably the best thing to do is group certain works as pedagogical generally, or by the specific notebook/collection Bach group his works within. You could also group some by patron.

The "little" preludes were part of the collection of works in the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Certain works from the WTC were also part of that notebook, which was compiled as a lesson book. You can call these "little" works, if you like, but I think the important point is they were teaching examples.

For patron grouping I'm thinking of works written to fulfill his specific Church duties, or for other functions like concerts at Café Zimmermann, or the Brandenburg Concertos for the court. These works may be more or less "great", but they certainly were not teaching examples. In the case of a work like The Musical Offering, dedicated to Frederick the Great, it seems clear enough it was meant to impress.

If you group Bach's works into "little" and "great", it's ultimately a subjective choice. But if you group works by their origin/purpose, you get a classification better connected to Bach's intentions.

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