Rediscovering Bach’s Prelude in C

The C major Prelude from Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C (Book 1 of the WTC) is very familiar to us all. This beautiful progression of harmony in broken chord texture continues to inspire generations of keyboard players.

Here it is as a chorale. Play it first as solid chords – faster than Bach’s broken patterns allow – to get a stronger sense of the progression in this pure form.

Bach's Prelude in C as a chorale

If you’re uncertain how to play this Prelude expressively, all you have to do is feel the rising and falling levels of intensity implied by the harmonic progression. This map from Siglind Bruhn’s analysis of the work is a useful guide.


For those who have a knack for improvisation, see what you can make from these harmonies. French Romantic composer Charles Gounod’s Ave Maria consists of a melody especially designed to be superimposed over the Prelude – and very beautiful it is too! Perhaps you can come up with something of your own?

Here is Rami Bar-Niv’s inventive and amusing Etude-Vocalise on the C major Prelude:


I am working with an especially talented and ambitious young student who, if he is going to readily assimilate the mainstream repertoire he is destined to play, needs to develop his harmonic awareness as well as general musicianly skills at this stage of his development. Part of the work we are doing is transposition – a skill I wish my own teachers had stressed more, and one that I feel is indispensable to aural training, general musicianship and as a specific pianistic tool for memory work and solving technical problems. I tend to push this with those who are capable of, and willing to embrace it. Not everyone is, but this particular student has found he was able, with practice, to transpose the C major Prelude into every key from memory.

If you want to develop your transposition skills, why not have a go? Begin with one or two keys and as you gain in confidence gradually make your way around the Circle of Fifths, or move up or down chromatically. If you feel this piece is too difficult, begin with something easier – a piece you know very well and can play securely from memory. Transposition is like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger it gets. Spend a few minutes every day and you’ll improve, I guarantee. You’ll also begin to feel the benefits.

For more on using transposition in practice, follow this link to my blog post Memory Tips: Transposition

Memory Work

When we play anything without the score we are combining at least three different types of memory – muscular, aural and analytic. (Some players are lucky enough to have a photographic memory – I certainly don’t, and I am not so sure this can be developed.)

When we are alone in our cosy, comfortable surroundings muscular memory is our best friend. However, as soon as we’re under any sort of pressure (and that could be just one person listening to us) it can abandon us and leave us floundering for the notes. This is why a piece destined to be performed from memory cannot be based solely on easy-come-easy-go muscular memory. It needs ongoing memory work from the note learning stage, not just once the piece has been learned with the score in front of us as we practise. Muscular memory is developed during routine practice, but aural and analytic memory can so easily get neglected here.

For information on how to memorise effectively, follow this link to my blogpost Tools for Memorisation

Supposing we have already learned the C major Prelude using the score, and want to find out how well we really know it. Are there ways to test whether the piece is only in our finger memory, or whether our ear and our mind are helping out too?


If you want to make absolutely sure your ear and your mind are part of the process, rather than your fingers alone, you can do no better than try out the inventive patterns found in the footnotes of the Busoni edition and play the Prelude (from memory, of course) in some interesting and unusual ways. These ways will interfere with your muscle memory and show you how well you really know the score. While I wouldn’t recommend you learn from this edition (it’s highly edited, in a very personal way), it is of great historical interest and it does make a fascinating supplement to a standard Urtext edition.

Bach-Busoni- Well-Tempered Clavichord (1894) cover

WARNING: the following suggestions are likely to challenge you – but your efforts will be amply repaid!

1. One Hand after the Other

It is possible to play Bach’s note patterns in this Prelude with one hand, provided you are content to ignore the held notes and produce a single line for the purposes of this exercise. If you absolutely must hear harmony, you can of course use the pedal (something I personally do not recommend in the finished product). Play the first half of each bar with the RH, reproducing the exact same notes with the LH in the second half of the bar. Aim to make the LH sound just as good as the RH, if not better. Experience the dialogue between the two hands as one copies the other, in a way the original would probably not inspire you so to do.

busoni 2

2. Hand Crossing

Busoni’s next rearrangement is a study in the lightest staccato (imitating a violinist’s springing bow). He suggests this would be good preparation for the 4th of Liszt’s Paganini Etudes, but we are using this as a way of seeing the music from a new and different angle. In addition to making you see Bach’s broken chord patterns in a new light, the crossing LH brings a catchy rhythmic emphasis. Stems down = LH; stems up = RH.

busoni 3

3. Interlocking Hands

Now play two by two – two notes in one hand followed by two notes in the other. This will certainly challenge your coordination. Busoni calls for an energetic staccato and absolute evenness between the hands. Try it legato too.

busoni 1

I can also recommend Paul Wittgenstein‘s left hand version of the Prelude, which of course relies on the pedal to sustain the harmony. The score is available in Part 3 (Transcriptions) of his School for the Left Hand.

When you return to Bach’s original not only will you have a deeper appreciation for the way he wrote it, but also a stronger impression of the notes and the structure from having experienced it in these different ways. Apply this same thinking to other pieces or passages you want to learn more deeply, for greater appreciation and security in performance. It won’t necessarily work out as neatly as the C major Prelude but you’ll be able to tinker thus with melodic (or any other) lines, harmonic progressions and background textures. Next time you’re stuck for ways to practise, try this! Your time will flash by.

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