Stepping into JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier

Three hundred years after their first publication, the 48 preludes & fugues of JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier are as important, fascinating and demanding as ever – every aspiring pianist should know at least a few!

We’re delighted to announce our new project on the Online Academy, Step into ‘The 48’ in which Beate Toyka discusses and plays each of the works, giving insider tips on interpretation and technique starting with the easier works and ending with the most difficult. In this week’s guest post, Beate shares her thoughts on her project and approach to grading the works.


Recording a collection as vast and significant as Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is both a daunting and rewarding undertaking. Finding a grading in terms of the playability of each of the works grew naturally out of this process. Of course all the pieces have their own beauty and character, whether ‘easy’ (what is EVER easy?) or ‘difficult’. For years I have been asking pianist friends, colleagues and players which pieces they have started with, studied and played and why or for what occasion. I was always interested to learn their choice of pieces given to their students at their level.

Manuscript from JS Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier
Autograph manuscript of Prelude No. 1 from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1

A wonderful friend, now sadly no longer with us, was Phyllis Palmer – a pianist and teacher in Cambridge. She played a prelude and fugue every day of her playing life and often included them in her concert programmes. I still have her annotations in my index (“a good starter fugue”, “good beginning prelude but beware of the fugue”!). I have such gratitude for her insights and example.

Grading the 48 preludes & fugues

So when I realised that their 300th birthday was due in 2022, I decided to record the complete set. Rather than doing just a performance of each work, I decided to do this with my teacher’s eye and offer encouragement to others.

Phyllis’s annotations, my own experiences and examples of other people’s listings then prompted me to devise my own grading and build up the recordings and associated material accordingly. For the purposes of my system, I decided on levels 1-8 based on the following criteria:

  • Ease / Difficulty of key
  • Complexity of texture especially in fugues
  • Rhythmic complexity
  • Length
  • Speed
  • Character and interpretation challenges

A listing of my gradings for the complete collection can be downloaded here.

The first installment

I will be publishing these videos in a series of instalments, starting with the following works:

  1. Prelude & Fugue in E Major (Book 1), BWV 854
  2. Prelude & Fugue in D Minor (Book 2), BWV 875
  3. Prelude & Fugue in D Major (Book 1), BWV 850
  4. Prelude & Fugue in C Minor (Book 1), BWV 847
First work from Step into 'The 48' - a guide to JS Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier
Screenshot from the first work featured in Step into ‘The 48’

A little disclaimer is that this very first of this set is NOT the easiest but falls under the ‘easier’ category. I have chosen it as an opener of the series because I particularly love its key and character. It is then followed by the D minor set of Book 2, widely recognised as a good ‘starter’ work.

This is an ongoing personal journey for me which combines my love of performance and teaching and I hope you enjoy sharing it!


The first installment in Beate’s Step into ‘The 48’ is now available on the Online Academy. Click here to view the introductory video for the series and an index of the available works.

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