WTC Book 1 III

Hi all,
I have a question regarding one of the most all time played preludes and fugues from Bach’s WTC book 1 #3 prelude and fugue.

The question is: how hard is this piece?
I must admit I have never tried to play it-partly because it looks os intimidating with so many sharps!
But, I have read from a number of people that having everything sharp actually makes for the easiest and most natural hand position on the keyboard.
Any opinions? I’ll bet that every one of you have played this piece!

I haven’t! I’m like you, Tom; when I see too many sharps or flats I tend to pass, perhaps unnecessarily. So I’ll be curious to see what people say.

The difficulty of a piece can’t be intrinsic to the piece. Surely this is purely a matter of personal musical development. Personally I find it easy. But I feel that says precisely nothing. As for the idea that all sharps is the easiest hand position, tosh. If that were the case, all children’s pieces would be in C#, but they are all in C. Sorry, but I think that’s ridiculous. [Maybe this will actually generate some traffic on the list! :slight_smile: ]

I do seem to recall that there is an earlier version of this piece in C major, so JSB just transposed it for WTC. But I cant bring the evidence to hand just right now.

The difficulty of a piece can’t be intrinsic to the piece. Surely this
is purely a matter of personal musical development.

You mean that some pieces are not more difficult that others? That
doesn’t sound right.

As for the idea that all
sharps is the easiest hand position, tosh. If that were the case, all
children’s pieces would be in C#, but they are all in C.

I disagree. C major has to be drilled first into all (classically)
trained musicians. That’s because it’s the foundation of our key
structure. Teaching something else first would permanently warp the student.

Also, teaching anything else first seriously complicates the learning of

There are many reports of self-taught pianists, or at least pianists who
didn’t read music, who much prefer black keys. Irving Berlin, famously,
had a trnasposing piano built so that he could play everything in F#
major. Lots of jazz player have preferred black keys as well.

I can vouch from my own experience that playing organ pedal in black
keys is much easier than C major, but fingers are mechanically somewhat
different, so this might be only of marginal relevance.


It’s like weird clefs. We all know how to learn them - by playing them.
So, passing by pieces with exotic key signatures perpetuates a vicious

Yeah, I do it too…

Keys with many sharps or b’s are often considered to be “easier for playing scales.” This idea would be based on modern thumb-under scale fingerings, of course, and it’s more of an issue on the modern piano keyboard when playing with (relatively) straight fingers. I’ve found that for me (who was trained on the harpsichord from day one and play with fairly curved fingers), modern-fingering all-naturals scales don’t tend to be too much of an issue. On the other hand (ha!) sometimes some chord positions are difficult for me because I can’t get my fat fingers between the sharps safely. That problem seems to occur rather randomly with regard to the overall key of a piece.

Talking about this particular Prelude-Fugue I believe that the act of reading through the thing, while perhaps translating one’s inner mental agony into some equivalently labored technical movements, could initially result in an extra uncomfortable sensation. To get over this is a matter of taking it slowly at first, learning to think ahead, learning to memorize the movements in difficult spots, and trying to find technical solutions that don’t feel tense or contorted.

The question “how hard is a piece” is impossible to answer, as technical difficulties are personal, including possible difficulties when deciphering a score jampacked with crosses. That said, it can be helpful to ask oneself “what skill set does this piece help to develop?” and compare the answer with what one already knows and is able to do on the keyboard.
The beginning of the Prelude is surely less about reading skills than about regularity, for example. There are 24 bars with two chords each which can be learned even if you can’t read the double sharps. But finding some convincing phrasing, or developing a well-sounding touch and some regularity in this section of the piece could easily be a thing that’s much harder for one person than for the next.
The rest of the Prelude as well as the Fugue is pretty much about whether you’ll be able to keep the polyphony in your head, whether your left-hand sixteenths are as nimble as the ones in your right hand, whether you’ll be able to clearly enunciate the difference between sixteenths and thirty-seconds in the fugue, and similar issues.
The reading (which – for full disclosure – occasionally makes pieces like this one less attractive to work on for me, who isn’t that great a sight-reader) is just one other thing to be added to the list-of-things-to-do to learn the piece, but it’s not inherently making it easier or harder in terms of playing technique. Once the notes are sorted out, this particular piece will be just as difficult to play as any other piece with the same number of voices, basic tempo and percentage of tricky spots.

Helpful ideas and clearly expressed – thank you, Tilman.

Then again, we can assume that when Carl Philipp wasn’t able to sight read these pieces, Papa Bach got very cross with him.



I wrote earlier:

As those people who perhaps re-counted the bars will have noticed, I was confusing WTC I and II. The idea that the Prelude is basically made up of a number of chords rather than of a much larger number of individually-to-be-read notes remains of course unchanged, even when looking at book I.