Those in the know among our readers will be aware that wandering through the music world like a ghost is an extra measure at the famous opening of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier I. It goes by the name of ‘Schwencke measure’. The Henle Urtext edition of the work contains 35 measures; with the ‘Schwencke measure’ the piece has 36 measures. If the extra measure were actually to be included in the prelude – and that is to be discussed – it would have to be between measures 22 and 23:

Browsing the Internet a bit, we can confirm that indeed this fateful insertion is still causing confusion. Various editions are compared in discussion forums, sometimes featuring the measure, sometimes not. And many a one poses the legitimate question: ‘Bach or not Bach here?

Ever since the appearance of the ‘New Edition of All the Works’, the source situation for the Well-Tempered Clavier has been clearly explained. The most important source for the music text is the autograph where at various stages Bach himself entered corrections. Consequently, it transmits the authoritative form. The autograph of the C-major Prelude consisting of 35 measures thus gets along without the ‘Schwencke measure’.

Bach’s autograph was, however, repeatedly copied. These copies then served again as models for other copies so that an extensive network of manuscripts has been preserved; some of these go back to Bach’s autograph directly, some in a roundabout way. One of the copyists was the Hamburg music director Christian Friedrich Gottlieb Schwencke (1767–1822). He made a manuscript of the Well-Tempered Clavier I that can be traced back to the autograph only by way of several presently lost intermediate stages. Showing up for the first time in this copy of Schwencke’s is the measure that has become so notorious.

Whether Schwencke himself added the measure or whether it was already there in one of the lost models can no longer be determined. More important perhaps is the question of how this idea of lengthening the prelude could have come up at all.  Is something missing in Bach’s autograph?

Well, the piece is almost entirely subdivided into regular groups of four measures each. Though only just. One more measure – and the regularity would be perfect! So Schwencke had the feeling that the three measures, 21–23, had to be expanded into four, especially since the harmonic progression from m. 22 is in effect abrupt and audacious after m. 23. Schwencke must have thought that inadvertently this measure had gone astray in transmission and so he added it in the music text. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Bach intended the irregularity and compression of measures 21–23; the definiteness of the source situation is not to be shaken.

Hermann Keller writes in his little book about the Well-Tempered Clavier: ‘Schwencke was a sophisticated and well-informed musician who was probably not thinking of improving Bach’ (Hermann Keller, Das Wohltemperierte Klavier von Johann Sebastian Bach, Kassel, etc.: Bärenreiter, 1965, S. 40). But that obviously was just the case. The supposed improvement found its way into print in the Well-Tempered Clavier; the ‘Schwencke measure’ has gradually managed to worm its way into the transmission history.

It began in the Bonn publishing house of Simrock (1801 or 1802) with the edition whose editor was probably Schwencke himself. The measure also showed up in the Peters edition of 1837 by Carl Czerny. To be sure, in other editions of the 19th century the provenance of the phantom measure was at times put right. But the big success of the Czerny edition – which today is also available again through Internet portals such as the ‘Petrucci Music Library’ – ensured that the ‘Schwencke measure’ found wide distribution. Unhelpful in this connection was Charles Gounod’s Méditation ‘Ave Maria’. This perennial top-seller from the 1850s quoted the Bach prelude of the Czerny edition and saw to it that the ‘Schwencke measure’ was adopted into the collective cultural memory.

Thus, the ‘Schwencke measure’ stubbornly survives right up to our day. Our Urtext edition of the prelude clearly presents the facts:

The footnote asterisk between mm. 22 and 23 refers to the following comment:

In 1783, the copyist Schwencke added after M 22 a measure based on the bass note G, which was adopted by many editions. This supplementary measure is not authentic.

For this reason no one need be seriously on the lookout for the lost measure!

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22 Responses to »On the lookout for the lost measure: Bach’s C-major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier I«

  1. Mark St John says:

    Today while playing the Prelude from a collection of pieces I discovered the jarring and horrible sounding measure. It is discordant, but not in a good way and does not fit at all, in my very unprofessional opinion.

  2. Tobias Ray says:

    Certainly, when playing the progression inserting the ‘Schwencke measure’, the progression does sound odd and to my ears at least, it breaks the building of the tension towards the (standard) bar 24.

  3. Peter Barber says:

    For me the ‘Schwencke measure’ is a necessary step in the musical thought of the C major prelude. Omitting it seems to me like the censorship of the crux of the chord progression, like erasing a term in a mathematical equation, like a gap in the breaking of a musical wave. One could say that it is so obviously a part of things, that Maestro Bach could leave it out, knowing that a like mind would know what to do.

    For me his oevre is like the collected stories of a traveller who journeys in foreign climes and comes back to tell us about what he has seen there. I’m sure he doodled around on this riff, and that the Autograph is one possiblity, one of several versions that he tried and liked.

  4. Thomas I. Ellis says:

    I can see Peter Barber’s point about the need for the “Schwenke measure” to fill in an apparent hiatus in the harmonic progression of the original. Gounod obviously thought so as well, for he included it in his Ave Maria setting. But all this begs an interesting, and perhaps unanswerable question: Did Bach leave this measure out intentionally, or inadvertently? Obviously, we may never know.

    But to my ear, Bach knew exactly what he was doing–the gap is a musical curve ball (like those of so many other geniuses) right at the logical and emotional climax of the piece–the part, incidentally, where the (devoutly Catholic) Gounod passionately appeals to “Maria” twice, prior to the “Ora Pro Nobis” descending cadence. Perhaps Bach, for his own purposes, was deliberately skipping over this (fairly obvious) climax, as yet another sleight of hand, a kind of ironic “this is not what it is” moment…a musical tweak of a kind that Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven use routinely in their works as well.

  5. Stefan says:

    To me, the Schwencke measure really does not belong in the original Prelude in C, but I can see how it made sense in the context of Ave Maria. The extra dissonance as “Maria” is being called (wailed?) out once again works in Ave Maria, but is a bit too jarring to me in Prelude in C.

    While “groups of four” measures are used often, that pattern is broken early on in Prelude in C with a progression triplet at measures 9 through 11, inclusive. With that early offset in mind, and without self-assured pontification, the progression makes more “mathematical” sense to me without the Schwencke measure. Starting at measure 20, where the music really takes a turn, the progressions come in even numbers again up to the climax and beyond. Though, I suppose one could argue that another odd-numbered progression is needed for balance… The entire musical sequence from bar 20 and onward is not very obvious and open to interpretation, it seems.

    With respect to the other opinions expressed, the climax of Ave Maria to me is measure 30 (29 in Prelude) when the vocals are at their highest. The type of resolution in that bar is also quite unique compared to the other progressions. To my ear, there are about 10 measures of almost pure dissonance leading up to that resolution, with a “false” climax a few measures before.

    No matter what the interpretation is, Prelude in C is fantastic. Using every note of the octave in this opening piece is a neat way to begin a much larger collection that is written in every key.

  6. Phil Edwards says:

    I don’t think it matters one way or the other.

    Who cares? Play it one way one time, and the other way the next time.

    Don’t hit any wrong notes, though. That’s what’s really bad.

  7. Waldemar says:

    I had never heard of the Schwencke measure untill the moment I played this praludium in C on guitar and I asked my wife to sing (Gounod’s ) Ave Maria.
    So each time after measure 22 we had a problem. I like the version without the Schwencke measure as much as the Bach/Gounod Version.

    • johannes de Korver says:

      The ” Gounod version ” was identical to the original Bach version !
      The original Gounod used a French poem.
      After the disapproval of this poem Gounod had to deal with a longer
      version because of the longer text of the Ave Maria.
      So because he needed space he extended it to the later version !

  8. David says:

    I just learned the piece a few days ago and memorized it since I had heard it many times but never took the time to play it. I happen to have the version that has the extra measure and thinking it was legit began commenting on YouTube videos on how everyone was playing it “wrong”, lol. Actually found some played with the extra measure but the majority without it. After repeatedly playing the piece with and without the measure I’ve come to like it without. While it sounds fine going into measure 23, it sounds quite weird after measure 22.

  9. Phil Edwards says:

    Schwencke was a student of and collaborator with Bach’s son, Carl Phillipp Emanuel Bach. This fact lends some credence to, if not the authenticity, then at least the appropriateness of the included measure. Harmonically it is a minor major seventh. I include it when I play the prelude. I bet that Bach would not have minded it.

  10. Jeppe Loshak says:

    I do agree with Phil Edwards – and i could add a question to this type of debate: Why is the scene of classical music so dominated by musical fundamentalists? You are only killing it with all these false claims to authenticity. Music is not for museums, it has to live in the present moment – that is what makes it classical in the true sense. In my opinion serious musicians must always make their own interpretation of classical work – also if that means changing elements like bars, harmony, rhythm etc.

    • Kevin Traynor says:

      Refreshing. Thank you.

    • Rob Haskins says:

      I agree with Jeppe that some efforts to introduce what is called incorrectly “authenticity” is really unhelpful (clipped tempos, little to no phrasing, no rubato). But thinking about the extra measure and why it’s omitted in Bach’s manuscripts (as well as the 1755 copy by his son-in-law Altnikol) gets us to thinking how Bach is dealing with the voice-leading in this piece, which is to say his thinking as a composer (see my hypothesis in a separate comment below). It’s worth noting that in the W. F. Bach Clavierbüchlein, mm. 22–23 aren’t there at all. The next measure after m. 21 is a simple II6/5 chord, and after that the present m. 24. So it does seem to me that Bach was thinking about that passage when he wrote what he finally wrote; he certainly made it far more striking, which is why he’s Bach and we’re not.

  11. Johan-Martijn Flaton says:

    Noting that one of the greatest composers of any time was also a master of interpretation and improvisation, I couldn’t agree more with Phil and Jeppe.

  12. Rob Haskins says:

    I’ve been studying this prelude as a homework assignment for private lessons in Schenkerian analysis. I’m not sure, but I think the extra measure was meant to soften the two dissonant measures of 22 and 23. However, it also obscures the double neighbor tone (F# and A-flat) embellishing the bass G in m. 24. It also seems to me that mm. 22–23 prolong the F-major IV7 sonority of m. 21 through chromatic alterations (F# to F, E to E-flat in m. 22; A to A-flat in m. 23, transforming the IV7 into a II6/5). Fun! I guess I’ll find out soon if I’ve understood the passage.

  13. Martin says:

    I learned the prelude from Schirmer’s Czerny edition and played it happily for years, until I started hearing professional recordings where the base moved up a whole tone which completely floored me. Naturally I presumed I had missed an accidental while reading it so never gave it much further thought. I came back to the piece years later and the same thing happened!. It took me quite a while to realize that my reading wasn’t in error, but that the actual sheet music was. As an amateur, one just assumes that you are at fault. Same thing happened with another piece I learned, Schubert’s impromptu in Gb where Liszt had changed a bar when he transposed it to G, which then found its way back into Gb editions. I think I’ve been a bit unlucky, but I’ve learned a lot!

  14. Elise says:

    So happy to find these comments here. I’m 72 years old and started piano four years ago. Bach’s Prelude in C Major is the fifth classical piece of my short piano life and I practice three to four hours daily. My “learned” pieces include “Fur Elise”, “Clair de Lune”, Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor, Chopin’s Prelude in B Minor, Malaguena and now working on this Bach Prelude which, in retrospect, should have been first up. My sheet music did not include the extra measure but a YouTube version that I’ve used to assist in fingering includes the measure. Upon realizing that tutorial didn’t reflect my sheet music created a few sleepless night. And then…I found all this discussion. Thank you all. And all the best, Elise

  15. Peter Barber says:

    I love the Schwencke measure in the C Major Prelude: without it the music beats around the bush. – Peter, Lyall Bay

  16. Max Hunt says:

    I disagree that the composition follows a regular 4 measure pattern. The piece opens with a 4 bar motive that returns Cmaj in measure 4. It then continues by using 2 bar modulation sequences (not 4 bar), changing bass note every 2 bars. This works perfectly up to measure 25. Then we have 3 measures resolving from C/G to G7 then 8 more measures with a further progressions leading to Cmaj (4 measures over G and 4 over G). So for me the pattern is: 4 x 1, 10 x 2, 1 x 3 & 2 x 4. The inly oddity is the 3 measure section resolving from C/G to G (25 to 27) This is quite typical for JS Bach.

  17. Sean M McGhee says:

    To me there’s nothing jarring at all about the ascending bass line: F F# G Ab G and on to the end. I first heard the piece in the mid 70s in High School whilst learning classical guitar, on a record by Christoper Parkening, who, apparently used a cap to play it in D. I did not have the Parkening Plays Bach music book at the time so I bought a piano volume of Book 1, The Well Tempered Clavier and transcibed THAT into D. That version had the apocryphal measure and that’s how I learnt it. After I learnt it and played along with Parkening’s recording I immediately noticed the difference as we went out of sync at that measure. After playing mine and his a few times, I found I liked the piece better WITH the measure than without. To me, it’s ABSENCE is jarring.

    De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum. It IS a matter of taste but certainly some tastes might consider themselves more “correct” than others.

  18. mats wessling says:

    to f#->ab at bar 22 and next is the heart of the piece. putting a g in there ruins the entire preludium.

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