liner notes

J.S. Bach The 15 two-part Inventions and 15 three-part Sinfonias

The 15 two-part Inventions and 15 three-part Sinfonias (BWV 772-801) first appeared in the Clavierbüchlein, a collection of 62 short works for keyboard put together by Bach in 1720 for his nine-year-old son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. In an earlier version the Inventions were called “Praeambulae” and the Sinfonias “Fantasias”. Like all the works in this collection, the Inventions and Sinfonias had an explicit didactic purpose, reflected in the title of the clear autograph written by Bach:

Straightforward Instructions,
In which amateurs of the keyboard, and especially the eager ones, are shown a clear way not only (1) of learning to play cleanly in two voices, but also, after further progress, (2) to handle three obbligato parts correctly and satisfactorily, and above all arriving at a cantabile manner in playing, all the while acquiring a strong foretaste of composition.

Joh. Seb. Bach:
Capellmeister to
His Serene Highness the
Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen.

Anno Christi 1773.

Like most of Bach’s works, the Inventions and Sinfonias were not published during his lifetime. Nevertheless they became widely known in multiple handwritten copies and were used as teaching material for young keyboard students. In spite of their didactic purpose, these are works of the finest quality, concise and precise articulations of the basic principles of Bach’s musical logic and procedures for handling his material.

By 1723 Bach had settled the tonal design. Both sets follow an ascending order of major and minor keys similar to that of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Most of the Inventions and Sinfonias follow rhetorical principles and include the six parts of an oration: Exordium (introduction), Narratio (statement of facts), Propositio (elaboration of main idea), Confutatio (re-examination and questioning of the main idea and rebuttal of all objections), Confirmatio (strengthening the main idea) and Peroratio (conclusion). These rhetorical elements can be found in many (most) of Bach’s works, no matter the scale or genre and are quite indispensable for understanding his musical logic and the structure of his works. All of these rhetorical figures are clearly visible in the C major Invention: Exordium the first two bars, Narratio bars 3 to 6, Propositio 7 to14, Confutatio 15-18, Confirmatio 19-20 and Peroratio the last two bars 21-22. In most cases, the Confutatio section contains the most personal statement of the composer. It usually follows a descending order that slows down the forward motion of the piece. In the second half of the eighteenth century the Confutatio section would expand and evolve into the cadenza in the classical concerto. Bach was well aware of the laws of rhetoric: besides his musical duties at the Thomaskirche, he taught both Latin and rhetoric in the school there and must have been acquainted with Cicero’s De Inventione and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria. Rhetorical principles played an important role in Lutheran orthodoxy; sermons were constructed in accordance with the rules of classical oratory in order to produce the desired effect in listeners. It was understood that music and speech obey the same laws and these laws should be recognized, studied and mastered. (A brilliant book by the Russian musicologist and philosopher Jacob Druskin, Rhetorical Devices in the Music of J.S. Bach, sheds important light on the connection between Bach’s approach to composition and the principles of discourse that were well-established in Germany by the first half of the eighteenth century.)

In accordance with Bach’s instructions, the Inventions and Sinfonias follow a progressive path from the simple and easy-to-play two-part Inventions, which are objective in nature, to the more complex and challenging three-part Sinfonias, which are more subjective, providing appropriate material for the development of necessary performing skills for students of keyboard and instilling in them a “foretaste of composition”.

Bach repeatedly emphasized the importance of developing a cantabile manner of playing. The word cantabile, however, does not simply refer to smooth connections between the notes and legato playing, but to the ability of the player to articulate and pronounce clearly any given phrase and passage, playing the whole work in the most expressive manner.

Bach did not invent the genre or term “Invention”, but followed the models of Pachelbel, Fischer, Vivaldi and Bonporti. (A language is always older than anyone who speaks it.) As always, he perfected whatever forms and models he used and for all practical purposes the term “Invention” is firmly associated with Bach. The Inventions might call to mind Bach’s Preludes, but they inhabit their very own form. These are short and transparent works that are complete in themselves, with a clear main motive that is developed and elaborated in accordance with the rules of oration. One of Bach’s favorite devices here is imitation at the octave and on the dominant. Despite their brevity, the Inventions present Bach’s principles of composition and his craft in crystalline form.

The Sinfonias are larger, more complex and polyphonically intricate works that come close to trio sonata texture, except for the treatment of the bass line. Some of the Sinfonias anticipate sonata form, especially No. 9 in F minor and, if one looks closely, it is feasible that these works had an impact on Beethoven.

Bach wrote the six little Preludes (BWV 933-938) in the early 1720s as teaching material for his students. These preludes, like the Inventions and Sinfonias, were never intended for public performance, but as keyboard exercises with a particular technical and artistic purpose in each work.

Bach was well aware of the numerological values of his compositions and it is always possible to find significance in the numbers of Bach’s works. Each of his collections of suites and partitas for clavier, cello and violin contains six works, a number that among other things relates to the six days of Creation. The 24 preludes and fugues could be connected to the 24 elders seated around the throne of God (Revelation 4:4). 15 Inventions and 15 Sinfonias add up to the 30 years that Jesus spent at home with his parents learning his way in the world of man.

In no other work are these numerological implications more apparent and telling than in the third book of the Clavierübung, published by Bach in 1739: the auspicious year of the bicentennial of Luther’s sermon in the Leipzig Thomaskirche and his Ausburg Confession. The Clavierübung III (commonly called the German Organ Mass) includes 27 works unified by a musical and theological design. A majestic and substantial Praeludium opens the Mass, 21 chorale preludes follow, falling into two categories––pedaliter, written for organ with pedal, and manualiter, written for keyboard alone––(a correspondence with Luther’s Greater and Lesser Catechisms is implicit), then four Duetti and a closing monumental five-voice Fuga. Bach started to work on this collection after publishing his second book of the Clavierübung in 1735. Initially he composed 21 chorale preludes, then in 1738 added an opening prelude and the closing fugue and finally added the four Duets at the last moment just before publishing his work in 1739.

The formal organizing principal of this amazing work is the Trinity, the number three: the first and last works are written in E flat major, which has three flats, there are three sets of three preludes to the Missa Brevis (3+3+3), six pairs of preludes on Luther’s Greater Catechism and 27 pieces in total (3x3x3).

We do not know why Bach added the four Duetti (BWV 802-805) to the third book of the Clavierübung just before it was printed. There are different theories and speculations about why he did. One such theory is that the Duets are meant to accompany communion. Another connects the four duets to the four gospels, four virtues, four elements. We may never know for sure what Bach had in mind, but there is one simple reason for the inclusion of the four Duets––without them the total number of works would be 23, which does not fit the overall tripartite design of the Mass.

The Duets, which follow an ascending tonal order, e-F-G-a, are purely instrumental works not directly connected to the Mass or to the chorale tunes. In contrast with the rest of Book III, written exclusively for organ, the duets can be played on any keyboard instrument. The number of bars in each episode and the number of notes in the themes are not accidental and follow a meticulous design with unwavering certainty and precision.

The first Duet in E minor opens with a bold gesture––a full octave scale up and down, which is a part of the theme. It is a completely invertible double fugue with an angular and rhythmically syncopated theme over a chromatic bass line that leaps up and down. The chromatic sequence is similar to that of the A minor Prelude from the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The two voices are constantly switching places, as if debating their respective positions.

The Second Duet in F major is in the ternary form of a da capo aria, A-B-A. The main theme is plainly triadic and a theme in the middle episode is chromatic. The outer episodes are fugal and the middle is canonic. At the outset this Duet seems like a harmonically simple two-part invention that proceeds forward naturally and effortlessly. The middle episode breaks this pattern and intrudes a chromatic theme given in canon on the dominant. The main theme returns in a minor mode completely transformed from its initial sunny disposition. The middle episode proceeds in uncompromising canon, creating some bizarre dissonances. This middle section is a telling example of the initial meaning of the term “baroque”––a flawed (irregular, bizarre) pearl. Bach’s writing is radical and direct. Even today this duet can be unsettling and in Bach’s time it was simply shocking, unheard-of music bordering on blasphemy.

The Third Duet in G major resembles an Invention. It is the simplest of the set, worry-free and flowing naturally. The key of G major in Bach always means that “all is well on earth”. Contrary to the other Duets the bass line is not inverted.

The Fourth Duet in A minor is a fugue in strict counterpoint with three sets of interrelated motives. The main subject is unusually long––eight bars and forty-nine notes. It is a rigorous and harmonically adventurous work.

In his Duets Bach expanded the scope and scale of two-part writing to an unsurpassed level of artistry and inventiveness. It is his highest accomplishment in this mode of writing. With the Duets, the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations, all written during the same period, Bach completed his exploration of and contribution for the keyboard.

The chorale prelude Wer nur lieben Gott lasst walten (BWV 691) was written in the Notebook for Anna Magdalena which Bach put together for his second wife in 1722. It is a harmonization of a Lutheran chorale eight bars long.

There is one creative power that governs our consciousness, our perception of the world. It manifests itself through patterns, numbers, the play of elements, our senses and emotions. It defines the way we see and recreate our world in each and every aspect of our lives. It is a high task indeed to recognize and accept this power, to let it guide you in all endeavors and pay back a worthy tribute to it. J.S. Bach did just that.