Bach's Two Part Intention

Why did Bach write the Inventions? Many assume he composed his keyboard music to be publicly performed at concerts or to be sold at the local music shop.

But the public concert was hardly born in Bach’s day. And there weren’t stores that sold printed musical scores simply because very little music was printed. Of Bach’s entire output, only eight works were printed in his lifetime! Beethoven learned to play the Well-Tempered Clavier from a handwritten copy, as did everyone else until 1800.

Bach wrote the Inventions because he was a music educator. In the preface to his Inventions, Bach suggests two central intentions. He wishes “amateurs of the keyboard” to play cleanly and “achieve a cantabile style in playing” in both two- and three-part playing. While some teachers advise students to mimic a harpsichord when playing Bach on a piano, Bach clearly suggests his musical ideal is the human voice. His son, C.P.E. Bach also stressed that “singing at the clavier” was the foundation of performance style.

Bach states another central intention: “And not only to obtain good inventions, but to develop the same well” and “acquire a strong foretaste for composition.” Bach borrowed the word “invention” from the field of Rhetoric. The ability to generate ideas (inventions) and speak them clearly, spontaneously, and persuasively was considered the centerpiece of a university education. (Doctoral students today still orally defend their dissertations.) Bach wrote his Inventions to be models of extemporization and composition. They were to exemplify ways of generating and developing musical ideas, so students would “acquire a strong foretaste of composition.”

In Bach’s time, extemporization (musical speech, later termed improvisation) was the central act of music making. It wasn’t until a full century after Bach’s death that printed music became widely available and the art of interpretation became king. In the pre-print age, musical essays (compositions) were written by hand and copied by hand primarily to provide models for musical speech, and to enrich one’s ability to think and speak with tones. Before writing essays, one learns to speak.

In short, Bach composed his Inventions to develop cantabile playing in two and then three parts, and to enhance our abilities to extemporize and compose—certainly not to replace these abilities with a note-by-note recitation that goes no further than that. Since I learned this, I wonder whenever I teach the Two-Part Inventions: How can I respect and honor Bach’s two-part intention? Is anyone doing so?

blogForrest Kinney