J. S. Bach and his Piano Two-Part Inventions

~ Article by Dr. Fang~     (Click each title to read the full articles)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a German composer and organist in the Baroque period. His works enrich the prevailing German style with contrapuntal techniques. As his personal relationship with the Christian God in the Lutheran tradition as well as the high demand for religious music in the 18th century, one cannot deny that Bach was highly inspired and influenced by the Lutheran chorale hymn tune. 

Bach is a very productive composer and his compositional career can be divided into three periods: (1) Weimar (1708–17), (2) Cöthen (1717–23) and (3) Leipzig (1723–50) periods.  The collection 15 Two-Part Inventions was written in 1723, which was the last of his Cöthen period. At that time, Bach was employed by the Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen to serve as the ‘Kapellmeister (director of music). Two- Part Invention no. 1 in C major, BWV 772 is one of the  collection of thirty short keyboard compositions,  consisting of fifteen Inventions (Two-Part contrapuntal pieces), and fifteen Sinfonias (Three-Part contrapuntal pieces). These were originally written by Bach as exercises for the musical education of his students. Interesting, Bach arranged the two groups of pieces in order of ascending key. The sequence of keys are (1) C major, (2) C minor, (3) D major, (4) D minor, (5) E-flat major, (6)  E major, (7) E minor, (8) F major, (9) F minor, (10) G major, (11) G minor, (12) A major, (13) A minor, (14) B-flat major, and finally, (15) B minor. This sequence is evidence that Bach intended to demonstrate the characters of these keys to his students; as the title give by Bach states: “A faithful Guide, whereby admirers of the harpsichord are shown a plain Method of learning not only to play cleanly in two Parts, but likewise in further Progress to manage three obbligato Parts well and correctly, and at the same time not merely how to get good Inventions, but also how to develop the same well; but above all, to obtain a cantabile Style of playing, and together with this to get a strong Foretaste of Composition.

I played most of these pieces between the ages of 10 and 13. As I recorded the no. 1 Invention recently, I started to have a closer look of this piece. One issue arises during recording – The application of ornaments. This must be an issue which certainly creates numerous of questions for many piano players. Of course, one can not define an absolute answer as we know that the ornaments can be varied by different performers in that period of time. Performers were used to have more freedom when interpreting music rather than literally ‘playing’ the score as written. However, if there is a system to ‘read’ these ornaments, the basic rule must be ‘consistent’!  

Take Augener’s edition of Bach Two-Parts Inventions as an example. Editor, Franklin Taylor kept the original signs for the ornaments, and had no attempt to translate them into modern forms. Taylor also enclosed a Reference to the Table of Ornaments at the beginning of the book, which shows the manner of their proper execution in each case. However, many performers seem to misinterpret the ornament (or ignore the suggestions by editor) on the 4th beat in bar 1 of the no. 1 Invention(Ex.1), in which a Mordent was started from the note above instead of its original pitch, and sounds like C-B-C. As the Table of Ornaments shows that the Mordent, started from note-B itself, should be performed as B-A-B, but not the C-B-C, this C-B-C version seems to be a very curious application. The worse thing is that these performers oddly decided to start the next Mordent in bar 2 from the note- F itself, and perform it as F-E-F.

These inconsistent approaches towards ornaments are, indeed, very confusing. Even if we value performer’s individuality and different artistic approaches, we do need to have a systematic way to ‘read’ musical scores. So, find your way, and be consistent with your rules!

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