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Week 3: Invention

Although "invention" had been applied to short imitative works before him, the genre is strongly associated with Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1723 Bach wrote two cycles of teaching pieces for his son, Wilhelm Friedemann. Each cycle contained fifteen pieces. The first cycle, for two voices, he called "Inventionen" (BWV 772-786), and the second, for three voices, he called "Sinfonien" (BWV 787-801). Today they are known as Two- and Three-Part Inventions.

Bach's Inventions were designed as teaching pieces rather than for performance. As per the title page, "in which lovers of keyboard music are shown a clear way to learn to play cleanly in two parts," they are studied primarily to develop, in the composer's words, "a cantabile style in playing." But Johann Sebastian indicates a second purpose which I shall tell you about in a moment.

First, please allow me to contrast Bach's inventions as a FORM and as a PROCEDURE. While they contain elements of both, it is upon the PROCEDURAL traits I wish to focus. Compare the two details from Monet's "Poplars in Spring." To the right you see what is clearly recognizable as a tree: a discrete FORM with elements--roots, trunk, leaves--common to all trees in the same order (leaves always higher than the trunk which is always vertical and rooted in the ground). When an artwork is created of smaller components made of recognizable shapes in a prescribed order, we say that the work is "formal." Analysis of these objects, how they are made, and the architectonic principles which unite them, might be called a "formal analysis."

By contrast, a "procedural analysis" is more interested in processes whereby a musical idea is elaborated and re articulated, in no fixed order, to create new material out of old. Consider, for example, the detail to the left. While it contains elements of formal design (a tree reflected in the water), what really strikes the eye is the brushwork and mirror inversion of the tree in the water. This detail is special not for its shape, but for the processes whereby the shape "takes shape." While every artwork contains elements of both form and process, some works emphasize one over the other. In a very general sense, 18th-century music emphasizes process over form, while 19th-century music emphasizes form over process. Twentieth-century music represents a balance of the two. By now you are aware that the first half of this course emphasizes process, and the second half, form.

As a FORM, the Bach-style Invention is relatively unimportant, having been employed by only a handful of composers before and after him. But as a PROCESS, that is to say as models of inventiveness--how to create new themes and develop them in clever and ingenious ways, the Two- and Three-Part Inventions are succinct and elegant models from which nearly every composer since has derived instruction. While Bach's Inventions are usually scrutinized for the presence of motives, countermotives, expositions, developments, sequences (FORMAL things in a FORMAL order), I wish to focus upon PROCEDURES he used to reposition such objects or re articulate them as new objects.

You should begin this study of "inventiveness" by reviewing Stein's discussion of contrapuntal techniques (pp. 121-126) and studying the examples he provides. These techniques should be familiar to you from our look at canon last week. The purpose of contrapuntal techniques is to generate new material out of old...and that is very much what a canon is all about. Like canons, inventions elaborate upon old material to create full-fledged compositions. Inventions elaborate upon very small ideas called motives. While an invention has motives, answers, countermotives, expositions (i.e. formal objects in a predetermined order), the most important thing about the genre is "inventive" processes whereby the motive is varied, counterpointed, and re textured, to create a complete work.

After you have reviewed contrapuntal techniques, read Stein's pages on Invention (pp. 130-131). You will notice immediately that Stein treats Invention very much as a FORM. Like the detail, which contains tree trunks echoed from left to right, inventions continuously state a motive. But the object is never to re state the motive in exactly the same way. This means that the motive must be re articulated and re textured by contrapuntal means. Do read Stein, but don't stop there. Take a field trip to the circus where Contrapunctus the Clown will introduce you to the PROCEDURES of single- and multiple-object inversion. It is in these procedures we feel Bach's "heartbeat" when it comes to his second purpose for writing inventions: so that the student may learn "not only to compose good inventions, but to develop them well...and to acquire a taste for the elements of composition." Next...


  1. Stein "Structure & Style" pp. 121-126 (contrapuntal techniques)
  2. Stein "Structure & Style" pp. 130-131 (invention)
  3. Clowning Around
  4. Melodic Inversion (single object)
  5. Contrapuntal Inversion (multiple objects)
  6. Evolutio (single + multiple objects)
Listening: Check out the Inventionen & Sinfonien disk at the front desk, insert it into the ROM drive on your computer, and listen to the following Inventions by clicking the links. When you have finished, be sure to check the CD back in to the front desk (lost CDs will be charged to the last user).
  1. Two-Part Invention in C Major Return to this page by clicking the "Back" button at the top-left of your browser. You may wish to follow Stein's analysis of this Invention on page 75 of the "Anthology of Musical Forms."
  2. Two-Part Invention in D minor Follow the score on p. 76 of Stein's "Anthology."
Homework: Assignment No. 4

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