Bach Inventions and Sinfonias, BWV 772-801


The composer penned the following description of these works at the head of the autograph fair copy, now located in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek:

Straightforward Instruction, 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) of dealing correctly and satisfactorily with three ob- bligato parts; at the same time not only getting good inventiones, but developing the same satisfactorily, and above all arriving at a cantabile manner in playing, all the while acquiring a strong foretaste of composition. Provided Anno Christi 1723 by Joh. Seb. Bach, Capellmeister to his Serene Highness the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen.

This pithy preface gives several keys to Bach’s outlook on musical education, especially that pertaining to the keyboard. To paraphrase, the inventions challenge the player to distinguish two independent voices. Once the aspiring keyboardist has learned to “play cleanly in two voices,” he moves on to the three-part inventions, the sinfonias, which contain some of Bach’s most elegant and singing lines. These minature marvels in counterpoint, composed late in the composer’s life for the clavichord, exemplify the cantabile style that would reach its apex in the piano works of Frédéric Chopin. From a pedagogical perspective, the inventions and sinfonias are also a first step toward mastering the difficulties of polyphony, finger independence, thumb transmission, and extension—technical elements that Chopin takes to the physical limit in his preludes and etudes.

However, by calling the pieces “inventions,” Bach implicitly cautions against treating them as a mere technical exercise. As indicated above, the overall didactic purpose of such study was for his students to acquire a “strong foretaste of composition.” By practicing and imitating the ideas set down by the master, Bach’s pupils could thus develop (i.e., invent) their own style of creating a polyphonic texture out of musical motives.

The style of the inventions and sinfonias is midway between the freer style of the prelude and the rigorously imitative and contrapuntal style of the fugue. These pieces, therefore, serve as ideal prefatory study for the two books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The Well-Tempered Clavier is generally regarded, and rightly so, as one of the peaks of the musical canon. Yet it could be argued that the inventions and sinfonias, though not as monumental in their structural achievement, are greater than the preludes and fugues in their melodic inventiveness. In any case, even the most overplayed of the two-part inventions (e.g., 1, 2, 4, and 14), often misunderstood by students, shine through as music of the very highest order when played by a pianist in possession of a discriminating ear, a firm touch, and a sense of dynamics and line.

Although writing music “in the style of Bach” is today an academic exercise, the understanding of all music of the 18th and 19th centuries—including Beethoven and Chopin—is enhanced by a careful study of the inventions and sinfonias. The mature performer will return to these jewels again and again to discover anew secrets and refinements that have formerly eluded him.

The 15 Inventions

Bach: Invention No. 1, C Major

Bach: Invention No. 2, C Minor

Bach: Invention No. 3, D Major

Bach: Invention No. 4, D Minor

Bach: Invention No. 5, E-flat Major

Bach: Invention No. 6, E Major

Bach: Invention No. 7, E Minor

Bach: Invention No. 8, F Major

Bach: Invention No. 9, F Minor

Bach: Invention No. 10, G Major

Bach: Invention No. 11, G Minor

Bach: Invention No. 12, A Major

Bach: Invention No. 13, A Minor

Bach: Invention No. 14, B-flat Major

Bach: Invention No. 15, B Minor

The 15 Sinfonias

Bach: Sinfonia No. 1, C Major

Bach: Sinfonia No. 2, C Minor

Bach: Sinfonia No. 3, D Major

Bach: Sinfonia No. 4, D Minor

Bach: Sinfonia No. 5, E-flat Major

Bach: Sinfonia No. 6, E Major

Bach: Sinfonia No. 7, E Major

Bach: Sinfonia No. 8, F Major

Bach: Sinfonia No. 9, F Minor

Bach: Sinfonia No. 10, G Major

Bach: Sinfonia No. 11, G Minor

Bach: Sinfonia No. 12, A Major

Bach: Sinfonia No. 13, A Minor

Bach: Sinfonia No. 14, B-flat Major

Bach: Sinfonia No. 15, B Minor      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016