Reinventing the Inventions

By Stanley, Amy; Douthit, James | American Music Teacher, August-September 2003 | Go to article overview

Reinventing the Inventions


Stanley, Amy, Douthit, James, American Music Teacher


The fall afternoon is crisp and beautiful. The eager piano student bounces to his regularly scheduled lesson. After initial greetings and pleasantries are exchanged, the lesson begins. First, the student demonstrates his scales and technical exercises for the week. The teacher remarks on the wonderful progress the student has made. Next, the teacher asks, "Why don't we begin with your Bach Invention?" Suddenly, the mood changes, the student grows more serious and the pleasantry of the afternoon is about to end. Opening the book slowly to pages that barely have been creased, the student sheepishly begins the Invention. The first four measures sound practiced and include accurate articulation, steady rhythm and even a dynamic shade or two. Suddenly, the student's coordination is interrupted. It sounds as if the Invention had never been practiced. The student is expending energy equivalent to that required to navigate a South American river infested with crocodiles.

What is it about the Inventions that engenders so much initial interest and joy, but makes them so difficult to polish and perfect? Why do students who show a real aesthetic appreciation for the Inventions suddenly cringe when you mention the word? Why do competition performers frequently shrug and appear as though they have been cast into a pit of demons when asked to present the Invention they have prepared for adjudication?

Perhaps students have not awakened themselves to the true joys of learning and performing the Inventions. Maybe they have not considered that this entangled complexity of notes could yield poignant musical expression. Armed with a different perspective of familiar concepts through new ideas and techniques, teachers will be able to "Reinvent the Inventions" in their studio.

Background

The Two-Part Inventions of J. S. Bach were composed as teaching pieces. Written from 1720-1723, the Inventions were a part of the compositional output of the years Bach spent in Cothen. Every Invention contains two voices that exchange or converse with motivic material. Most are comprised of three or four distinct sections. However, each Invention has its own unique form of musical expression.

The Inventions are organized by key signature. Starting on C major, they ascend in pitch utilizing the key signatures that employ no more than four sharps or fiats. Bach, himself, described the Inventions as:

   A proper introduction, whereby
   lovers of the clavier and especially
   those with thirst for true knowledge,
   are shown a clear way Not
   Only (1) of learning to play cleanly
   in two voices, but (2) also with
   further progress to proceed with
   three obbligato parts correctly and
   well--at the same time not only
   receiving good ideas (i.e. inventions),
   but also utilizing them for
   the development of a cantabile
   style of playing, and for the procurement
   of a thorough foretaste of
   composition. (1)

How does one begin to approach teaching these pianistic pillars upon which the entire body of piano repertoire is built? The initial stage of this process is selecting the appropriate edition for each student.

Editions

The most readily accessible editions of Bach's Two-Part Inventions have a wide range of prices, but sometimes you get what you pay for. Anyone new to piano teaching might learn the hard way that ushering a student off to the store without first specifying a preferred edition can lead to unexpected frustrations. Some editions are so creative in their editorial markings that they could inadvertently create more problems than they actually attempt to solve.

There are a number of Urtext editions (meaning "original text" in German) worth the expense, such as Henle, Barenreiter, Peters and Wiener. Within an Urtext, the editor must maintain a particular sensitivity to the manuscript and also take into consideration aspects of historical authenticity and performance practice. …

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