Font size: +
9 minutes reading time (1866 words)

Repertoire: Bach's Two-Part Inventions

Affect in J.S. Bach's Two-Part Inventions

Bach's oldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, was born in 1710 when Bach was twenty-five years old. By the time Wilhelm was ten, his father had instructed him in playing—as well as composing—some rather complex pieces. According to The New Bach Reader, Bach used the Two-Part Inventions and Three-Part Sinfonias as an instruction manual for Wilhelm and his other children.1 Its original 1720 version has a different order from the 1723 version: the pieces are presented in a systematic way that introduces composition. The first three inventions are in the keys of A Major, D Minor, and E Minor respectively, and their initial motifs are based on step-wise progressions, using scales or portions of scales. The next three (F Major, G Major, and A Minor) have motifs based on broken chords: the F Major motif uses a chord (F-A-C) built on the key's tonic, the G Major has a motif built on the tonic chord (G-B-D) followed by one built on the dominant (D-F#-A), and the A Minor motif uses first a tonic chord, then a dominant chord, and finally a tonic chord. Subsequent pieces use more complex ideas. This was a systematic demonstration of the art of composition, something Bach was teaching his children. As he wrote on the title page of the Autograph of 1723, 

Sincere Instruction in which lovers of keyboard music, and especially those desiring to play, are shown a clear way not only to learn to play cleanly in two parts, but also after further progress to proceed correctly and well with three obbligato parts, and at the same time not only to compose good inventions, but to develop them well; but most of all to achieve a cantabile style in playing, and to acquire a taste for the elements of composition. 

In Bach's time, a foremost aim of music was to expresses the Ausdrückung der Affecten— the mood, emotion, or passion of the piece. This aim had first been evident in the madrigals of the Renaissance, when the self-assertion of the individual came to the fore. By Bach's day, the urge was to create a more grandiose effect, and "baroque," an Italian word originally referring to a misshapen pearl, was used as a negative criticism of this "new music" which gave more intense expression to the emotions. The artistic expression of emotions was very important to Bach, as evident in all the music he composed, even these "instruction" pieces. Bach further developed a musical language that used some obvious techniques: fast, high, diatonic, light harmonizations for expressing joy and excitement, and slow, low, chromatic, rich harmonizations for sad or reflective moods. What he called cantabile style used a variety of ornaments and embellishments to convey different emotions. Their artistic use in performance helped distinguish accomplished players from amateurs. He also used contrapuntal effects with great ingenuity, such as contrasting two musical themes so that when combined, they established a new character without abandoning the original themes. 

Bach was influenced by ideas from Greek rhetoric—verbal expressions used to move and influence people. According to historian K.K.J. Kloppers, the German educational system during the Baroque period (1600-1750) was based on a pyramid.2 The foundation of this pyramid was comprised of Grammar, Logic, "Instrumental" Sciences, and Rhetoric (which included Poetry and Music); above these were the "Real" Sciences (Astronomy, Medicine, Geography, Math) and History. Even higher was Metaphysics, and at the top of the pyramid was Theology. "Affective" figures as expressed through music included repetition (extended, varied, emphatic ideas), inversion of a motif (thesis and antithesis), a general pause or silence (death, sighing, awe, or deep sorrow), dialogue between voices (antiphonal effect), dubious modulation (doubt or uncertainty), deceptive cadence (wrong conclusion), a note cut short (exclamation!), rising parallel thirds (climax), distortion of motif (excitement), ascending appoggiatura (question), premature entry of motif (conclusion), dissonance or dissonant chord progressions (rage, conflict, pain, or anguish), and disruption of a melodic line by rests (deep sorrow or sighing). Why did Bach write inventions and sinfonias in fifteen keys instead of using each of the twenty-four major and minor keys available to him? According to Willard A. Palmer, Bach used only keys that sounded acceptable in the system of tuning in general use at the time.3 This system is now known as meantone temperament, but then it was called "the method of tuning." In the inventions and sinfonias, he did not use keys with more than four accidentals, since well-tempered tuning was not yet in general use, and he intended these pieces to be used not only by his own children, but also by other students. For his twenty-four Well-Tempered Clavier Book I pieces, which he composed around the same time, Bach used all keys available because he knew how to tune his keyboards by tempering (altering) the intervals so that keys with many accidentals sounded acceptable, unlike in meantone temperament. Please note that modern "equal temperament" is not the same as "well-tempered," although many websites and textbooks still contain the mistaken notion that Bach invented "equal temperament." The following indications of the Affect of each Invention are solely the author's interpretation. Bach did not name the Affect, but counted on the music making it clear. Each performer can decide what Affect he or she finds in the music.

C Major, No. 1—Happiness: The opening motif is based on scale patterns; when one voice has sixteenth notes, the other has eighth notes, except for four beats in which both voices use sixteenth notes. As in a friendly conversation, the voices take turns presenting the major theme. 

C Minor, No. 2—Sadness: The opening motif uses descending scales to represent sighs. Before sighing, one usually takes a deep breath, then exhales audibly. The intake of breath can be imagined when the melody leaps up before descending in sadness and longing.

D Major, No. 3—Anticipation: Bach often used this key for music of praise, celebration, or excitement. The motif begins with an anticipatory upbeat, and one can feel one beat per measure. An echo effect can be achieved by playing the repetitive measures with a different "touch" and, on the piano, a different dynamic level. 

D Minor, No. 4—No nonsense: The motif begins on the first beat and uses sixteenth notes from the D-minor scale. Long trills sustain a single pitch for three measures in the right hand, and later for five measures in the left hand. A deceptive cadence (elipsis) comes four measures before the end. The 3/8 meter seems to indicate the mood is "all business," or "let's get this done!" 

E Flat Major, No. 5—Busy, busy!: The opening motif is played eleven times by the right hand and only nine by the left hand, but the contrasting theme is marked by perpetual motion thanks to the sixteenth notes on every beat of the thirty-two measures except for the first two and last two beats of the piece. The left hand dominates the right, playing the sixteenth-note motif for seventeen measures, while the right hand uses that motif for only thirteen measures.

E Major, No. 6—Confusion: Here the two voices seem to be talking past each other. They oppose each other by moving in contrary motion, one on the beat and the other a half-beat behind. This is the only invention that calls for repetition of each section, as though the people having this non-conversation can't figure out how to resolve their differences and get out of the loop.

E Minor, No. 7—Disappointment: Notes from a descending E-minor scale provide the motif, which includes a leap up to a note emphasized by a mordant which begins on the beat. The upward leap is the prelude to a sighing descent, as in the C Minor Invention. Although the motif uses sixteenth notes, the tempo is slow, so the feeling is not one of rushing but of resignation. 

F Major, No. 8—Having Fun!: The mood is one of playfulness: the canonic device, called anaphora in Greek rhetoric, suggests playing tag. The motif is built on three notes of the F-major chord (F-A-C) and is heard first in the upper voice then immediately in the lower voice, which is always trying to "catch up" with the first voice. 

F Minor, No. 9—Grief: In great contrast to the F Major Invention, this piece depicts grief or pain which is unrelenting, as evidenced in the oftenrepeated leaps upward followed by descending notes. Both voices share their sadness, perhaps making the grief easier to bear. 

G Major, No. 10—Light-heartedness: The upper voice outlines a G-major triad, and in the next measure the lower voice repeats the motif but uses a D-major triad. The eighth note is the basic note-value and every one except the last of the thirty-two measures uses nine of them! Still, the feeling is not one of boredom, but of exuberance. 

G Minor, No. 11—Complexity: Here the two voices are sometimes in agreement, but other times going in opposite directions, so this invention may represent the way a family with lots of children might function. Since Bach had twenty children, he would know something about this! The piece modulates through different key centers, and uses many accidentals to give complexity to the motif. The use of syncopation adds to the sense that all is not calm. 

A Major, No. 12—Having fun!: The 12/8 meter indicates a lively tempo, and the motif using sixteenth notes running up and down in rapid succession is reminiscent of ocean waves rising Clavier Companion 38 January/February 2017 and falling in constant motion. If you have ever chased waves at a beach, you'll see the fun of this piece!

A Minor, No. 13—Anger: The two voices seem to be arguing with each other, shouting back and forth without listening to what the other is saying. There is a lot of contrary motion, and one can imagine the words: "Oh no, I won't," and "Oh yes, you will!" stated over and over. 

B Flat Major, No. 14—Comfort: The mood is harmonious and pleasant, as though two friends are having a comfortable conversation, with one person listening while the other speaks and agreeing when they both speak at the same time. The use of parallel tenths gives a gracious, calming effect. The "speaking voice" uses sixteenth notes, and the "listening voice" uses quarter notes. 

B Minor, No. 15—Pleasantness: Although the key is minor, the Affect is not sad or doleful, but pleasant, with the two voices cooperating in accomplishing their aim, which is to outline how a two-voice fugue works. The fugue subject and its counter subject use chromatics freely as the chord progressions work their way from B Minor through F# Minor, E Minor, A Major, D Major, and D Minor before returning to B Minor by reversing the progression. 

1 David, H. T., Mendel, A., & Wolff, C. (1998). The new Bach reader: A life of Johann Sebastian Bach in letters and documents. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 

Kloppers, J. (1966). Die Interpretation und Wiedergabe der Orgelwerke Bachs. Ein Beitrag zur Bestimmung von stilgerechten Prinzipien. Frankfurt: University of Frankfurt Press. 

Palmer, Willard A., ed. (1991). J. S. Bach Inventions & Sinfonias. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co, Inc., p. 2. 

You have to be a member to access this content.

Please login and subscribe to a plan if you have not done so.

Learning & Teaching: Create & Motivate
Repertoire: Pupil saver


Already Registered? Login Here
No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment

About Piano Magazine

Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

Follow us on

Terms of use

Have Questions?

We are happy to help.

Editorial questions? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Advertising questions? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Subscription questions? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Technical questions? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Cron Job Starts