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Bach Invenes

Having said that, they will actually do the work. In general they are superb for
the acquisition of the following skills:

1. Independence of the hands.

2. Contrapunctual thinking.
3. Finger dexterity and independence.
4. Development of cantabile.
5. Equal development of both sides of the body (since usually both parts are
perfectly balanced).
6. Aural training (following 2/3 melodic strains)
7. Reading/sight-reading.
8. They make excellent material for training in memory methods.

Bachs music can be roughly divided in three categories:

1. Voice music, which is music that will sound wonderful on the human voice. I
am including here instrumental works that are clearly inspired on the human voice.
When Bach writes this sort of music for the keyboard all the technical problems
relating to making the instrument sing will appear.
2. Dance music. Usually the problems in this kind of music relate to rhythm.
3. Instrumental music that targets specific technical aspects of the
instrument. It is easy to spot these compositions since they would not make sense
if you tried to sing them (they may have effects that are impossible to accomplish
with the voice, or they may have a range outside the human voice).

The inventions have examples of all three kinds (and some are mixed).

Number 1 (C major) is a very good example of voice music. One can easily imagine
it sung by two people. So the most important considerations in playing this
invention are:

1. The ability to play legato.

2. The ability to bring each voice clearly, which implies hand and finger
3. The ability to phrase.

Technically this is not a difficult piece but two things will make it or break it:

1. Appropriate fingering.
2. Hand independence and co-ordination.

Finally we have the matter of ornamentation. This piece has some light and simple
ornamentation, but for a student not used to it, it may become an unsurmountable

Have a look here as well, where ornamentation is discussed (I will have something
to say about it later on):

Another important consideration is that most of Bachs music is motif based.

Usually we tend to think of music as a nice tune with an accompaniment. But Bach
(and many other composers) does not follow this model at all. He starts with a
fragment of melody in the case of this invention only 7 notes long and simply
varies it in numberless ways.
So before learning how to play this invention it is very important to observe what
Bach is doing in terms of motif variations and development. If you listen to this
invention on a CD (best for that purpose are Rosalyn Tureck or Glenn Gould), you
will have the uncanny feeling that no matter how many times you listen to it, you
never seem to quite grasp everything.

So first step: Listen to the invention on a CD, preferably played by as many

different pianists as possible (I give the student a compilation with 10 different
interpretations of it).

There is always something new to listen to the next time you hear it. This is
because of the extremely clever way it is constructed. And that is what I first
examine with a student by simply working on the score.

So here we go. First identify the motif. Once a student knows what a motif is, he
usually spots the motif right away: It consist of the first seven notes: CDEFDEC.

The next step is to investigate the possible ways in which this motif can be varied
and still keep its identity. To start with, it can be played in different degrees
of the scale (CDEFDEC is played in C major, on the degrees I-II-III-IV-II-III-I, or
if you prefer tonic supertonic mediant subdominant - supertonic mediant
tonic) [side note: this gives me the opportunity to dive right in into scale theory
with the student by the end of the lesson s/he will know about scales, scale
degrees/names and scale relationships]. We can see that in bar 2, where the motif
is repeated starting on degree V (dominant) of C major: GABCABG.

So, right there on the first two bars, we have the motif making four entries: Bar 1
on the right hand, then on the left hand, and bar 2 on the right hand and then on
the left hand, but also played in different degrees of C major.

Some clever students who have been doing their scale homework at this point ask:
Isnt the motif in the second bar in G major? This gives me the opportunity to
introduce modes. No, it is not in G major, it is the myxolydian mode.How do we
know? Because the F is natural, and there is no F natural in G major. But there is
a more subtle reason. The ear automatically shifts tonal centres without you
needing to know any theory. This is a very good opportunity to demonstrate this to
the student, so dont miss it! Play bar 2 (in its entirety), and then play bar 7.
If you simply look ath the motif in bar 7, it looks exactly the same (indeed it is
the exact same notes). But in bar 7 unlike in bar 2 the F# makes its appearance
amongst the non-motif notes. This throws the tonal centre into G major with the
consequence that in bar 2 the ear hears the G as a dominant note, while in bar 7
the ear hears it as a tonic note. This always surprise students. They cannot
believe how the same note can sound completely different simply because of tonal
context. It is a real eye (ear) opener. Of course this is the main device of motif
variation in Western tonal music, and it is called modulation. You can go on
several lessons on this one. You can talk about equal temperament, how Bach
invented it, and why it is so important, for instance.

This is one of the reasons I love these inventions. They are wonderful teaching
devices: they present do many problems to the student, and the solutions are always
neat and open ended (they lead to more problems). If the student is willing, and
the teacher does its job properly, a student may well learn all of musical theory
from just working on these inventions.

So by just looking at the motif in bars 1 and 2, we have learned about two ways in
which the motif can be developed: It can be stated in a different mode (different
degrees of the same scale), or it can be modulated (stated in the same degrees of a
different scale). It is important that these concepts are understood aurally as
well as from the score. So keep playing for the student to listen to, the motifs in
bar 1, bar 2 and bar 7.

On bars 3 and 4 something even more interesting happens to the motif. If you look
at the first seven notes (RH) of bar 3: AGFEGFA, you can see (from the score is
much clearer) that this is like a mirror image of the motif. While the motif had an
ascending scale fragment (CDEF) followed by descending thirds (FDEC) [the Fs
overlap], in bar 3 we have a descending scale fragment (AGFE) followed by ascending
thirds (EGFA). This is called motif inversion. And in fact there are four motif
inversions in bars 3 4: [AGFEGFA], [FEDCEDF], [DCBACBD] and [BAGF#AGB].

Now are you ready for the next one? It always blows my mind! So it should blow
yours and the students too!

Go back to bar 3, but instead of looking at the first seven notes, skip the first
three notes and look at the next seven notes: EGFAGFE. This is actually the motif
backwards, also called a retrograde. There are two more retrogrades on bars 3 4:

Have you got it? So you have four inversions and three retrogrades. But what blows
my mind (and should blow yours and the students) is that Bach overlaps them. This
means that as you play through bars 3 4 there will be an ambiguity on the third
beat of each bar: you can hear it as the end of the retrograde or as the start of
the inversion. So no matter how many times you lsten to this line, you always miss
something! This is the aural equivalent of some visual illusions where you see
either an old lady or a young woman depending on how you look at the picture. Or
some of those Escher drawings where you have stairs that go up and down at the same

I cannot even begin to tell you how difficult this is in terms of composition,
because most people cannot recognise (aurally) a retrograde as a motif. In fact it
is so difficult that Bach only uses a retrograde in a few of his compositions
(another famous instance in the Crab canon from the Musical Offering).

So at this point I will play for the student bars 3 and 4, but omitting the notes
that make for the overlaps, that is I will play either the four inversions or the
three retrogrades. Once the student can recognise by ear the inversion or the
retrograde, then I will play the line (RH only) and the illusion becomes obvious:
If you listen for the inversion you cannot hear the retrograde; if you listen for
the retrograde you cannot hear the inversion. This overlapping/ambiguity is
something that Bach is very fond of doing (another good example is the Eb major
fugue in Book 2 of the WTC).

(By the way, Rachmaninoff fans out there, the 18th variation on a theme of
Paganinin is a retrograde of the theme).

We are still in the first two lines of this invention and yet the student has been
exposed to a wealth of knowledge from motif analysis to visual illusions (make sure
you have a book of Eschers drawings at hand to show him/her). So you can see what
incredible teaching device these inventions are.

Now I will keep going through the piece identifying all the motifs, and motif
variations (invertions and retrogrades). There are 22 bars in this piece and 46
entries of the motif. I usually let the students find the remaining entries (on
bars 1- 4 alone there are 11 entries).

Once they can recognise the motif entries form the score, we start actually
playing the motifs. At this point I will give the student a score where only the
motifs appear, all other notes being deleted. We will practise this score until the
student can play the whole piece (motifs only) perfectly. Our aims now are: correct
fingering, development of the necessary movement/finger co-ordination to tackle the
motif sequence, and motif recognition (as s/he plays, s/he must say what s/he is
playing: motif, inversion or retrograde). S/he must be able to play the whole piece
twice: one bringing out the inversions, the next bringing out the retrogrades.
Finally, and this is really the most important: S/he must be able to play the piece
without bringing out either inversion or retrograde, for if you do so you destroy
the ambiguity.

In pieces like this, the performer must not bring out anything, since it is the
listener that must experience the ambiguitiy and decide how to solve it. To bring
out anything would be the equivalent of using a yellow marker to highlight some of
the stairs in an Eschers drawing. For a full enjoyment of this kind of piece, it
must be played many times, with the listener educated in what to listen for, and
preferably following with the score. Therefore this is not performance music, and
will not work as such this is music for the private enjoyment of the cognoscenti.
You can only and truly appreciate it if you are a nobleman with a musician in
residence (the case in Bachs time), or if you are a keyboardist (or if you are my
student, he he).

But I digress. I will continue later.

Best wishes,

Picking up the thread where I stopped.

So, in teaching invention no. 1, my first step was to identify the motif; to show
how it could be varied by being inverted and being played backwards (retrograde);
how it could be played in different degrees of the scale and on the same degrees of
a different scale (modulation).

This was first worked out at the score (using coloured pencils to identify the
several forms of the motifs), then aurally (me, playing the several motifs while
the student followed them on the score), and finally by learning how to play the
motifs through a score where every note that was not the motif had been taken
away. This motific skeleton was then used a lot until the student could play the
whole piece, motifs only.

Incidentally: the motif CDEFDEC, is repeated 46 times equally in both hands and in
different spots of the keyboard. Repeat each occurrence of the motif and move to
the next one smoothly and what do you have? A Hanon exercise! Therefore anyone
working on this invention is already doing Hanon, without ever needing to touch the
Virtuoso Pianist.

But I digress.

Once the student can do the motif version of the score, we do the next step, which
is to reintroduce all the notes that have been taken away. For the most part they
consist of augmentations of fragments of the motifs (the same pitches, but with
increased note values, e.g., the motif had an ascending scale fragment in
semiquavers. This ascending scale fragment appears now in quavers linking the

This means learning the piece as it was originally written, but this time with
hands separate. Ornaments are not introduced yet at this stage.

If the previous step (motifs only) was thoroughly mastered, this next step is
achieved very fast. In fact it may take one or two weeks t master the motifs, but
the whole piece with HS may take just one lesson.

We will keep working HS, repeating it many times, but each time we will be
concentrating in a different aspect. For instance, looking at the intervals by
which the motifs get displaced. Or observing how Bach reverse voices (counterpoint
invention), or dedicating a whole lesson to pure technique (how to move, how to
press the keys, etc.)

Then the third step will be to join hands. This is the most difficult step in any
piece, but particularly in this kind of imitative music where the hands must be
completely independent and yet totally co-ordinated. I will use every trick in the
book, but if the previous stages were properly done, it should be pretty smooth
sailing but it will take time. At this stage I usually work back to front (start
at the last bar and keep adding bars in front), and work in small sections again.

It takes between 20 40 daily 20 minutes practice sessions for someone who has
never seen this kind of piece to master it. Here is the scheme I use:

10 practice sessions (15 20 minutes each) to master the motif score:

Session 1: bars 1- 2.
Session 2 : bars 3 4.
Session 3: bars 11 12.
Session 4: bars 1 4 & 11 12.
Session 5: bars 5 & 7 10.
Session 6: bars 1 12.
Session 7: bars 13 & 15 18.
Session 8: bars 1 18.
Session 9: bars 19 21.
Session 10: bars 1 21 (the whole piece).

14 practice sessions to master the piece with separate hands.

Session 1 - bars 1 2 (Add first beat of bar 3.)

Session 2 - bars 3 4 (Add first beat of bar 5.)
Session 3 - bars 5 6 (Add first beat of bar 7.)
Session 4 - bars 1 6 (Add first beat of bar 7.)
Session 5 - bars 7 10 ( Add first beat of bar 11.)
Session 6 - bars 1 10 (Add first beat of bar 11.)
Session 7 - bars 11 12 (Add first eat of bar 13.)
Session 8 - bars 1 12 (Add first eat of bar 13.)
Session 9 bars 13 14 (Add first beat of bar 15)
Session 10 bars 1 14 (Add first eat of bar 15.)
Session 11 bars 15 18 (Add first eat of bar 19.)
Session 12 bars 1- 18 (Add first eat of bar 19.)
Session 13 bars 19 22
Session 14 - bars 1 22 (the whole piece)

15 practice sessions to master the piece with hands together:

Session 1 - bars 19 22.

Session 2 - bars 15 18 (Add first beat of bar 19.)
Session 3 - bars 15 22.
Session 4 - bars 13 14 (Add first beat of bar 15.)
Session 5 - bars 13 22.
Session 6 - bars 11 12 (Add first beat of bar 13.)
Session 7 - bars 11 22.
Session 8 - bars 7 10 (Add first beat of bar 11.)
Session 9 bars 7 22.
Session 10 bars 5 6 (Add first beat of bar 7.)
Session 11 bars 6 22.
Session 12 bars 3- 4 (Add first beat of bar 5.)
Session 13 bars 3 22
Session 14 bars 1- 2 (Add first beat of bar 3.)
Session 15 - bars 1 22 (the whole piece)

Each of these blocks of sessions must be done in order: motifs, followed by hands
separate, followed by hands together. However, the sessions within each block may
be treated more or less independently. For instance, you could work on sessions 1
2- 3 and 9 of the motif block in four different practice sessions on the same day.

What you should not do (because it is a waste of time) is to repeat session one 4
or 5 times on the same day. Do one specific practice session for 15 - 20 minutes.
Then only touch it again the next day. Use the remainder of your practice time to
do other pieces, or other sessions within the same block.

The scheme above is of course just a suggestion. Depending on the student you may
have to break down a practice session in much smaller chunks. Or you may be able to
do more than two bars in one session. The important thing is that you organise the
learning of the piece, and be extremely consistent on a daily basis, so that it all
adds up to something after a few weeks.

But we are not finished yet. The fourth stage is to add the ornaments. This would
probably need a thread in itself, since ornament practice in Bach has been
completely distorted by 19th century and early 20th century performers and
editions. In fact most pre-1950s editions that have realised ornaments for this
invention have it wrong. I myself learned them all wrong in my teen years and had
to relearn them all. Have a look at this thread where there is some discussion on

Fifth stage. At this point the student should know this piece back to front, and it
is probably memorised and at performance level. I now give him/her a score where I
have made an harmonic reduction of the piece, so that we can follow the harmonic
progressions and modulations. I want to answer the question: Where is this piece
going harmonically, and how is it getting there? This is ultimately what holds the
music together and creates climaxes, moods and so on. And yet it is all on the
border of consciousness. We do no pay much attention to it, and its mostly a
subliminal effect (as it should be). It is similar to a movies soundtrack. It is
there, but we are hardly aware of it (which is as it should be). And yet, the
soundtrack is the single most important element for a movie to be effective. Just
take the soundtrack away and you will see what I mean. It creates mood, climaxes,
and it is the most important element in the suspension of disbelief so important
for the enjoyment of a movie. Likewise, a music student must be made aware of
harmonisation. Bach is particularly good for this purpose, since he was a
consummate master of Harmony (his harmonisations of Lutheran chorales are still
models of study in harmony classes)

Once the student has gone through theses five stages and is thoroughly conversant
with them, s/he is ready to start learning the piece! (he he Grin). This is the
final stage , and it is here that matters of interpretation and performance will be

Best wishes,
Here they are:

Bar 1: 2 entries
Bar 2: 2 entries
Bar 3 - 4: 7 entries (4 inversions, 3 retrogrades they overlap)
Bar 5: 2 entries
Bar 6: no entries
Bar 7: 2 entries
Bar 8: 2 entries
Bar 9: 2 entries
Bar 10: 2 entries
Bar 11 - 12: 7 entries (4 inversions and 3 retrogrades overlapping)
Bar 13: 2 entries
Bar 14: no entries
Bar 15: 2 entries
Bar 16: 2 entries
Bar 17: 2 entries
Bar 18: 2 entries
Bar 19 20: 6 entries (RH: 3 motifs, 2 retrogrades overlapping)
Bar 21: 2 entries (1 inversion, 1 retrograde overlapping)
Bar 22: no entries.

Total: 46 entries.

Inversion: Bb A G F A G Bb
Retrograde: F A G Bb A B C

(Both on RH, overlapping)

The order Bach taught them (we dont know for sure but there is a good argument
for it) supposedly progressive order of difficulty - was:

No.1 C
No.4 Dm
No. 7 Em
No. 8 F
No. 10 G
No. 13 Am
No. 15 Bm
No. 14 Bb
No. 12 Am
No. 11 Gm
No. 9 Fm
No. 6 E
No. 5 Eb
No. 3 D
No. 2 Cm

At this point you must keep in mind that Bach was not only considering technical
difficulty but also complexity of analysis and compositional techniques, so an
invention may seem easy to play (e.g. no. 2 in Cm) but have a great depth of
complexity as a piece. Have a look here for more details:,5143.msg49995.html#msg49995
(Inventions and sinfonias: Bachs pedagogical order of difficulty)
In purely technical terms, I tend to think of them in three groups of difficulty:

Easiest: 1 - 2 - 4 - 8 - 10 - 13 - 14
Intermediate: 3 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 9
Advanced: 11 - 12 - 15

Have a look here where this has been discussed.,3187.msg27993.html#msg27993
(order of difficulty of the inventions)

Best wishes,