Posted in Research for Project 2 Examples

Example 1 Research: Musical Rhetoric and Bach’s Two-Part Inventions

When I was thinking about what form to use for my first percussion duet example, I remembered Bach’s unique two-part inventions that always interested me. This was a great opportunity to learn more about them, but more than that, it turned out to be an even better chance to take a closer look at baroque music theory as well.

The early version of Bach’s two-part inventions appeared in his collection Clavierbüchlein, a musical notebook for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (Fig. 1), compiled “on 22 January Anno 1720.” The instruction is organized systematically and thoughtfully: the first half consists of pieces focused on finger exercises with simple chorale preludes, suites, and 11 preludes that were later expanded and integrated into the Well-Tempered Clavier; The second half focuses on counterpoint and consists of the suites by Telemann and partita  by Stölzel, but most importantly, this is where the fifteen two-part praeambulae and three-part fantasias first appear, which will be retitled and revised into Inventions and Sinfonias. (Tomita, 1999)







Fig. 1. J. S. Bach (left) and his son Wilhelm (right)

There is no clear explanation as to why Bach renamed these pieces. Especially peculiar are the inventions, the focus of this post. In terms of genre, they are neither similar to his prelude nor two-part fughetta; nor are they the same as the genre to which 4 duettos from Clavierübung III belong. (Tomita, 1999) They appear to have their own, unique nature.

Before Bach, the titles involving the word invention appear from the sixteenth century onward to designate novelties and progressive techniques used by composers. The earliest use of the term seems to be in the Premier livre des inventions musicales – The First Book of Musical Inventions” by Janequin in 1555. The novelty in these highly original programmatic chansons are the extra-musical allusions, such as the imitations of battle sounds and birdcalls.

Then, there is Dowland’s Invention from 1597, with the novelty – for two to play upon one lute.

Not long after, in 1602, Lodovico da Viadana’s Cento concerti ecclesiastic appeared, with the Nova invention in the title referring to it being the first sacred collection to require a basso continuo. In 1618, there is Opella nova, geistlicher Concerten auff italiänische Invention by Schein. Here the invention is referring again to the new musical devices, and also adoption and adaptation of the Italian style into music of the Lutheran liturgy. In 1689, inventioni curiose in Vitali’s Artifici musicali designate pieces involving special tricks, which consists of many musical brain teasers and musical riddles.

In 1714, Bonporti, Corelli’s student, used Invenzioni as a title for his suite for violin and basso continuo. It is likely that he used this name because the pieces don’t follow a common structure of the time. He used the word scherzo as a title for one of his suites as well, probably in similar context, which you can read in this blog post. Unlike the previous mentioned, these works have a relation to Bach. He found the pieces interesting and transcribed four of them in a manuscript, probably to use as figured bass exercises. (Marshall, 89) These four were even attributed to Bach for quite some time. Bonporti might have inspired the title, however, the form of Bach’s inventions seems to bare no actual relationship to Bopnorti’s.

Bonporti’s contemporary, Vivaldi in 1720 also used the word invention in his Opus 8, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’invenzione, The Contest Between Harmony and Invention. Similar to his treatment of Bonporti’s pieces, Bach made a study of Vivaldi’s concertos through transcribing them. Bach’s first biographer Forkel (1802) described Bach’s encounter with Vivaldi’s pieces and how he studied the chain of ideas, their relation to each other, the variation of the modulations, etc:“The process of adapting the ideas and phrases that were conceived for the violin and which were not suited to the keyboard taught him to think musically, so that, after completing his work, he no longer had to receive his ideas from his fingers but could draw them from his own imagination.” (cited in Pincherle, 1955: 225)

Departing from the previous composers, Bach used the word in a different context. He used the word inventio as a term borrowed from rhetoric. Throughout the eighteenth century, the association between linguistic and musical rhetoric was acknowledged by Baroque musicians, who borrowed rhetorical concepts to demonstrate aspects of their compositions. While there was significant interaction between music and rhetoric in Italy, France and England, it was Germany that developed a complete system of musical-rhetorical implications, as done by Burmeister and the whole generation of other German authors.

In this sense, inventio is the first step of the five in the art of discourse, with other four being, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and pronuntiatio. They have the aim of moving (movere), delighting (delectare) or instructing (docere). Musically, composers focused more on the the first three – inventio, dispositio and elocutio. Although these were mentioned and used in music theory before, in Der vollkommene Capellmeister, Mattheson finally laid them out in a fully organized, rational plan of musical composition.

Just as an orator had to first get an idea – inventio, before he could develop his oration, so did a Baroque composer have to invent a musical idea that was a suitable basis for construction and development. And that’s how Bach used his title – invention, as a thematic idea behind a musical composition.

He writes in the foreword for these pieces that it’s about “not only getting good inventiones, but developing the same satisfactorily.” Which shows also his focus on development – elocutio. As Dreyfus writes, his pieces thus demonstrate that a successful invention must be more than a static well-crafted object, but instead a mechanism that triggers further elaborative thought from which a whole piece of music is shaped. Not only that, but the pieces also have a role in acquiring a “foretaste of composition” – by crafting a workable idea, one unlocks the door to a complete musical work. He adds that, thereby, Bach demonstrates how invention – a musical idea can be a fundamental concept underlying both the training and the activity of a composer.

Bach had a deep connection with rhetoric since his youth. It all began when he was a student at the lyceum in Ohrdruf and Michaelisschule in Luneburg, which involved the study of rhetoric and Latin as part of the standard curriculum. Later, when Bach served as Cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where his duties also included teaching Latin and rhetoric.

However, the question of whether or not Bach applied rhetorical principles in his work has long stirred heated arguments. Birnbaum, Bach’s friend and a professor of rhetoric at the Leipzig University, defended him against Scheibe’s criticism writing that “[Bach] has such perfect knowledge of the parts and merits which the working out of a musical piece has in common with rhetoric.” Also, in mentioning their various discussions on the relationship between the two arts, Birnbaum wrote: “Bach was so knowledgeable in the sphere of the similarities which exist between the two arts, as well as in the similar mode and method of composition, that one not only enjoyed listening to him when he pointed this out in a discussion, but one can only admire the clever application thereof in his compositions.”

Bach’s first biographer, Forkel, who received the information from Bach’s sons, described the composer as “the greatest musical poet and the greatest musical speaker in musical history.” He says that Bach regarded music as a complete language, where the individual instrumental or vocal voices are persons conversing with one another, listening to one another and trying to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way. Furthermore, Bach might have been acquainted with the rhetorical treatises by those like Walther, an organist, theorist, and lexicographer, who was in fact his cousin. The close relationship between Walther and Bach suggests that Bach might have been exposed to the rhetorical-musical theory to some degree. Despite all this, there are still those that are skeptic towards all this, and there are even modern scholars who debate on the musical-rhetorical approach towards Baroque music interpretation in general.

Still, I think it’s important to understand the significance of rhetoric in music, as in trying to understand the structure of baroque imitative forms like Bach’s two-part inventions, we not only need to shift the focus from the classical and romantic homophonic musical texture to the baroque polyphonic texture, meaning, from a dominant melodic line supported by other voice parts, to the independent and equally important melodic lines; But we also need to change the idea of a theme consisting of larger forms like semi-phrase and phrase, and catch on the importance of the smaller figure or motive which has the essential thematic significance in itself.

Furthermore, classic and romantic homophonic forms are based on contrasting principal and subordinate themes, while inventions and other Baroque imitative forms, are most frequently monothematic, involving a technique of continuous expansion, a discursive or additive treatment of a single motive. In Bach’s two-part inventions, the thematic idea – the building block of the whole composition, is laid out in the first bar/bars, and appears from thereon throughout the composition.

Because of all this, the musical form is outlined differently. The layout of a piece – dispositio, as proposed by Mattheson, consisted of six parts – exordium, narratio, propositio, confirmatio, confutatio and peroratio. As he writes, Exordium is the introduction and beginning of a melody in which its purpose and intention are shown.” Narratio is about turning the exordium, which outlined the main musical idea, into a story, as Mattheson says “a tale”.

Propositio is the further development of the musical idea, which can be simple or compound. In simple ones, we usually have colored or ornamented propositions, for example where the bass takes the lead of the musical idea and presents the subject. More compound ones are usually the propositio variata, where the musical thought can be developed through different techniques and variations.

Then there is confutatio and confirmatio. These can be tangled sometimes, which is why argumentatio is sometimes used to mark them. In confutatio, everything that goes against the main musical idea or proposition is displayed. Usually this is done by the apparently foreign passages, which can be expressed by means of various contrasting citations, refutations, ties, and etc. On the other hand, confirmatio is the clever reinforcement of the main musical idea, which is brought by means of surprising repetitions – however, not in the form of an ordinary reprise, but as passages which are often colored and found with variations, but still supporting the main thought. Finally, peroratio is the end or conclusion of musical oration.

Below is the analysis that Mattheson gives for an unidentified aria by Benedetto Marcello. Note that this is an example of vocal piece, but he ignores the text altogether, not giving even “so much as a textual incipit”. This is not a mere oversight and his purpose was to demonstrate the ways in which musical elements of aria function in relation to one another, and not in relation to any text. Thus, Bonds writes (68) that this actually represents “the first attempt to analyze what amounts to a work of instrumental music.” Here is the analysis, first exordium and narratio:


(Lenneberg, 1958: 196)

Then, there is the propositio:


(Lenneberg, 1958: 197)

In this part he talks about confirmatio and confutatio:



(Lenneberg, 1958: 198)

Finally, after this can come the ending in the form of peroratio, however there are other things that can occur, which I will write about in the next post, when I analyze Bach’s pieces. By tracing each successive transformation of the principal musical idea, Mattheson shows aspiring composers how to construct a movement of music from ground up, using metaphors of the oration as the conceptual framework. But, it’s important to know that:

 “While neither Mattheson nor any other Baroque theorist would have applied these rhetorical prescriptions rigidly to every musical composition, it is clear that such concepts not only aided composers to a varying degree but were self-evident to them as routine techniques in the compositional process.”

Another interesting thing. Schulenberg (195) noticed that while Bach’s Sinfonias have “forms based on division of the whole into roughly equal sections, including a bipartite type in which each half is subdivided,” his inventions have a more “abstract” and “free form”. Not just this, but also the original title preambulum, ties them with stylus phantasticus of the Northern Germany – the musical genre with freedom in rhythm, melody, theme, and harmony.

This style is based on the technique of contrapuntal improvisation. It is related to passages that the musicians could perform without thinking, which shifted from vocal to instrumental music, culminating into idiomatic, irregular, and unpredictable keyboard style. Preambulum and praeludium stemmed from this manner of improvisation, representing an organist’s extemporized introduction to an ensemble work.

The leading representative of this style and genre was Buxtehude. (Fig. 2) Although based on improvisation and freedom, his praeludia reflect the order, inner logic, and serve as examples par excellence of fusion of rhetoric and music, by way of the disposition. All the six parts can be recognized in his praeludia, only in larger forms. Buxtehude strongly influenced Bach, who made copies of his music. Bach is considered one of the chief figures responsible for the preservation and publication of Buxtenhude’s compositions. Through copying and listening to Buxtehude’s music, Bach became familiar with his composing techniques.

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Fig. 2. The only surviving painting of Buxtehude

There are many characteristics of the style found in a typical Buxtehude praeludium which are also found in Bach’s preludes and fugues, especially in his Bach’s early Prelude in A minor – BWV 551, which shows the efforts of young Bach to structure his music on the basis of the rhetorical dispositio, following as a model the Buxtehudian manner. Buxtehude’s musical-rhetorical dispositio was also further applied to Bach’s organ toccatas like BWV 551 and 566, which also had preludial purpose and also his keyboard toccatas BWV 910-916.

Another thing that catches the attention is that rhetorical inventio was related to the stylus phantasticus, with the word phantasia at first referring to the imaginative musical idea, and the sense of the play of imaginative invention. The sixteenth century treatises testified to this correlation. Even in the beginning of eighteenth century, we have Vogt and his chapter De phantasia et inventionibus, where this correlation of inventio with the improvised forms of contrapuntal imitation is once again confirmed. (Bartel, 78) Of course, Bach’s inventions are compositions in their own right, with short form and a different, unique structure, but his connection to stylus phantasticus is still there, which is perhaps why Geck writes that in Bach’s inventions:

“The old and new senses of the stylus phantasticus intersect in an unmistakable way.”

Thus, besides being a “foretaste of composition”, Bach’s inventions, likewise sinfonias, may also serve as a foretaste of the imitative material in his stylus phantasticus compositions, giving us a chance to peek at the development of these sections.

With all this, it’s evident that analyzing Bach’s two-part inventions is not easy. I’m going to show my take on several inventions in the next blog post.


List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. J. S. Bach (left) and his son Wilhelm (right)

Fig. 2. The only surviving painting of Buxtehude


Marshall, Robert L. (2003) ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’  In: Marshall, R. L. (ed.) Eighteenth-Century Keyboard Music. (2nd ed.) New York: Routledge

Pincherle, M. (1955) Vivaldi: Genius of the Baroque. Translated by Hatch, C. (1957) New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Schulenberg, D. (2006) The Clavier-Biichlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Related Works New York/London: Routledge Taylor&Francis Group

Bartel, Dietrich (1997) Musica Poetica: Musical-Rhetorical Figures in German Baroque Music. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1997

Bonds, Mark Ewan (2014) Absolute Music: The History of an Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press




2 thoughts on “Example 1 Research: Musical Rhetoric and Bach’s Two-Part Inventions

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