December 2010

Two-Part Inventions No. 4 in D Minor, No. 8 in F Major, and No. 13 in A Minor

by Johann Sebastian Bach

We started with Johann Sebastian Bach at the very beginning (January 2009). He was the great German composer of the early 1700s.

The pieces that we're going to listen to are founded in something called counterpoint. The idea of counterpoint is that you have one melody, and then a completely different melody, and when you play them together, it sounds great. This method was used a LOT in the late 17th and early 18th century. You've actually already heard examples of it.

Bach was attempting to teach counterpoint to new students learning the keyboard. I say keyboard because the piano, as we know it, wasn't invented yet. In Bach's time, there were other keyboard instruments like the harpsichord, clavichord, and organ.

Most likely around 1720, Bach wrote a collection of two- and three-part inventions. The two-part inventions featured two melodies: one played in the right hand, one played in the left. The three-part inventions, called sinfonias featured three melodies (three-part counterpoint). There are 15 two-part inventions (8 in a major key, 7 in a minor key). He wrote one invention for each of the common keys, starting with C major, for Invention No. 1. Number 2 was in C minor, then D major, D minor, E-flat major, E major, E minor, and so forth, all the way to B minor (which the Germans actually referred to as the key of "h").

Each of the two-part inventions are short, anywhere from less than a minute to maybe three minutes long. They are meant to be exercises meant to train the keyboard student. Interestingly enough, though, most of the melodies are really memorable. I've chosen three of the two-part inventions that are my favorites: Number 4 in D minor, Number 8 in F major, and Number 13 in A minor.

Jon's Introduction to These Pieces:

I'm pretty sure the first time I heard the Two-Part Invention No. 4 in D minor was around 1982 or 1983. Our main computer at this time was the TI-99/4A. We had gotten a music-making cartridge called (creatively enough) "Music Maker". The main theme of this cartridge is Invention No. 4. I was to hear it later on the Switched-on Bach albums (Walter/Wendy Carlos), and various other settings.

Invention No. 8 was used heavily in the computer world, especially with music programs. I think the first time I heard it, though, was on Switched-on Bach.

I'm pretty sure the first time I heard Invention No. 13 was on the Commodore 64. Commodore had adopted Invention No. 13 as the theme music for the Commodore 64, and used it throughout its demo programs as well as TV commercials, and so on. It reminds my favorite of the Two-Part Inventions.


So, here they are. First, we'll listen to Invention No. 4. Notice the swapping back and forth between the left and the right hand. First the right hand plays 16th notes, then the left hand plays 16th notes (while the opposite hand plays 8th notes). It almost starts out as a canon or round, but then breaks pattern in the middle. Enjoy!

Two-Part Invention No. 4 in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (0:51)

Next, we'll listen to Invention No. 8. This one is even more of a canon or a round. Listen as the left-hand echoes the right-hand. Enjoy!

Two-Part Invention No. 8 in F Major by Johann Sebastian Bach (0:49)

And finally, we'll listen to Invention No. 13. This one is similar to Number 4, in the sense that one hand plays 16th notes, while the other hand plays eighth notes. This also has the feel of a round, but is really more of a fugue, and maybe that's why I like it so much. This particular recording is faster than I usually like this, but it's the best one I've got. Enjoy!

Two-Part Invention No. 13 in A Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (0:45)

For those interested, the first two Inventions (4 and 8) were performed by Evgeni Koroliov. Invention Number 13 was performed by Glenn Gould.

Jon's Interpretation:

Two-Part Inventions were very often played electronically, especially programmed into computers in the early 1980s. The reason is because these pieces are extraordinarily mechanical. Their rhythm is very straight and constant. There's not a lot of change in tempo (i.e., speed up or slow down). Their expression comes from the counterpoint. This is true of a lot of Bach's work.

Both of the minor inventions (4 and 13) are very expressive. For has a very triumphant return to the main theme. Number 13 has a point toward the end where it seems like its about to unravel completely, but then wraps up beautifully. Number 8 is almost overly happy (maybe even a little crazy). Number 8 is the one that most keyboard students (even today) learn to play very fast, and is usually used to impress people.

Extra Credit:

If we're going to start at the beginning, then I really need to include the original theme music for Music Maker on the TI-99/4A (Invention No. 4 in D minor). So here it is:

Music Maker Theme on the TI-99/4A

In High School, I was introduced to Emerson, Lake and Palmer (a progressive rock group from the early 1970s). Carl Palmer, a gifted percussionist, included a performance of Invention Number 4 on the xylophone on one of their albums. And here it is:

Two-Part Invention No. 4 in D Minor performed by Carl Palmer (1:58)

Moving on to Number 8, here also is the Walter/Wendy Carlos rendition from Switched-on Bach. Enjoy!

Two-Part Invention No. 8 in F Major from "Switched-on Bach" performed by Walter Carlos (0:44)

And, as I can't seem to leave well-enough alone, here is the Walter/Wendy Carlos rendition of Invention Number 13 from Switched-on Bach II. Enjoy!

Two-Part Invention No. 13 in A Minor from "Switched-on Bach II" performed by Walter Carlos (1:24)

For extra credit on Invention Number 13, I certainly couldn't ignore the Commodore influence. When the Commodore 64 was released, Commodore included a demo that played Christmas music and featured various animated graphics. At the end of the demo, they gave a sales pitch to the tune of Invention Number 13. And here's that segment:

And finally, a variation on the same theme. Here is a Commodore TV commercial from 1982. Notice the theme playing in the background. Enjoy!