Dom André Laberge, o.s.b. is the organist of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac (Québec, Canada). He first studied at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal where he had Bernard [...]
They spoke about it
Music fashions more personalities and saves more beings than does wisdom.
Alain, Propos, June 25, 1921.
“Put the right finger on the right key at the right time”: such is how J.S. Bach, it seems, enjoyed explaining to admirers the secrets of his sparkling virtuosity at the organ and harpsichord. It was in order to develop his sons’ and students’ skills that J.S. Bach, during his entire lifetime, centered his preoccupations around educational methods; the works he composed and gathered to this effect served the purpose of forming professional musicians, and not, as was the case for many of his contemporaries, of permitting simple amateurs to exercise their talents in an agreeable way.
The task, of course, was to help the apprentice develop a secure technique—in such a way that the fingers (and feet, in the case of the organ) know exactly where they should go—but J.S. Bach is equally concerned with instilling a knowledge of, and love for, music from within.
To achieve this, he has to transmit, thus assuring their continuity, the principles of composition that are the true essence of his art: polyphony and counterpoint. However, these principles, inherited from the generations of musicians who have cultivated them since the Middle Ages, amounted to more, for him and his predecessors, than solely a series of formal processes, as complex as they may be, or an aesthetic concept. They also express a vision of the world, they account for the universal harmony, and, jointly, they offer an ethics, a discipline, as if voice-leading abilities in fugue or canon were a natural inducement to lead one’s life well.
J.S. Bach had planned numerous works for the education of Wilhelm Friedemann; hence, in 1732, he begins composing for his ten-year-old son a Clavierbüchlein, or Little Keyboard Book, containing over sixty pieces (preceded by a short theoretical exposition on clefs and ornements) which propose an overview of the diverse musical genres of the time: the dance suite, the prelude, the fugue, and the treatment of chorales. Some of these pieces are penned by composers other than J.S. Bach, and Wilhelm Friedemann notated in the book his first attempts at composition. But a vast majority of the works in the Clavierbüchlein are by Johann Sebastian; the first half comprises ten or so preludes which will later be inserted in slightly modified form in the Well-Tempered Clavier, and the second half includes fifteen two-part Præambula and fourteen three-part Fantasias.
There are two other extant manuscripts of these last two groups of compositions. The first, which adds a fifteenth Fantasia, orders them in pairs, each two-part piece being followed by the three-part work in the same key. However, the second manuscript, which substitutes the term “Inventio” for the earlier “Præambulum,” and that of “Sinfonia” for “Fantasia,” returns to the previous presentation of the works in two distinct sets, and arranges each series by ascending order of key, starting with C major.
This definitive text dates from 1723, and contains the following preface, which unequivocally reveals the intention of the master: Honest guide, by which lovers of the clavier, and particularly those desirous of learning, are shown a plain way not only to play neatly in two parts, but also, as they progress, to treat three obbligato parts correctly and well, and at the same time to acquire good [musical] ideas and properly to elaborate them, and most of all to learn a singing style of playing, and simultaneously to obtain a strong foretaste of composition.
Whereas J.S. Bach uses the term “Sinfonia” in accordance with its general meaning (already anachronistic by Bach’s time), that is as designating all polyphonic instrumental compositions, the use of the term “Inventio,” or Invention, comes to us as a surprise: indeed, we tend to ascribe to it a meaning that calls more to mind a sense of creative liberty than the sternness of intellectual work.
One early hypothesis was that J.S. Bach had borrowed it from a collection by Francesco Antonio Bonporti published in 1712, and in which the Italian composer calls Invenzioni twelve sonatas for violin and continuo. But we must go further back, to the Artifici musicali published by Giovanni Battista Vitali in 1689, to understand the meaning ascribed by Bach: Vitali actually specifies in the title of his “musical ingenuities” that they will contain canoni in diverse maniere, contrapunti dopii, invenzioni curiose…, and asserts in the preface that “one who does not know how to skillfully handle the mysterious secrets of his art in any style possible does not deserve to be called a musician.” We can see, therefore, that at the time—in music as well as in other art forms—”invention” refers first and foremost to the choice of compositional elements and to their disposition; the result, of course, has to be ingenious, but it also has to follow certain rules—those, in Vitali as in J.S. Bach, of counterpoint.
To J.S. Bach, these rules were far from constraining. He makes use of them with his astounding science, and he blends the polyphonic techniques in such a way as to create a great variety of both processes and moods. Beyond the imitation technique that is at the very base of this art, we find in these Inventions and Sinfonias —commonly refered to as the Two- and Three-part Inventions—voice crossings, inversions of themes and motives (Invention I), canons at the octave (Inventions VI and VIII); we hear genuine fugues (Inventions X and XV, Sinfonias I, III, IV, VI-X and XIII-XIV), double counterpoints (Inventions VI, VIII and XIII), and even dance rhythms (Sinfonias XI and XIII), while Sinfonia V adopts the trio form which will reappear in the six Organ Sonatas (two voices with bass), another group of works intended for Wilhelm Friedemann’s education.
Each of these thirty compositions follows various principles of symmetry, and the whole forms not only a glorious contrapuntal compendium, but also a perfect microcosm. The teaching that is offered is both the fruit of, and the opportunity for “rigorous intellectual work” (to quote Albert Basso); we can be certain, however, that in Bach’s mind, this did not in the least exclude the pleasure and enjoyment given by the love and profound knowledge of music to whomever is willing to make the necessary effort.
Composed between 1740 and 1745, the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-flat major—perhaps three fragments of an unfinished suite—seem to have been written either for the lute or the harpsichord. Its autograph manuscript, which was part of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s estate, indeed carries the title Prélude pour la Luthe ò Cembal. If the Prelude is perfectly suitable to the transparent texture and the “extatic tenderness” (Wanda Landowska) of the lute, it also calls to mind the mood of the Allemandes that open the French Suites.
Since the fugue, however, asks for some adaptations in order to be playable at the lute—it is more suitable to the harpsichord—, the group may also have been conceived for the lautenclavicymbel, or lautenwerk, a keyboard instrument built to imitate the sound and style of the lute. Be it as it may, J.S. Bach opposes here, as he often did elsewhere, an improvisation-like free style of writing to a more strictly conceived structure; he nevertheless flirts with the gallant style, no doubt to please his Leipzig friends, and this not only in the Prelude or the final Allegro, but also in the Fugue, which is restated da capo after an animated central episode. ”
The mature J.S. Bach was by inclination and vocation a teacher. Unlike the majority of great composers, he considered instructing others not a tedious chore but a stimulating experience. Keyboard instruments were particularly well suited for teaching purposes, and J.S. Bach wrote a great number of works that are primarily intended as technical studies, but which developed under the hands of the master into creations of supreme beauty as well as craftsmanship. They are by no means etudes written for his personal pupils only, but collections devised on the largest possible scale and intended for all students and music-lovers alike.
© François Filiatrault
Translation: Alex Benjamin
[…] This Clavierbüchlein, partly written by Bach and partly under his supervision, contains a progressive manual, […] leading the pupil from the simplest to the more advanced pieces. […] [Regarding his Inventions and Sinfonias] no other composer had ever considered imbuing clavier compositions of such small dimensions with a content of similar significance. There are studies in independant part writing using all the devices of fugue and canon, double and triple counterpoint, but without strict adherence to any of them. Bach offers fantasias in the realm of polyphony, freely blending all known techniques, and creating forms which are held together by the logic, and the iron consistency, of his musical thought. ”
Karl Geiringer, The Bach Family, 1954.