October 2016: J.S. Bach Invention No. 13

Geared for Grades 7 and Up

Johann Sebastian Bach Invention No. 13

        Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) is known throughout the world as one of the greatest master composers to have ever lived. Sebastian was born, lived his life, and died in a small area in Germany. Though he was not well traveled, his music has made it not only across the globe, but, literally, into the far reaches of space! In 1977 NASA sent a space probe on an interstellar mission. The probe housed what were conceived then as humankind’s most outstanding achievements. Along with other types of human creations, NASA selected 27 samples of music from around the world including three compositions by Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (mvt. 1), “Gavotte en rondeaux” from the Partita No. 3 for violin, and Prelude and Fugue, No. 1 from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Imagine! Three pieces from one person!  

Bach lived and breathed music. Noted primarily as a keyboardist in his time, Bach was a virtuoso on the harpsichord, clavichord, and organ. The composer held a number of musical positions in his life including Court Musician, Organist, Chamber Musician, Concert Master, Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold, and Music Director in the city of Leipzig. His jobs were ever consuming of his time and energy, and included writing music for occasions and worship, conducting and playing in performances, researching, listening to, and arranging other composer’s works for his own growth and skill development, as well as demanding teaching appointments. In his “spare” time, Bach managed to composer a vast amount of music, grand in scope and glorious in sound, on top of raising no less than 20 children, 13 surviving into adulthood.

            Bach wrote for all manner of genres including many keyboard works, chamber music, songs, cantatas (large works for chorus and orchestra), concerti and other works for orchestra, and several encyclopedic works including the Well-Tempered Clavier (a total of 48 pieces for piano in every major and minor key), the B Minor Mass, and The Goldberg Variations.

            The Well-Tempered Clavier was and remains a corner-stone work for composers. Bach’s intellectual and musical genius flows through every note in this master work to the extent that almost every main composer after Bach holds it in high respect, studies the work, and notes it as one of the single most influential parts of their musical education. Several composers have even challenged themselves to compose a similar work reflecting the artistic styles of their own age including Frederic Chopin, Claude Debussy, Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Paul Hindemith, and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Listening as an Event

Link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPxs3np5oJo

         Bach lived and composed in the Baroque Era, which celebrated polyphony: multiple melodies coming together to create a single composition. Sometimes a piece might showcase two melodies, while others may have five, six, seven, or more! As a keyboard player, the performer must diligently study each melodic line and discover its secrets. And then, just like multiple highways streaming off in different directions, the melodies must run their course simultaneously, each in its own unique way, creating a whole that is greater than its parts. It is a challenge – and oh, so fun to do!

            Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias are polyphonic pieces setting two or three voices, respectively, against one another. Thirty in all, the collection includes 15 inventions and 15 sinfonias. These pieces use imitative polyphony. The main theme, or subject, of the piece can be heard in each voice throughout the piece, sometimes in full, some times only in part. The imitation is like a round, but much more free. Using the link above, listen to Bach’s Invention No. 13 in a minor.  Close your eyes and don’t worry about trying to hear the two lines! Just enjoy how the melodies interact and copy one another. Listen to the continuous motion. 

            Next, let’s actually try to follow the single lines. The following link holds the sheet music for the invention as well as an audio track. Listen to the piece a few times and try to keep track of the treble or upper voice.  Can you keep with it? Can you identify it against the flowing bass line?  Try keeping a beat to help you stay with the music!  Keep an eye and ear out for the changing rhythms, sixteenths to eighths, to help you maintain your place in the music.

Now listen and try to keep focused on the bass line. Which is easier for you? 

Can you do it?



Johann Sebastian Bach. Digital image. Toccata Classics. N.p., 2014. Web. 11 Sept. 2015. <http://www.toccataclassics.com/composer.php?ID=270>

Music from earth. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/index.php