Bach J.S. - Invention No 14 BWV 785
The Two-Part Inventions by J S Bach began life as fifteen pieces, originally called Praeambulum, composed for his son, Wilhelm Friedmann.
The pieces were written not only as teaching pieces for promoting good two-part, cantabile playing, but also as examples of how to invent and develop musical ideas in composition. It is not surprising then that Wilhelm Friedmann later became a composer too.
Bach also composed a set of fifteen, three-part inventions called Fantasia, later re-named Sinfonia.
Pupil Match & Suitability
This Invention would suit a student who is capable of agile playing and who achieves neat control of rhythmic evenness.
The score has a slightly off-putting look due to the many demi-semi-quavers but the student may be encouraged by the fact that the rhythms are actually simple, with lots of repetition - and there are no trills.
The complete set of Inventions has a number of very approachable pieces at this level of difficulty and a pair of them would make a good recital programme.
If this piece proves enjoyable it could be followed by learning one of the three-part Sinfonia.
Style & Tempo
Exact tempo markings were not, of course, given by Bach so we have to listen to the sense of phrase and structure to decide on the best pace. Professional performances vary a little but generally the tempo is around crotchet = 60.
This performance by Kolly, on the Naxos label, has a lively sense of movement that suits the character of the music., although a pace of crotchet = 56 is perfectly acceptable for a good student performance.
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Phrasing & Articulation
One of the fascinating things about learning Baroque music is that we are able to make our own choices about articulation. These should be well-informed decisions based on the best examples of interpretation, such as those by Angela Hewitt, heard here on the Hyperion label.
The articulation is light and buoyant, never over-legato in touch. The first of the semiquaver-demisemiquavers-semiquaver patterns (as in bar 1, beat 3) in the RH is also detached, with consistency. Notice that the detached notes are controlled in tone and never 'bumpy' in sound.
The LH quavers are lightly detached and the LH crotchets are carefully sustained for their exact value.
Tone & Texture
Control of tone and texture are the essential elements of a good performance of this piece. Listen to how Kolly manages the shaping of the demisemiquaver motifs with a subtle crescendo and diminuendo, yet also shapes the overall phrasing - a kind of 'phrase-within-a-phrase' effect.
He has made clear decisions about which parts he wishes the listener to hear, for instance starting at bar 12 the LH is more prominent. There is no definitive way to decide on which part is to be brought out, but careful listening will help us to arrive at a convincing solution.
The technique of bringing out one hand or the other is one of the challenges here, which makes this piece an excellent choice in preparation for playing fugues at a later stage.
A discussion of using arm-weight to emphasise the musical lines would be helpful before starting the piece. Pushing down with on the fingers resting on the keys will result in tense, uneven playing.
Allowing the fingers to drop 'into' the keys, transferring the weight between fingers with a flexible little rotary movement will give greater control and comfort.
As always in pieces that have continuous movement, fingering is of vital importance and absolutely must be a priority in the initial stages of practice. Students should never attempt to learn the notes and then hope to improve the fingering as they will already have memorised unhelpful fingering.
Also bear in mind that fingering which seems fine at a slow pace does not necessarily work up to speed. The fingering choices in the ABRSM edition of Selected Piano Examination Pieces is well considered.
There is little need for any pedalling at all in this piece. Excessive use of sustaining pedal would certainly be inappropriate.
A good start would be to decide on an overall feel for the interpretation. The elements that need to be in place from the very beginning are rhythmic accuracy and sensible fingering. There is little likelihood of accidental wrong notes in this piece as the patterns are well established and repetitive.
Do decide on articulation at an early stage, since changing articulation is invariably a difficult task for a student who has become used to practising the piece without any thought for detail. Articulation patterns, once decided upon, should be consistent.
The best way to begin is slowly, with separate hands, in sections. This can be made much more interesting if we learn as if we intend to play from memory. Rather than simply practising reading the notes time and time again, look for patterns that are easy and memorable and play without always looking at the score for as short a phrase as can be remembered.
If you forget what comes next, wait until you remember or look back at the score, but never 'try out' otherwise this will constitute an alternative that will be memorised unconsciously, giving rise to later insecurity. Learn the overall structure as well as small fragments, so that musical signposts may be mentally put in place and followed in performance.
Remember that practising at different tempi helps with control of rhythmic evenness, even more so once the piece is known and up to speed.
The potential problem area is that of being unable to maintain rhythmic evenness and hand co-ordination, especially when the hands are playing the same rhythms. Slow practise will help and also extra LH practice, since the RH is often able to play faster more easily.
Playing with a 'swing' or with altered dynamics and articulation can also help to correct an out-of control feeling.
A lack of detail could be a reason for not achieving a good mark in an examination as this would make for a very bland performance.
In Baroque music one of the most common problems is maintaining fluency even if a slip is made. Thorough knowledge of what comes next in the structure of the music will prevent this from being a problem. Relying just on 'finger memory' is inadvisable.
The best performances of this Invention will be those that are convincing in both character and style.
There will be well considered articulation choices, with textural awareness throughout and a sense of phrase will be created by the interplay of the parts and by graded dynamics.
A performance that has good use of detail but is cautious in pace will not make so favourable an impression and likewise a quick performance that is lacking in sensitivity to texture and musical shaping will be less convincing.
One of the best recordings is the one by Angela Hewitt, heard here.
E-MusicMaestro recordings are streamed under PRS licence.