Bach the Contrarian, Gould the Alien

The year winds down and with it the tricentenary of J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier I, assembled and signed by the master in 1722. But with the busiest B there’s always another timeless collection to celebrate.

In 2023 the odometer of his Inventions and Sinfonias reaches the 300-year mark. I’m guessing that in the intervening centuries more miles have been put on this collection than on the Well-Tempered Clavier (with the exception of the self-driving Prelude in C Major). Bach was the most committed and productive teacher of his, or perhaps any age, and both of these volumes were crucial components of his pedagogical program. They’ve been essential to the keyboard curriculum ever since.

Although collated later than the preludes and fugues, the two- and three-part Inventions (Bach called them Sinfonias) likely came earlier in his students’ tuition. The 1722 title page of the Inventions expresses the composer’s intent to instruct and uplift:

“Forthright instruction, through which lovers of the clavier, especially those desiring to learn, are shown in a clear way not only 1) to learn to play two voices clearly, but also after further progress 2) to deal correctly and well with three obbligato parts, moreover at the same time to obtain not only good ideas, but also to carry them out well, but most of all to achieve a  cantabile [i.e., singing]  style of playing, and thereby to acquire a strong foretaste of composition.”

The opening pitch of the first Invention is middle C—at the center of the keyboard. The ensuing numbers ascend through the major and minor tonalities, though surveying fifteen rather than the comprehensive twenty-four of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

The pleasant, flowing theme of the first Invention exemplifies the singing style Bach wanted to model for his students. First the right hand delivers the main idea before passing it to the left.  The exchange continues in elegant dialogue, the theme and its accompanimental line revealing themselves to be cleverly modular: the bass becomes the soprano and vice versa, a technique known as invertible counterpoint. Bach demonstrates that a good invention should not just have a singing quality, but should also allow for interesting combinations and reconfigurations. The performer should be alert to the composerly imagination that hit on the invention and the skill that elaborated it on paper.

After David Oistrakh’s rendition of the Violin Concerto in E Major (BWV 1042), discussed in this space last week, the next LP that I listened to obsessively on the family stereo was the Inventions and Sinfoniasrecorded by Glenn Gould in 1965. The disc was/is the same age as I was/am.  I must have started playing it frequently when I was eight or nine. It was my first keyboard record, given to me by a family friend who wanted to encourage my interest in Bach’s music.

Gould was the most famous—or perhaps infamous—Bach interpreter of my youth. Before I received the recording of the Inventions, I had already watched Gould on television, my parents getting me out of bed to watch the broadcasts.  Before the advent of YouTube, seeing a great pianist at his instrument outside of live performance counted as a rare occurrence. That these programs on public television aired after my usual bedtime increased the feeling that they were special occasions. The broadcasts emanated from somewhere far away in Canada.

The cameras would pan over the control room and its countless dials and knobs. It looked like the capsule of a spaceship, the illuminated piano locked in orbit on the other side of the glass in the otherwise darkened studio, its walls as black as the night sky.

The cover of my Inventions LP showed the dark-haired, handsome head of Gould hovering, disembodied above a white background. (It was the work of the Columbia Records photographer Don Hunstein, who made celebrated images of many other famous musicians—Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Miles Davis.)

Unlike the cover, the television broadcasts from Canada proved that Gould did have a body after all. It sat on a low chair and hunched over the keyboard, the hands often lifting off the keys to gesture, conduct, or even flail. The mouth opened and closed and hummed and sang. The sounds made, sometimes hardly audible, were an uncanny commentary, a de-tuned ghosting of what the fingers played on the piano.

I’d been told that Bach himself could barely be seen to move when he played (this efficiency of motion is recounted in the earliest Bach biography from 1802). Although Gould violated all the protocols of decorum, his fingers touched the keys with utter care and precision. Hermetically sealed in his studio, Gould didn’t just seem to come from another country, but from another planet entirely—an alien as much as an artist. My parents’ rapt attention made me understand that this was serious stuff: in a word, Art. One could aspire to that level of musicianship, but, they reminded me, preferably without the hunching, flailing and humming.

Some of that otherworldly, uncanny song came through on Gould’s recording of the Inventions. What was most curious about his reading of the first Invention was that towards the end of the short piece he began adding a few extra notes:  he tinkered with the score.  If Bach was a genius and his music immutable masterpieces, what gave Gould the right to doctor it with his own bits of filigree?  I had also been given a facsimile of the Inventions (an inexpensive volume put out by Dover) that showed that someone had filled in the falling thirds of the opening figure with triplets. These weren’t in my modern edition. Gould didn’t play these triplets but invented his own ornaments. Someone (I later learned it was Bach himself) had fooled with the music on the manuscript, and Gould fooled with it in performance in his spaceship of a studio.

The C-major is perhaps the most played of the Inventions, but I was obsessed with the sixth in the set, that in E Major. This Invention seemed the whackiest to me. The persnickety, slightly obsessive outline of its two voices reminded me of Chopsticks, except in that kid’s keyboard plaything the two voices proceeded first away from each other, rather than embarking on a collision course as in the Invention. In that piece, the upper voice slithered down through half-steps above a left hand that ascended in a simple E-major scale. There was nothing inventive about that “melody”; it was just a basic building block of music plugged into the piece without alteration or ornament.

Unlike Chopsticks, the two voices of the Invention did not align metrically. Instead, they were staggered, syncopated—the right hand delivering its line as sixteenth notes heard just after each note of the ascending scale below.  The result was angular, obstinate—like a grumpy kid. That kid was often me, and that perceived quality must have been one of the main reasons I was drawn to the piece.

Bach’s fussy notation seemed to project a gluey and sinuous effect, as if he wanted to get as much sound out of the dissonances created by the two stubborn lines. Bach tied a sixteenth-note D-natural in the right hand (which formed a crazy, devilish tritone with the G-sharp in the left) over the bar line to make it into a full eighth like the other notes. On the LP, Gould ignored the score and played both hands staccato, the piquant dissonances batted away like pestering flies.

Before the two voices bumped each other near the middle of the keyboard, Bach deftly veered away from the impending unison at the last possible juncture by having the left hand turn back at its high E natural—the octave apex of its ascending scale—in a descending sixteenth-note figure. The right hand also retreated outward into an elegant, even coy decoration of the home triad.

At this point the Invention had only made its way through four bars, yet Bach then simply started it over again, delivering exactly the same material a second time but the hands swapping their themes (invertible counterpoint!). This meant that they moved in the opposite direction—away from one another (in contrary motion).  While this repetition introduced no new ideas, the reconfiguration changed the character of the music slightly. The syncopation was groovier and/or goofier now as a bassline heckling the plainspoken—plain-singing!—upper voice.

The obviousness and obstinance of music doubling back on itself was eccentric, almost irritating—not unlike Chopsticks. The repetition made no musical sense except as a joke, a kind of annoying here-it-is-if-you-didn’t-get-it-the-first-time gag.  Bach had turned contrary motion into contrarian’s shtick.

This winking willfulness was even more brazen at the beginning of the second half of the piece, where Bach repeated the opening again (transposed to B Major), but starting on a unison B, the note just below middle C. The thumbs battled over the same key, hitting it twice as if locked in a clinch before they withdrew to their opposite (though never neutral) corners.

Whether heard above or below the rising scale, the chromatic line was literally off-beat. Its snaking, insinuating, sly course maybe didn’t even really follow the rules of dissonance treatment. There was a flippancy in its manner that verged on the obstreperous, suggested not by jarring chords but with two disarmingly simple contrapuntal lines. It made me smile, sometimes laugh—my kind of music, music that had something to teach me about getting a rise out of people, music of resistance and humor.

(For a colorful tour through the preludes and fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier, I in all major and minor keys played in the domestic music rooms of twenty-four of our time’s leading harpsichordists on twenty-four different instruments, turn to the miracle All of Bach.)

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at