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Review of: Bach and the Patterns of Invention by Laurence Dreyfus.

November 30, 2007

Bach and the Patterns of Invention
by Laurence Dreyfus
Harvard University Press
270pp, ISBN 0-674-06005-9

Students of baroque music will probably have come across the terms inventio, elaboratio and executio and not have given them a second thought. Ther are derived from Ciceronian rhetoric and could be dismissed as attempts to give straightforward processes fancy-sounding names. Laurence Dreyfus takes these terms seriously and believes they can form the basis of an analytical approach capable of shedding light on the workings of Bach’s mind.

This does not appear to be a very promising premise, but Dreyfus uses it as a springboard for an original and detailed appraisal of Bach’s achievement.

He begins by showing how “invention”, “disposition” and “elaboration” were meaningful concepts for 18th-century musicians. Two red herrings are immediately disposed of. The first of these is the arid scholasticism of Mattheson with its pretentious Latin labels for musically empty-headed procedures; the second is the idea of Bach as an all-round learned humanist who consciously imitates in his music the categories of classical rhetoric.

What we are left with is a Bach primarily concerned with invention, disposition and elaboration as a conceptual framework for his highly idiosyncratic approach to writing music.

Much of this book is concerned with detailed analysis that tries to illuminate, and at least to some extent to recreate, Bach’s processes of composition. The result is the uncovering of processes that appear messy but are convincingly real. This is a fundamentally imaginative approach to analysis, involving as it does speculations about the order in which the inventions of the piece were composed and the role of procedures that were started by the composer but destined for only partial success due to the grammar of tonal music.

All this makes composition appear as the work of a highly skilled and persevering craftsman rather than the work of a god-like creator. This is a theme that re-appears many times during the book: Dreyfus has a firm belief that Bach’s intentions are recoverable and can play a part in our interpretation of his music.

Dreyfus’s Bach invents – he neither discovers nor obeys inviolable laws. This leads Dreyfus to take issue with some of the received wisdom of 19th-and 20th-century musicology. Chief among Dreyfus’s dislikes is the desire to see a piece of music as a organism, growing from an initial cell to a complex form. Comparing Schenker’s reading to his own analysis of Bach’s C minor fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, Dreyfus argues that an approach to the piece based on concepts that Bach would have understood makes more sense than Bach’s organicist theories.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is how Dreyfus develops the idea of invention to encompass Bach’s treatment of different genres such the Sonate auf Concertenart and the concerto. His interpretation of the Sonata for viola da gamba and harpsichord, BWV 1029, is ingenious and convincing; Dreyfus reads the slow movement as a contrapuntal combination of French and Italian styles with each style to a large extent being stifled by the other.

Dreyfus constantly brings out how Bach’s more intellectually rigorous methods emerge when his work is compared to the “progressive” exponents of the style galant and the music of composers like Vivaldi.

He packs a lot of argument and analysis into a fairly short book. The technical analysis is deep and detailed and will repay intensive study. The works discussed are either quoted in full or in large extracts and much of the analysis is presented in tabular form. Given the density of the argument, the book bears the hallmark of having been written over a considerable period and in various styles.

At times Dreyfus seems to be experimenting with a particularly obscure type of writing that uses analogies between music and linguistic theory. However, in most of the book he writes in a scholarly and lucid style. This book is probably intended for professional scholars and serious students.

However, Dreyfus’s ideas should be of interest to anyone interested in exploring new ways of understanding 18th-century music.

Barry Mitchell

First published in The Times Higher Education Supplement, No 1,316.

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