Composers Datebook®

Bach's 2- and 3-part Inventions

Composer's Datebook - Jan. 22, 2023


As kids, many of us received home-made presents: a sweater or pair of socks, perhaps, or—if you were unlucky—a crocheted bow tie you were forced to wear when Auntie came to visit.

On today's date in 1720, Johann Sebastian Bach started a home-made present for his 9-year old son, Wilhelm Friedemann. It was a collection of little keyboard pieces designed to teach him to play the harpsichord, pieces now known as Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions.

Here's how J.S. Bach himself described these pieces: "Straightforward Instruction, in which amateurs of the keyboard, and especially the eager ones, are shown a clear way not only of learning to play cleanly in two voices, but also, after further progress, of dealing correctly and satisfactorily with three… all the while acquiring a strong foretaste of composition."

In the case of little Wilhelm Friedemann, it did the trick. Not only did he master the keyboard, he became a composer himself.

Even just attentively listening to Papa Bach's inventions can have its rewards, according to the late music critic Michael Steinberg, who wrote, "Bach has done such a good job at instilling 'a strong foretaste of composition' that… they will make the hearer a better, … a more aware and thus a more enjoying, listener as well."

Music Played in Today's Program

J.S. Bach (1685-1750) 2-Part Invention #6 in E, BWV 777 Simone Dinnerstein Sony 79597

On This Day


  • 1727 - French composer Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, in Dijon;

  • 1870 - French composer and organist Charles Tournemire, in Bordeaux;

  • 1901 - Austrian composer Hans Erich Apostel, in Karlsruhe, Germany;

  • 1903 - English composer Robin Milford, in Oxford;

  • 1916 - French composer Henri Dutilleux, in Angers;

  • 1923 - American composer Leslie Bassett, in Hanford, Calif.;

  • 1924 - American jazz composer and trombonist James Louis ("J.J.") Johnson, in Indianapolis;


  • 1964 - American composer Marc Blitzstein, age 58, from injuries suffered in a barroom fight, in Fort-de-France, Martinique;


  • 1723 - Handel: opera "Ottone, re di Germania" (Julian date: Jan. 12);

  • 1859 - Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in d, Op. 15, with the Hanover Court Orchestra conducted by Joseph Joachim and the composer as the soloist;

  • 1887 - Gilbert & Sullivan: operetta "Ruddigore" at the Svoy Theatre in London;

  • 1894 - Glazunov: Symphony No. 4, in St.Petersburg (Gregorian date: Feb. 3);

  • 1908 - Stravinsky: Symphony in Eb, Op. 1, in St. Petersburg (Gregorian date: Feb. 4):

  • 1934 - Shostakovich: opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" (1st version), in Leningrad at the Maliiy Opera Theater;

  • 1936 - Hindemith: "Trauermusik (Music of Mourning)" for Viola and String Orchestra,on a BBC memorial concert for King George V of England (who had died on January 20, 1935), with Sir Adrian Boult conducting and the composer as soloist;

  • 1970 - Carlisle Floyd: opera "Of Mice and Men," in Seattle; According to Opera America, this is one of the most frequently-produced American operas during the past decade;

  • 1980 - John Williams: "Cowboys Overture," by the Boston Pops, conducted by the composer;

  • 1998 - Ned Rorem: song-cycle “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” as Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in New York City, by the New York Festival of Song;

  • 1998 - Bright Sheng: "Postcards," in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota, by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Hugh Wolff conducting;


  • 1575 - The Protestant Queen of England, Elizabeth I, grants a license to Thomas Tallis and William Byrd (both Catholics), to print music for 22 years;

  • 1889 - Columbia Phonograph Company founded in Washington, D.C.;

  • 1907 - The Metropolitan Opera production of R. Strauss' opera "Salome," with soprano Olive Fremstad in the title role, creates a scandal; The opera is dropped after a single performance, and not staged at the Met again until the 1930s.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®