Invention | musical form

Invention, in music, any of a number of markedly dissimilar compositional forms dating from the 16th century to the present. While its exact meaning has never been defined, the term has often been affixed to compositions of a novel, progressive character—i.e., compositions that do not fit established categories. The earliest-known use of the term in Premier livre des inventions musicales (1555; “First Book of Musical Inventions”) by the Frenchman Clément Janequin clearly alludes to the composer’s highly original programmatic chansons—secular French part-songs containing extramusical allusions (e.g., imitations of battle sounds and birdcalls). Similarly capricious or novel effects occur in John Dowland’s Invention for Two to Play upon One Lute (1597); Lodovico da Viadana’s Cento concerti ecclesiasticiNova inventione (1602; “One-Hundred Ecclesiastical Concerti…New Invention”), the first sacred collection to require a basso continuo; and Antonio Vivaldi’s Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’invenzione, Opus 8 (1720; “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention”), which contains, among others, a number of programmatic concerti.

Best known perhaps is the set of two-part inventions and 15 three-part sinfonias (often called Three-Part Inventions) for harpsichord (c. 1720) by J.S. Bach, each of which is characterized by the contrapuntal elaboration of a single melodic idea and for which Francesco Bonporti’s Invenzioni for violin and bass (1712) may have served as a model.

Twentieth-century composers of pieces entitled “Invention” include the Austrian Alban Berg and the Russian-American composer Alexander Tcherepnin, who followed Bach’s lead more or less directly.

  • sinfonia

    …Bach called his three-part keyboard inventions sinfonie. In the 20th century, the term was revived by Benjamin Britten (Opus 20, 1940) and Luciano Berio (1968) to designate a small orchestral work.…

  • Johann Sebastian Bach.

    Johann Sebastian Bach

    Johann Sebastian Bach, composer of the Baroque era, the most celebrated member of a large family of north German musicians. Although he was admired by his contemporaries primarily as an outstanding harpsichordist,…

  • Francesco Antonio Bonporti

    Francesco Antonio Bonporti, Italian composer notable for his highly original Invenzioni, short instrumental suites from which Johann Sebastian Bach took the title for his keyboard Inventions. Bonporti studied theology and composition in Rome, was ordained, and returned to Trento; in 1697 he was…

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