Skip to main content

30% Off New Releases: Explore the List

Harvard University Press - home
Bach and the Patterns of Invention

Bach and the Patterns of Invention

Laurence Dreyfus

ISBN 9780674013568

Publication date: 03/01/2004

In this major new interpretation of the music of J. S. Bach, we gain a striking picture of the composer as a unique critic of his age. By reading Bach’s music “against the grain” of contemporaries such as Vivaldi and Telemann, Laurence Dreyfus explains how Bach’s approach to musical invention in a variety of genres posed a fundamental challenge to Baroque aesthetics.

“Invention”—the word Bach and his contemporaries used for the musical idea that is behind or that generates a composition—emerges as an invaluable key in Dreyfus’s analysis. Looking at important pieces in a range of genres, including concertos, sonatas, fugues, and vocal works, he focuses on the fascinating construction of the invention, the core musical subject, and then shows how Bach disposes, elaborates, and decorates it in structuring his composition. Bach and the Patterns of Invention brings us fresh understanding of Bach’s working methods, and how they differed from those of the other leading composers of his day. We also learn here about Bach’s unusual appropriations of French and Italian styles—and about the elevation of various genres far above their conventional status.

Challenging the restrictive lenses commonly encountered in both historical musicology and theoretical analysis, Dreyfus provocatively suggests an approach to Bach that understands him as an eighteenth-century thinker and at the same time as a composer whose music continues to speak to us today.


  • Laurence Dreyfus’s Bach and Patterns of Invention…is the first study in some time to deal above all with the reasons that music lovers ought to listen to him or play him. Dreyfus’s writing is clear and entertaining…and the advantage of [his] approach to Bach is that it makes us listen to his work as he himself listened to the music of his contemporaries, and as they would have listened to his. It does not claim to read the composer’s mind, but it reconstructs some of the processes through which he had to go to compose in each case, and it does so by referring to aural experience, leaving questions of ideology and doctrine temporarily on the side.

    —Charles Rosen, New York Review of Books


  • Laurence Dreyfus is Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Oxford and an Emeritus Fellow of Magdalen College.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • 7 x 10 inches
  • Harvard University Press

From this author