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Academy of Ancient Music
Professor Christoph Wolff
Johann Sebastian Bach is usually — and rightly so — credited with advancing the art of counterpoint and
lifting the art of writing fugues to unprecedented heights. Rarely, however, are his dance pieces mentioned as
significant contributions to compositional technique and musical aesthetics. Yet, Johann Nicolaus Forkel’s pathbreaking biography of 1802 specifically addresses the significance of Bach’s suites. He points out that in these
works “the rhythm was the most important object” and states:
“Bach carried this branch of the art also much farther than any of his predecessors or contemporaries. He tried
and made use of every kind of meter to diversify, as much as possible, the character of his pieces. He eventually
acquired such a facility in this particular that he was able to give even to his fugues, with all the interweaving of
their single parts, striking and characteristic rhythmic proportions in a manner as easy and uninterrupted from
the beginning to the end as if they were minuets.”
Indeed, considering the unfolding of the repertoire of Bach’s keyboard music from the earliest to the last works,
fugue and dance composition, contrapuntal and rhythmic concerns, always complement one another, even
merge — notably in the case of the Goldberg Variations.
Therefore, it is not unreasonable to see the English and French Suites in close connection with Book I of the
Well-Tempered Clavier. The latter stands for the definition and expansion of modern tonality, the juxtaposition of
strict and free styles, and in particular the varied and sophisticated contrapuntal treatment of melodic themes.
The two sets of suites from around the same general period demonstrate on the other hand Bach’s remarkable
and innovative control of rhythmic textures in a great variety of established dance types and, at the same time,
by featuring attractive melodies supported and enhanced by rich rhythmic textures. In dance movements, meter
and rhythm function as ‘thematic’ material.
Bach composed the English Suites (BWV806–811) during the later years of his Weimar period, 1708–17. Preceded
in all likelihood by a number of works in the same genre, of which only a few youthful works like the Suite in A
major BWV832 have survived, they represent the first set of large-scale and mature harpsichord works in Bach’s
output before the Well-Tempered Clavier. However, they received their final shape only in Leipzig around 1725
when Bach reviewed the pieces along with their shorter counterparts, the French Suites, first entered in the Little
Clavier Book for Anna Magdalena Bach of 1722. Both sets then led up to the ambitious project of the six ClavierÜbung I, published piecemeal from 1726 and as a collection in 1731 as the composer’s crowning achievement in
the composition of suites of dances.
The historic nicknames of the two sets of ‘English’ and ‘French’ Suites are of obscure origin. Nevertheless, they
already occur in early manuscripts from the Bach circle, with title pages like “Six grandes Suites dites anglaises
pour le Clavecin” or “Sechs Clavier Suiten... genannt die französischen”. Moreover, Forkel’s statement that “the
composer made them for an Englishman of rank” may be corroborated by the reference “Fait pour les Anglois”
in a manuscript copy from around 1740, later in the possession of Johann Christian Bach. Still, no particulars are
known; and in terms of stylistic implications, there is nothing specifically French or English about them. On the
other hand, it is clear that Bach deliberately intended to differentiate between two types of suites. The English
Suites of larger format are “suites avec prélude” whereas the more compact French lack an é.
In all three major sets of keyboard suites — the English, the French, and the Partitas — Bach firmly adheres to
the traditional movement sequence Allemande-Courante-Sarabande as it emerged in mid-17th century France,
with a concluding Gigue as it emerged as the norm established in late-17th century German practice. However,
this four-movement pattern gives room for a great deal of variety, notably by way of inserting dances of different
types between Sarabande and Gigue. In the case of the English Suites, the inserted movements consist of a
Bourée in Nos.1 and 2, a Gavotte in Nos.3 and 6, a Minuet in No.4, and a Passepied in No.5. But apart from the
choice of dances and keys, there are numerous other elements that give each suite its individual profile, and the
three suites of the present programme present a case in point.
The Suite No.3 in G minor opens with a brilliant extended Prélude in the form of a concerto movement, with
alternating elaborate ritornellos and episodes in seven sections. It exceeds by 20 measures the first movement of
Bach’s Italian Concerto from Clavier-Übung II (1735). The accented triple meter of the Prélude contrasts sharply
with the tranquil common time of the Allemande and its compact form of 24 (12+12) bars. The fast Courante in
3/2-time consists of 32 (16+16) bars. Both movements, like all the other Allemandes and Courantes in the English
Suites, are basically constructed as two-part contrapuntal lines, one each for the right and left hand, with an
intermittent third or fourth voice thrown in. The subsequent Sarabande, on the other hand, and again like the
other Sarabandes of the set, show a full-textured and almost consistently five-part setting. Its principal point,
however, consists in its refined treatment of the characteristic Sarabande step-pattern, with emphasis on the
second beat in 3/4-time. This point is enhanced further by a sophisticated written-out ornamented version of the
whole movement. The following duple-meter Gavotte features a G major middle section in Musette-style. The
concluding virtuoso Gigue in composite 12/8-time unfolds in strict imitative polyphony. Its fugato theme appears
in inversion after the double bar that divides the movement into two not-quite-equal parts.
The Suite No.4 in F major begins with a radiant Prélude that mixes two-part imitative counterpoint with various
concerto elements in a highly original fashion. The result is a rather unique multi-sectional movement featuring
a variety of musical textures. The following dance pair seems to pick up on this idea of textural variety, but
introduces new elements such as triplet figuration in the symmetric Allemande (12+12) and dotted rhythms in
the asymmetric Courante (8+12). The Sarabande hammers out its characteristic syncopation pulse in majestic
chordal style. In stark contrast to this, the inserted Minuet simplifies and regularises the triple meter pattern. Its
tripartite form includes a D minor centre piece. The final Gigue presents in adroit manner a fanfare-like triadic
fugato theme and preserves the illusion of strict polyphonic treatment by inverting the triadic theme at the
beginning of the movement’s second half.
The Suite No.6 in D minor starts differently from the other five with an extended Prelude in two parts. Its first
suggests an improvisatory approach of a reflective mood in relaxed 9/8-time, whereas the fast second part
moves energetically forward, with alternating sections of imitative thematic entries, sequential patterns, figurative
passage work, and chordal interjections. The following movement pair juxtaposes the deliberate treatment in the
Allemande of a rhythmic six-note motif — prominently occurring first in the left hand, then at the beginning
of the second half in the right hand — and a Courante with a virtually uninterrupted melody line in the upper
voice, supported by a continuo-like bass. The Sarabande is presented in two versions, first in plain chordal style
that also underscores the movement’s chromatic harmonies, second in the form of an ornamented Double
where the vertical chords are dissolved and spread out in arpeggiando fashion. The subsequent insert, a duplemeter Gavotte in tri-partite form (minor-major-minor), features a short and often repeated melodic phrase in
trio texture (two parts over a motoric bass line), a pattern that continues in modified duo texture throughout
the major-mode section. The concluding Gigue in 12/16-time, also the last movement of the entire set, is an
effective technical tour de force for the player in as much as it represents a particular compositional masterpiece.
It combines polyphonic strategies with fanciful harmonic twists in a steady and rapid flow of no less than twelve
sixteenth per bar.
© Christoph Wolff 2012. Professor Wolff is Adams University Research Professor at the Department of Music,
Harvard University, and Director of the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig
This article may not be reproduced or copied without permission from the Academy of Ancient Music.