The Baroque Suite

Posted on October 25, 2013

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The term suite has been used for in different senses. In 17the century Europe, mainly in France, England and the Germanic countries, the suite referred to a collection of instrumental pieces composed around the popular dance forms. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries suite denoted instrumental extracts from ballets, opera, film or musical to make the music accessible to wider audiences. There has also been renewed interest for the Baroque suite as well, several composers creating original compositions in this genre, such as Schoenberg, Satie, Vaughan Williams, Claude Debussy, Gustav Holst and Eric Satie.

The Baroque suite

Although there was a tendency in the sixteenth century to perform groups (two or more) dances in a succession, the first instrumental suites surviving are from the first decades of the seventeenth century. Suites were composed initially for solo instruments, like lute, cello, flute, harpsichord, with orchestral compositions following in the seventeenth century. A standardised format for suites was developed by Johann Jakob Froberger, built around a skeleton of four dances – allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue – with additional dance movements in some cases, such as minuet, gavotte, polonaise, siciliana or others. All the dance movements are following binary (A-B) for where two sections (each played twice) follow one another. The dances are arranged in a way to contrast with each other in their tempo the allemande moderately slow, the courante moderately fast, the sarabande slow and the gigue fast. They are usually composed in the same key and are fit together to suit(e) the same mood.

G. P. Telemann, J. S. Bach, and G. F. Handel composed numerous suites. Many of their dance suites were introduced by preludes and overtures.

The overtures first became fashionable in the court of King Louis XIV of France, being promoted by Jean-Baptiste Lully. They initially served a function to prepare the audience for the upcoming piece, which could be an opera or a suite of dance pieces. L

Preludes were conceived in the Renaissance and Baroque periods as short introductory pieces to larger orchestral compositions in the works of Louis Couperin, J. S. Bach and Jean-Philippe Rameau. They often have a free, improvisatory character, especially regarding the lengths of the notes, which was sometimes left at the discretion of the performers. In the nineteenth century the prelude broke free from its introductory purpose, first in Frédéric Chopin’s 24 Preludes Op. 28.

The Allemande is a duple meter dance of Germanic tradition, original from the sixteenth century. It usually has a rather majestic, solemn character. The major innovation of the Allemande compared to earlier dances (separate couple dancing) was the couples holding each other’s hands during the dance (close partner dancing). In court balls multiple couples danced it simultaneously, forming parallel lines.

The Courante (French) and its Italian equivalent Corrente is a Renaissance dance form of triple meter, meant to induce a mood of passionate expectation, longing and hope. While the French variant is more slow and solemn, the Italian Corrente is more energetic and lively.

The Sarabande is the European counterpart of the dance zarabanda original form Central America (Mexico), influenced by Native American and Arab culture. It infiltrated into the European culture through Spanish colonization. As the zarabanda involves large gestures with erotic overtone, it was considered for long “invented in hell” (Miguel de Cervantes). However, in the sixteenth century it transformed into a passionate and solemn court dance in France.

The Gigue developed from the jumpy and lively Irish and Scottish folk dance called jig. The dance itself can be traced back to the Scandinavian countries. They are lively dances with a fast tempo and a romping beat.

Bach – Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068

Bach wrote only four orchestral suites, in spite of this genre having been very popular in aristocratic courts, suitable for any celebration, from garden parties and fairs to weddings and other significant events in the lives of the elite. In fact, Bach named the entire collection of pieces Overture, after its first exuberant opening piece. Bach may have considered this form of music as a sort of light entertainment, hardly a challenge to his skills. It is somewhat a surprise that one of his best-known melodies appears in one of these suites, i.e. the Air in Suite no. 3. The suite was probably composed 1731 (although fragments of this music appear in earlier works) for the Collegium Musicum and it was premiered in Leipzig, aiming to please the patrons of local music. His son, C.P.E. Bach and one of his students, Johann Ludwig Krebs contributed to the composition, after Bach outlined the piece for violin and basso continuo (harpsichord and cello).


Video: Bach Orchestral Suite 3 performed by The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra conducted by Ton Koopman

The first piece of the suite is a majestic French overture, the type of overture that would introduce Lully’s works. It consists of three sections – the first one with a characteristic dotted rhythm and rhythmic moments of silence (silence d’articulation), the second section with a fugal structure, several melodic lines overlapping – imitative and inverse melodies, and the third section is a brief recapitulation of the opening theme.

The second piece – Air (French equivalent of the Italian word Aria) – has become one of the ultimate symbols of musical quiescence, a universally intelligible song without words. It works through long sustained notes and beautifully harmonised parallel melodies floating over a pulsating rhythm of walking baseline.

The four pieces following the Air are stylised dances – two French Gavottes and a Bourrée as well as a Gigue. All these movements are in binary form. They are fast pace, joyous movements, contrasting with the ethereal lyricism of the second piece. They have a dense structure, with much Baroque- type ornamentation, with broad range tonal colour and a rhythm boosted by energetic drumming and the strident sound of the trumpets.

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Posted in: Part 5