French Suites 1-6

Introduction
Although normally published as a collection, these six suites were not written as such.  The first five were assembled together as part of the Clavierbüchlein (1722) and dedicated to Anna Magdalena Wilcke, who became Bach’s second wife, though the movements were written at different times, and some movements were even recycled from other collections.  These were intended as pedagogical works, like Bach’s 2- and 3-part inventions, though the level of proficiency required for the French Suites is significantly higher than for the inventions. 

Bach himself never referred to these suites as “French.”  That title was assigned in the late 18th century, and is based on the types of dances Bach employs in these works.  The dances are French in title and origin, which distinguishes them from the dance movements in the so-called “English” Suites or the partitas.  Although Bach almost always uses French titles for the individual movements (“Air” being an exception), many of the movements are more Italian in style (David Schulenberg), especially in the courante movements.  A few individual movements appear to be somewhat galant in style; this is a style we associate more with the music of the sons of Bach, and is surprisingly forward-looking for works written in the 1720s. 

Typically, suites of the Baroque era alternate fast and slow movements (the terms “fast” and “slow” are relative terms).  The movements are summarized below:

D minor, No. 1

C minor, No. 2

B minor, No. 3

E-flat, No. 4

G major, No. 5

E major, No. 6

Allemande

Allemande

Allemande

Allemande

Allemande

Allemande

Courante

Courante

Courante

Courante

Courante

Courante

Sarabande

Sarabande

Sarabande

Sarabande

Sarabande

Sarabande

Menuet I

Air

Anglaise

Gavotte

Gavotte

Gavotte

Menuet II

Menuet

Menuet

Menuett

Bourrée

Polonaise

Gigue

Gigue

Gigue

Air

Loure

Menuet

     

Gigue

Gigue

Bourrée

         

Gigue

Notice that all six begin with allemande, courante, and sarabande, and each ends with a gigue.  I will not take the time here to do a complete analysis – or even a cursory analysis, for that matter—of every single movement of every single suite.  The sixth suite is discussed in its entirety, as is the fifth, which I know very well.  Among the first four suites, however, I will provide highlights of some of the more interesting or unusual moments. 

French Suite No. 1 in D Minor
French Suite No. 5 in G Major
French Suite No. 6 in E Major

©2005 Carol Traupman-Carr.

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