English Suites? Well, the “suites” part is easy, “English” not so much. The title is not the composer’s, but it seems to have been attached to this collection at an early date and used by family and friends in Bach’s inner circle. On one of the early manuscripts, Johann Christian Bach (Sebastian’s youngest son) wrote “Fait pour les Anglois,” and Johann Nicolaus Forkel, Sebastian’s first biographer, wrote about these “six great suites” that they “are known by the name of English Suites because the composer made them for an Englishman of rank. They have all great worth as works of art, but some single pieces among them, for example, the gigues of the Fifth and Sixth Suites, are to be considered as perfect masterpieces of original harmony and melody.”
Forkel’s idea of a commission by a prominent Englishman is probably fanciful supposition, however. It may have been that these suites were inspired by Bach’s study of the six harpsichord suites by Charles Dieupart, a French composer who worked in London at the time. Bach copied out those six suites sometime between 1709 and 1714, and he used one of Dieupart’s gigues as the model for the Prelude of the first English Suite.
In their earliest form, at least, Bach’s suites were probably written in Weimar about 1715, with additional material added later. (Bach’s pupil Heinrich Nicolaus Gerber performed them in Leipzig in 1725 under the composer’s direction.) The systematic organization of the suites by keys descending stepwise (A major, A minor, G minor, F major, E minor, D minor) certainly suggests his later Leipzig obsessions with large-scale order and patterns. Taken as a melody, that sequence – A, A, G, F, E, D – is the first phrase of the chorale tune for “Jesu, meine Freude,” which Bach used in several works. That might be coincidence – always a risky assumption in Bach – but it offers a reason why only one key is repeated in both major and minor modes.
The core movements of a Baroque dance suite were the allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, almost always in harmonically rounded binary form, A-B, with both halves repeated and the tonic tonality restored at the end. In some cases these were actual dance music, but in Bach’s English Suites they are highly stylized, often chromatically intense and polyphonically involved, with the accented dance steps underlying the meter and rhythmic organization.
Baroque suites in the modish French style – which these “English” Suites are, confounding as it may seem – included so-called additional “galanteries,” popular dances or dance-like movements. Bach inserts a matched pair between the sarabande and gigue in each of the English Suites: bourrées in the First and Second Suites, gavottes in the Third and Sixth suites, menuets in the Fourth suite, and passepieds in the Fifth Suite. (The first passepied is marked “en rondeau,” meaning it has a principal theme that returns after contrasting episodes – two in this case.) These galanteries are generally much closer to their dance roots, simpler in texture and earthier in step than the four core dances.
In each of these pairs, the first dance is repeated after the second, a standard practice that led to the “minuet and trio” form of the Classical era. In most Baroque pairings, both dances are in the same key, but in the English Suites Bach changes mode to the parallel key in five of the suites; the menuets in Suite No. 4 go to the relative key (from F major to D minor). The gavottes of the Third Suite are further contrasted, with the brief Gavotte II marked “ou la Musette,” a rustic French dance characterized by drone basses, which this one certainly has, despite the quick decay of sound on harpsichords: its bass line is nothing but tied Gs, the root of the key.
This A-B-A form is the most basic of palindromes, and Bach became very interested in those sorts of mirror shapes. He uses it in three of the preludes in the English Suites, Nos. 2, 5, and 6, which have literal repeats of the A section. (Bach’s shorter, simpler French Suites do not have preludes at all.) These are grandly conceived, contrapuntally rich, large-scale works – the prelude for No. 6 even has an introduction to the main A-B-A form, a sort of prelude to the prelude.
The preludes for the Third and Fourth Suites are lively ritornello-based movements inspired by Italian concertos. The prelude to the First Suite is the one based on a gigue by Dieupart. Opening with an improvisatory flourish, it is the most compact prelude of the group, but that doesn’t preclude fugue.
The First Suite is also unusual in that it has two courantes, and the second courante has two doubles (variations), the first introducing lavish ornamental filigree, the second stretching out the bass line into running eight notes. (The sarabande in the Sixth Suite also has a double, a rhythmically activated variation with style brisé elements, the broken chord style of French lutenists.) There is a didactic element to this that became increasingly common as Bach began compiling his works for students and other players, including his own maturing children. The sarabandes in the Second and Third Suites have written-out embellishments, another tutorial touch offering invaluable indications of what Bach expected from performers.
There is a cumulative power and a sense of narrative drive to the English Suites in numerical order, no matter how arbitrary the organization seems to be. As a final fillip, in the fierce concluding gigue – shot through with fiercely quivering trills – midway through the second half, B-flat – A – C – B-natural, Bach’s musical signature (BACH in German usage), blazes briefly out of the chromatic thicket.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.