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Johann Sebastian Bach’s obituary, written by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Friedrich Agricola, includes a listing of the composer’s published and unpublished works. Down in middle of the unpublished items we find these keyboard works mentioned: Six toccatas for the clavier; Six suites for the same; Six more of the same, somewhat shorter;…
Fifty years later, the first biography of Bach was written by Johann Nikolaus Forkel and issued in 1802. In that slim volume, listed among Bach’s keyboard works even then unpublished, we find the following description of those “somewhat shorter” suites:
Six little Suites, consisting of Allemandes, courants, &c. They are generally called French Suites because they are written in the French taste. By design, the composer is here less learned than in his other suites, and has mostly used a pleasing, more predominant melody.
Forkel also refers to six “great” suites, which he calls the English Suites.
Confoundingly, we have no way of knowing where these two appellations, “French” and “English”, came from. We know only that they had been attached to these suites by someone other than Bach and that the names had come into use in the intervening years. Forkel took a stab and suggested that they were in the “French taste” but there is little stylistic evidence in them to merit that label beyond the presence of the names of certain movements. Still, dodgy nomenclature has been unable to diminish the popularity of the French Suites and even for Forkel these were “the most outstanding clavier works of Johann Sebastian Bach….”
The Suites follow the basic form of the Baroque dance suite, which has at its core four highly stylized dances: the allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. One or more extra dances, or gallantries, can be interpolated before the concluding gigue, and from suite to suite Bach might add a gavotte, polonaise, menuet, air, or bourrée. Dance music, but for dance in spirit, not for actual dancing.
The allemandes are predominantly graceful introductions in 4/4 time. The courantes sound at times like their faster Italian counterpart, the corrente, rather than the calmer French original. The sarabande was a wild dance inherited from Mexico, through Spain, but by Bach’s day it had been completely re-imagined as a slow stately dance in triple meter. It was in the sarabandes that Bach confided his most thoughtful reflections.
The gallantries such as the gavotte, menuet, bourrée, and air do indeed share a distant French lineage in name, but other national identities abound. A once festive and rustic polish dance has undergone a transformation and is rendered as a tamed and elegant courtly polonaise. The concluding gigues retain the energetic character of their Irish and English roots. Fleet and smiling!
In the vast and varied landscape of some 40 miniature movements a few landmarks must catch one’s attention as the suites emerge from the minor keys of the first three suites into the bright major of the concluding three: the unsmiling and grave elegance of the Sarabande in Suite No. 1; the fierce insistence of the Courante in Suite No. 2; the glimmers of light against the prevailing somberness of Suite No. 3’s Allemande; the jolt of a radiant E major in the opening of Suite No. 4; the airborne ecstasy of the Gigue in Suite No. 5; and the poise and infinite grace of the Sarabande of the final suite.
In 1735, his 50th year, Bach published the second volume of his Clavier Übung with a title page that read, in part:
Einem Concerto nach Italiaenischen Gusto
einer Overture nach Französischer Art,
Clavicymbel mit zweyen
Denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths Ergötzung verfertiget
Johann Sebastian Bach
This is often translated as Second Part of the Keyboard Practice, consisting of a Concerto in the Italian Style and an Overture in the French Manner for harpsichord with two manuals. Prepared for the enjoyment of music lovers by Johann Sebastian Bach.
That this is the second volume of Bach’s Keyboard Practice attests to the popularity of the first (consisting of his six Partitas) published four years earlier. Brisk sales of that publication – three editions were printed – must have been an encouragement to produce a successor.
The word Übung is usually translated as practice or exercise. In English these words have a connotation of repetition and rote, something even strenuous – not at all the composer’s intention. Bach’s ‘exercise’ suggests more of an experience through doing; learning while playing; activity rather than duty.
This intention is clarified when we skip ahead to the phrase “Denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths Ergötzung” or “for the enjoyment of music lovers.” More accurately than ‘enjoyment’, “Gemüths Ergötzung” should be understood as the delight or edification of the spirit or soul. And “Denen Liebhabern” when translated literally means “to those who have love,” that is amateurs in the original sense of the word before it acquired a derisive connotation of incompetence. Amateur comes to us from the Latin amator or lover – someone who is devoted. The overused term ‘music lover’ trivializes this point.
Also, it is important that we note Bach’s specific indication that the works we hear tonight are intended not for a generic clavier but for a ‘Clavicymbel mit zweyen Manualen’, a harpsichord with two manuals or keyboards.
Unlike a piano, a harpsichord’s mechanism for sounding a string produces a fixed volume regardless of the force used to strike the key. However, as with the stops on an organ, two manuals allow for variations in timbre and loudness, as when the upper keyboard is coupled to the lower and the combined volume of both manuals sounds simultaneously. The result, cherished by harpsichordists and appropriated by pianists since Bach’s day, is an exuberant evocation of orchestral textures.
The French Overture follows the basic form of the Baroque dance suite that Bach observed in the French Suites. Added is the austere and somber opening Ouverture, characteristic of the French style, formal and grand. The elaborate opening movement (its duration alone constitutes a third of the entire work) is followed by a series of stylized dances: the Courante; paired sets of Gavottes and Passepieds; a Sarabande; a pair of Bourrées; a Gigue; and a final Echo.
No less orchestral in conception than its partner in this volume of the Keyboard Practice, the Italian Concerto, the individual movements of the French Overture hint at imagined instrumental sonorities. Strings, perhaps, in the elegant triple meter of the Courante? Winds in the Gavottes and the agile Passepieds?
The dancing Bourrées and Gigue would be the expected conclusion of the suite, but Bach adds a virtuosic finale with an Echo. Played on the two-manual harpsichord, the ‘call and response’ of this movement involves the highly visible flourish of leaping from one keyboard to the other – a thrilling effect pianists must conjure aurally.
Grant Hiroshima, former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, is a frequent contributor to the Philharmonic program book.