The first biography of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was written by Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749-1818) and issued in 1802, a little more than 50 years after the composer’s death. In that slim volume, listed among Bach’s keyboard works as yet unpublished, we find the following description:
“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. In particular the fifth suite deserves to be noticed on this account, in which all the pieces are of the smoothest melody; just as in the last jig none are used but constant intervals, especially sixths and thirds.”
Forkel also lists the six unpublished “great” suites, known then and now as the English Suites.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 in them to merit that label beyond the presence of the names of certain movements. The Fifth Suite in G major which we hear tonight is, as Forkel points out, the sunniest and friendliest of an already friendly set, and follows 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 can be interpolated before the concluding Gigue, and in this suite Bach adds a Gavotte, Bourée, and Loure. Dance music, but for dance in spirit, not for actual dancing.
From suite to suite, the opening movements can vary widely in scope and style, but here, the allemande is a gentle introduction in 4/4 time. The courante is in a lively triple meter sounding more like its faster Italian counterpart, the corrente, rather than the calmer French original. The sarabande was originally 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 sarabande that Bach confided his deepest reflections.
The gavotte, bourée, and loure do indeed share a distant French lineage and are in turn nimble, quick, and becalmed. The gigue retains the furiously energetic character of its Irish and English heritage. Airborne exuberance!