Orchestral suites were much in demand at the courts of 18th-century Germany. Of Graupner some 40 survive, Fasch 50, and Telemann lost count at 200. As far as we know, Bach wrote a mere four. This is probably because he was employed as a church musician and/or school teacher for most of his career and was not required to supply suites regularly. The four that survive were probably written during his time as court composer at Cöthen (1717-1723). Because their sources all date from his later Leipzig period, however, many Bach scholars and musicians have considered the possibility that the suites as we know them are not in their original form but in revised versions.
Tonight’s performance offers a suggestion as to how the original version of BWV 1068 might have sounded. The Leipzig source includes parts for strings, a pair of oboes, three trumpets, and timpani, of which only the first violin part of the Bourée and Gigue are in Bach’s handwriting. (We should not read too much into this last fact. In Leipzig Bach regularly produced a massive volume of music, so the laborious but necessary process of copying parts was shared out between his family and students.) Scholars, led by the indefatigable Joshua Rifkin, have been making a couple of very reasonable hypotheses. If Bach originally composed this suite in Cöthen, he would not have had access to trumpets and timpani. Perhaps these parts were added later, for a grander Leipzig civic occasion. Simply removing these instruments does no structural, harmonic, or melodic damage to the suite. What’s more, it leaves a more logical score, since the added instruments are restricted to little more than tonic and dominant chords. Once you look at the score with a view to uncluttering it in this way, it quickly becomes clear that, with the exception of a few non-essential held notes in the overture, the oboe parts contribute nothing that the violins are not already doing. In other words, the suite could well have been originally for strings alone, over which the wind parts were superimposed. If this was the case, Bach is quite likely to have had a one-to-a-part ensemble in mind. Q.E.D. That said, musicological considerations are never enough to justify performing a piece. Bach has ensured that, whatever version we play, and whether you agree with our experiment or not, this music is always worth hearing.
© Andrew Manze