Skip to page content

About this Piece

Like the B-minor Flute Sonata, the "final" version of the B-minor Orchestral Suite dates from Bach's Leipzig years. The handwriting and paper used for the orchestral parts (no manuscript score survives) date them specifically to the period 1738-39, which coincides with Bach's resumption of directorship of the Collegium Musicum concerts in October 1739 after a two-year hiatus. Stylistically, as with the Sonata, the Orchestral Suite may rework material from Bach's earlier Cöthen period. What, exactly, constituted Bach's orchestra has been a matter of debate since Joshua Rifkin first presented the argument in a 1981 lecture that Bach performed much of his music with one voice or instrument to a part. (The lecture is reproduced in The Essential Bach Choir, a recent book examining the one-to-a-part argument by another proponent, the early-music conductor Andrew Parrott.) Essentially, proponents such as Rifkin, Parrot, and other prominent performers and scholars believe that surviving evidence (here, the parts for BWV 1067) support the type of chamber-scale performance featured on tonight's program.

The Suite in B minor opens with an Ouverture, a French label that indicates the movement's underlying inspiration. The combination of a slower, grave opening and the ensuing fugal allegro ultimately originated in the French overtures of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87), who used them to preface his operas and ballets. Including a flute in the instrumentation allows Bach to fold elements of concerto form into the fugal section of the overture, with the strings doing the contrapuntal heavy lifting and the flute-led concertante passages charting the movement's harmonic course. Six shorter movements, most of them dances, each of them characterful, follow. Like the Ouverture, several of them have French origins, such as the Rondeau, or the Bourée and the Menuet, both of which were fashionable dances at the court of Louis XIV. Even the Sarabande, ostensibly a fast dance with Spanish or New World origins, appears in its slower, French guise. The Polonaise, derived from a Polish folk dance, was the reserve of German composers - it was also a favorite of Telemann in his orchestral suites. The suite closes with the Badinerie - along with the Air from his Suite No. 3, one of Bach's greatest orchestral hits - a brief, high-spirited movement and a real showpiece for the ensemble's flutist.

- John Mangum holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. He is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Program Designer/ Annotator.