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Composed: c. 1730
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 3 trumpets, timpani, strings, and continuo
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 14, 1931, Pierre Monteux conducting

By far the dominant form of instrumental music in the early 18th century was the set of dances that we now call a suite. In northern Europe, musicians and their listeners were familiar with national or local forms of (to give their French names, because most of them were French in origin) the allemande, menuet, gavotte, sarabande, courante, bourrée, passepied, forlane, rigaudon, and gigue. They danced these dances in social gatherings and saw them danced on stage, and were as familiar with them as with social customs and manners.

A dance would likely evolve with time and location. It might slow down as the generation that danced it aged, or become more vigorous in one country than it was in another, or speed up as a result of changes in shoe styles or how voluminous women’s skirts were. To us, surveying them over about a century in which composers wrote them, their titles suggest a general range of tempo and rhythmic accents, but it may be that to a person in a specific time and place (Leipzig in 1730, for example), “gavotte” at the top of the page was so specific that it told a musician everything a modern musician would get from performance directions and a metronome marking.

Composers wrote lots of these dances, even if they never wrote a note actually intended for the dance floor. They composed semi-standardized sequences of dance movements titled suite or partita (or partie or parthia). The movements were normally all in the same key, so contrast was achieved through the varying speeds and rhythms of the dances. The dances were part of the musical vocabulary of composer and listener, and they even show up in vocal or liturgical music. 

An important subset of the suite was what both French and Germans called the ouverture. It developed in 17th-century France with the practice of publishing suites of instrumental and ballet numbers from operas, and performing them outside the opera house. Each suite would begin with the opera’s overture, which in France by the 1670s, and later everywhere else, had already taken the form it would keep through the high Baroque: a stately or pompous slow introduction, followed by a faster more-or-less fugal section.

Other suites — most suites for solo lute or harpsichord among them — normally began with an allemande, or a non-dance prelude or fantasy. The ones that began with a French overture — which included most of those for orchestra — became known as ouvertures, which is the title Bach used. They became extremely popular in Germany, where composers expanded the fast section with extended sections for solo instruments, as in a concerto. Some composers of Bach’s generation turned out ouvertures in impressive numbers: 85 by Christoph Graupner and almost 100 by Johann Friedrich Fasch. There are 135 surviving ouvertures by Telemann, but he is known to have written many more.

Bach, by contrast, has left us only four orchestral ouvertures, and we know remarkably little about them. There are no known versions of them in Bach’s handwriting, and no way to tell for certain when they were originally written or why. They are not thought to have been written or compiled as a coherent set. While the Third and Fourth Ouvertures, with their brilliant trumpet parts, could be of a piece, they are drastically different from the delicate B-minor Ouverture for flute and strings or the C-major Ouverture. Variety is no proof of heterogeneous origin, of course: there could hardly be six more varied works than the “Brandenburg” Concertos, but Bach thought they made a good set.

Beginning in 1729, Bach directed the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, which gave concerts in Zimmerman’s Coffee House on Friday nights (there was no such thing as a public concert hall in 1729). There is evidence that some of his ouvertures would have been played in those concerts.

The 24 pieces in Bach’s four ouvertures include the four French overtures and 20 other pieces bearing 12 different descriptive titles. The dance movements include types commonly found in suites, as well as less common ones like the whirling Forlane in the First Ouverture.

The only pieces that are not established dance forms are the Air in the Third Ouverture, the virtuosic Badinerie (the title can be translated as “playfulness,” or perhaps more usefully, “fooling around”) that ends the Second Ouverture, and the Réjouissance (literally “rejoicing”) that ends the Fourth Ouverture. The Air is the hit single of the set, having penetrated the ears of people who would not normally listen to Bach, and making so many appearances in popular music and movies that it should have hired an agent. It is still known in some circles as the “Air on the G String” because an arrangement by the violinist August Wilhelmj (1845-1908), with the melody transposed down more than an octave so that it could be played entirely on a violin’s lowest string, became fabulously popular in the days when it was rare that anyone would attempt to play Bach’s orchestral music in anything like its original form.

— Howard Posner plays lute and Baroque guitar and practices appellate law in Los Angeles.