These six suites for keyboard are thought to be the earliest set that Bach composed aside from several miscellaneous suites written when he was much younger. Originally, their date of composition was thought to have been between 1718 and 1720, but more recent research suggests that the composition was likely earlier, around 1715, while the composer was living in Weimar..
Bach's English Suites display less affinity with Baroque English keyboard style than do the French Suites to French Baroque keyboard style; the name "English" is thought to date back to a claim made by the 19th-century Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel that these works might have been composed for an English nobleman, but no evidence has emerged to substantiate this claim. It has also been suggested that the name is a tribute to Charles Dieupart, whose fame was greatest in England, and on whose Six Suittes de clavessin Bach's English Suites were in part based.
Surface characteristics of the English Suites strongly resemble those of Bach's French Suites and Partitas, particularly in the sequential dance-movement structural organization and treatment of ornamentation. These suites also resemble the Baroque French keyboard suite typified by the generation of composers including Jean-Henri d'Anglebert, and the dance-suite tradition of French lutenists that preceded it.
In the English Suites especially, Bach's affinity with French lute music is demonstrated by his inclusion of a prelude for each suite, departing from an earlier tradition of German derivations of French suite (those of Johann Jakob Froberger and Georg Boehm are examples), which saw a relatively strict progression of the dance movements (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue) and which did not typically feature a Prelude. Unlike the unmeasured preludes of French lute or keyboard style, however, Bach's preludes in the English Suites are composed in strict meter.
The six English Suites
1st Suite in A major, BWV 806
Prelude, Allemande, Courante I, Courante II, Double I, Double II, Sarabande, Bourrée I, Bourrée II, Gigue. This suite is unusual in that it has two Courantes, and two Doubles for the second Courante. This suite also departs from the scheme of the other five, in that the Prelude is short and based on a theme from a suite by Dieupart. The Preludes of the other five suites in this series are based on the Allegro of a Concerto Grosso form.
2nd Suite in A minor, BWV 807
Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Bourrée I, Bourrée II, Gigue
3rd Suite in G minor, BWV 808
Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte I, Gavotte II, Gigue
4th Suite in F major, BWV 809
Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Menuet I, Menuet II, Gigue
5th Suite in E minor, BWV 810
Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Passepied I, Passepied II, Gigue
6th Suite in D minor, BWV 811
Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Double, Gavotte I, Gavotte II, Gigue
The key sequence follows the same series of notes as the chorale "Jesu, meine Freude"; it is unestablished whether or not this is accidental.