English Suites (Bach)

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The English Suites, BWV 806–811, are a set of six suites written by the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach for harpsichord (or clavichord) and generally thought to be the earliest of his 19 suites for keyboard, the others being the six French Suites, BWV 812–817, the six Partitas, BWV 825-830 and the Overture in the French style, BWV 831.

A suite, in Western classical music and jazz, is an ordered set of instrumental or orchestral/concert band pieces. It originated in the late 14th century as a pairing of dance tunes and grew in scope to comprise up to five dances, sometimes with a prelude, by the early 17th century. The separate movements were often thematically and tonally linked. The term can also be used to refer to similar forms in other musical traditions, such as the Turkish fasıl and the Arab waslah and nuubaat.

Johann Sebastian Bach German composer

Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer and musician of the Baroque period. He is known for instrumental compositions such as the Art of Fugue, the Brandenburg Concertos, and the Goldberg Variations as well as for vocal music such as the St Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor. Since the 19th-century Bach Revival he has been generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time.

Harpsichord musical instrument played by means of a keyboard

A harpsichord is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard which activates a row of levers that in turn trigger a mechanism that plucks one or more strings with a small plectrum.



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.[ citation needed ].

Weimar Place in Thuringia, Germany

Weimar is a city in the federal state of Thuringia, Germany. It is located in Central Germany between Erfurt in the west and Jena in the east, approximately 80 kilometres southwest of Leipzig, 170 kilometres north of Nuremberg and 170 kilometres west of Dresden. Together with the neighbour-cities Erfurt and Jena it forms the central metropolitan area of Thuringia with approximately 500,000 inhabitants, whereas the city itself counts a population of 65,000. Weimar is well known because of its large cultural heritage and its importance in German history.

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.[ citation needed ] 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. [1]

Johann Nikolaus Forkel German musician, musicologist and music theorist

Johann Nikolaus Forkel was a German musician, musicologist and music theorist.

Charles Dieupart was a French harpsichordist, violinist, and composer. Although he was known as Charles to his contemporaries, his real name may have been François. He was most probably born in Paris, but spent much of his life in London, where he settled sometime after 1702/1703. A prominent member of the Drury Lane musical establishment, Dieupart was active both as composer and performer and actively participated in the musical life of the city. However, after about 1712 he earned his income mostly by teaching, and in his later years lived in poverty. He is best remembered today for a collection of six harpsichord suites which influenced Johann Sebastian Bach's English Suites.

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.

Jean-Henri dAnglebert French harpsichordist and composer

Jean-Henri d'Anglebert was a French composer, harpsichordist and organist. He was one of the foremost keyboard composers of his day.

Lute musical instrument

A lute is any plucked string instrument with a neck and a deep round back enclosing a hollow cavity, usually with a sound hole or opening in the body. More specifically, the term "lute" can refer to an instrument from the family of European lutes. The term also refers generally to any string instrument having the strings running in a plane parallel to the sound table. The strings are attached to pegs or posts at the end of the neck, which have some type of turning mechanism to enable the player to tighten the tension on the string or loosen the tension before playing, so that each string is tuned to a specific pitch. The lute is plucked or strummed with one hand while the other hand "frets" the strings on the neck's fingerboard. By pressing the strings on different places of the fingerboard, the player can shorten or lengthen the part of the string that is vibrating, thus producing higher or lower pitches (notes).

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.

A prelude is a short piece of music, the form of which may vary from piece to piece. The prelude may be thought of as a preface. While, during the Baroque era, for example, it may have served as an introduction to succeeding movements of a work that were usually longer and more complex, it may also have been a stand-alone piece of work during the Romantic era. It generally features a small number of rhythmic and melodic motifs that recur through the piece. Stylistically, the prelude is improvisatory in nature. The prelude also may refer to an overture, particularly to those seen in an opera or an oratorio.

Johann Jakob Froberger was a German Baroque composer, keyboard virtuoso, and organist. Among the most famous composers of the era, he was influential in developing the musical form of the suite of dances in his keyboard works. His harpsichord pieces are highly idiomatic and programmatic.

Allemande dance music

An allemande is a renaissance and baroque dance, and one of the most popular instrumental dance styles in baroque music, with notable examples by Couperin, Purcell, Bach and Handel. It is often the first movement of a baroque suite of dances, paired with a subsequent courante, though it is sometimes preceded by an introduction or prelude.

The six English Suites

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.
Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Bourrée I, Bourrée II, Gigue
Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte I, Gavotte II, Gigue
Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Menuet I, Menuet II, Gigue
Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Passepied I, Passepied II, Gigue
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.

Jesu, meine Freude 1653 sacred Song composed by Johann Crüger with lyrics by Johann Franck

"Jesu, meine Freude" is a hymn in German, written by Johann Franck in 1650, with a melody by Johann Crüger. The song first appeared in Crüger's hymnal Praxis pietatis melica in 1653. The text addresses Jesus as joy and support, versus enemies and the vanity of existence. The poetry is bar form, with irregular lines from 5 to 8 syllables. The melody repeats the first line in the last, framing each of the six stanzas.

Notable recordings

On harpsichord

On piano


Performed by Martha Goldstein
Performed by Martha Goldstein
Performed by Martha Goldstein
Performed by Martha Goldstein
Performed by Martha Goldstein
Performed by Martha Goldstein
Performed by Martha Goldstein
Arranged for synthesized "woodwinds", physically modelled with the Yamaha VL1 synthesizer, and performed on Electronic Wind Instrument

Loudspeaker.svg English Suite No. 2 in A minor – Bourrée I  
Loudspeaker.svg English Suite No. 2 in A minor – Bourrée II  
Loudspeaker.svg English Suite No. 2 in A minor – Gigue  

Performed by Martha Goldstein
Performed by Martha Goldstein
Performed by Martha Goldstein
Performed by Martha Goldstein
Performed by Martha Goldstein
Performed by Radek Materka (piano)
Arranged for three synthesized "strings", physically modelled with the Yamaha VL1 synthesizer, and performed on Electronic Wind Instrument.

See also

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  1. Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., 1954, Eric Blom, ed.