About The French
Suites (BWV 812-817) By Johann Sebastian Bach
Two CD Set
The French Suites By J. S. Bach BWV 812 - 817
French Suites were probably composed at the end of the composer's stay
in Cöthen, 1717 - 1723. The first five were cloned in the
Clavierbüchlein composed for Anna Magdalena in 1722.
In Cöthen, Bach mainly composed non-religious works and he was at the
apex of his instrumental style.
Different views exist on why these Suites are called "French".
Most probably, it is due to the insertion of highly popular French
dances in Versailles as: Menuets, Gavottes, Bourrées and Lourées
between the usual line of dances: Allemande - Courante - Sarabande -
Also, we know how great was the impact of the French composers Bach
studied the works when he was at Lünebourg and Celle. He has been
certainly greatly influenced by the French harpsichord players he
French Suites have between six and eight movements. They all have
repeats in each section and the first three ones, in minor keys, are in
a grave mood while the latter three, in major modes, are "lighter".
N.1 in D Minor BWV 812
Menuet I and II
The Allemande which
opens the first French Suite BWV 812 is an extremely refined and noble
piece. It is made of an endless serpentine line moving between hands,
where the composer displays the incredible amount of subtle
contrapuntal imitation game between voices in the most lyrical way.
The Italian type of "Courante" which follows, literally runs from one
hand to the other and from top to the bottom of the keyboard range and
never loses pace.
The beautiful Sarabande is subtle and lyrical, based on a motive
appearing alternatively at the top and the low voices. A calm and
serene four-voice Sarabande which develops in a seemingly naive
atmosphere made with an amazing composing mastery.
The two charming Menuets follow that almost religious Sarabande. The
theme of the first Menuet re-appears inverted in the relative major key
(F Major) in the second part of it. The second one, more souple is
based on a theme which appears endlessly every four bars at the two top
As usual a grave and noble Gigue, highly characterized by its dotted
rhythm ends the Suite.
It is not like any final movement of a suite which are usually happy
and brilliant. Rather it uses the solemn and majestic rhythms and
idioms of a French-type Overture: dotted rhythms and fast runs.
All this is built upon a strict fugal organization with four entrances
of the theme. The second part still displays the four thematic
entrances, but this time inverted.
Eventually this type of Gigue can be found on some French lute players
French Suite N.2 in C Minor BWV 813
French Suite N.2 in C Minor BWV 813 starts with a grave and noble
Allemande featuring a three part ecriture with an extreme diversity in
rhythms and elaborations.
Souple and smooth, the next Courante is contrasted with the preceding
Allemande. It is an Italian style fast Courante with mainly two voices.
Compared to the Sarabande of the previous Suite, this one is richly
ornamented and presented as a single melodic line over a two-voice
The "Air" which follows is a brilliant and virtuoso duet, still
dance-like in its elaboration.
A short and very gracious pair of Menuets with extreme simplicity and
charm come next after the shining "Air".
A real French-style Gigue with its dotted rhythms but composed in three
eights is, again, the finale of this Suite.
N.3 in B Minor BWV 814
Menuet I & II (Repetatur Menuet I)
Allemande French Suite N.3 in B Minor BWV 814 is more of a Prelude and
less of a dance. Two voices in imitation run throughout and it is very
sober in style.
The Courante is in the authentic French style, written in 6/4 time. A
rich imitative structure prevails, with motives jumping between voices.
The Sarabande appears as a soloist's "Air", more tormented than the
preceding one in the second Suite. Melodic elements also travel between
voices and ranges.
From the following set of Menuets, the first one is a very
straightforward but amazingly charming piece with two voices. The
second one with three voices is more majestic and expressive.
Here appears the first French court dance piece: this "Angloise" also
titled "Gavotte" does not appear in older publications. It is actually
a two-beat French Gavotte yet with a more meandering melody which may
justify its (first) title "Angloise".
After a fugue-like Gigue in the Suite N.1 and a French type one in
Suite N.2, Bach composes here a real Italian-type Gigue which looks
like a Passepied. Controversy still exists about the origins of the
dance form Gigue, some argue for English sources, others claim it from
Italian or French origins.
N.4 in E-flat Major BWV 815
Allemande of this fourth Suite, in E-flat Major BWV 815, is a real
Overture or Prelude with three voices. It features an incredibly rich
contrapuntal elaboration. This "Prelude/Allemande" beautifully
introduces the succession of dance-form pieces to follow.
The second piece is as usual a brisk Courante in the Italian manner
with two main voices. It displays the typical dotted rhythm value to be
interpreted as triplets.
A tender and lyrical Sarabande follows, which may be cut into three
parts of eight bars each. Each section is based on a short motivic idea
which appears alternatively at the top and in the bass voices.
Next, the Gavotte which is an old French dance very popular at the
court of Versailles. It always starts whit a double upbeat.
Again a brilliant, virtuoso piece: "Air", which sometimes appears after
the Menuet in some editions.
Only 16 bars long, the charming Menuet function as an intermezzo
between the Air and the Gigue.
The final Gigue displays a fugal writing, including the inversion of
the theme at the second section, combined with a virtuoso and brilliant
N.5 in G Major BWV 816
the most lyrical Allemande ever composed by Bach is in the French Suite
N.5 in G Major BWV 816 . The lyricism here takes over the dance idiom.
The left hand, starting as an accompaniment includes extremely subtle
contrapuntal elements in a delicate imitative structure.
This is, as usual, followed by a Courante which may be called "Air"
because of its instrumental and virtuoso texture.
Then comes one very elaborate and lengthy Sarabande in the French
manner. The left hand features an extremely elaborated ecriture.
Again, a Gavotte, a popular piece, typical with its double upbeat.
The next Bourrée is an old French dance, actually quite fast, but more
fluid and serpentine, less "square" as compared to the Gavotte.
This mini "French suite inside the Suite" section, made of typical
French dances, Gavotte - Bourrée, ends with the Louré.
The Louré is a moderately slow French dance with short and almost jerky
moves which are presented with sudden rhythmic changes.
Towards the final cadence, an interesting and somewhat shocking
harmonic progression dares to present one almost "cluster-chord"
(F-sharp - G - A and B - A - C - D) followed by a seventh chord.
The finale is one more a fast and volubile Gigue in fugato form, very
close to the most brilliant fugues of the Well-Tempered series. It ends
brilliantly the Suite. Again, in the second part, the theme inverted.
N.6 in E Major BWV 817
popular French Suite N.6 in E Major BWV 817 of the series starts with
an Allemande in the style of the moderately animated Preludes from the
Well-Tempered keyboard series.
The second piece is an Italian style Courante which literally runs from
one hand to the other, made out of gracious scales and arpeggios.
The effect of some Sarabandes from the first book of the "Pieces de
Clavecin" by Francois Couperin is noticeable in this superb one, in the
French style again.
A joyful and gracious Gavotte with a delicate and airy left hand
texture follows the fabulous Sarabande.
A Polonaise appears here. A court dance from the (French-governed)
Polish court. Light and gracious close to a Menuet in its metrical
structures but more lyrical.
The next Menuet appears in some editions between the following Bourée
and the last Gigue and functions as a moderate movement between two
fast ones. However, here too it brings a calm between the Polonaise and
the Bourée. I present it here following the Urtext editions.
The next Bourrée, again, reflects the subtle style of the French court
dance. In two times just as the Gavotte but rounded and softened in
moves and the music.
The Suite ends with a brilliant Gigue, which displays less a fugal
appearance than the previous ones, no imitative successive entrances of
the theme. It looks more like a duet or as an "extended "Air".