About The English
Suites (BWV 806-811) by Johann
Two CD Set
The precise composition dates for the six
English Suites, BWV 806-811, is not known. It is commonly agreed on
that Bach did start working on them quite early, probably in Leipzig
around 1715 and finished them up in Cöthen, around 1717-1723.
The most astonishing pieces of those suites are the Preludes. They are
full featured Concerto movements displaying outstanding inventiveness,
brilliant keyboard écriture in flourished imitation style.
According to Norbert Dufourcq, those Preludes which open each Suite are
added afterwards. English Suites are quite different from each other.
This may be because they were composed over a long period of time and
also because they are made of some pieces composed on different
The origins of the title "English" Suites is also obscure. Bach did not
leave any clear information regarding that titling. J. N. Forkel, in
his historical study claims that the suites are dedicated "to a rich
Karl Geiringer affirms that in composing those Suites, Bach was
studying the works of Charles Dieupart (1670-1740), a French
harpsichordist whose career was entirely made in England. J. S. Bach
did (hand) copy the F minor Suite of Dieupart and "re-used" the Gigue
in A major of the same composer as a base for the Prelude of the first
English Suite in A major.
It should be noted that while the French Suites did contain many
"French" elements: typical dance forms and characteristic rhythms, the
English ones are devoid of anything that can be said to be "English".
The English Suites are more developed and more tricky to perform than
the French Suites. They have a more noticeable "concertant" and
English Suites are organized around the traditional Suite series:
Allemande; Courante; Sarabande and Gigue but include other forms as
Passepied, Bourrée, Gavotte and Menuets.
N.I in A Major, BWV 806
3. Courante I &II (2 Doubles)
5. Bourrée I & II
The Prélude which opens the first suite is rather a short one when
compared to others of the series. Starting with a Toccata style free
arpeggio opening, it evolves within a monothematic Gigue-style
The Allemande evokes a lute-like style with many arpeggiated chords
spelled out in precise rhythms. A solemn Allemande which evolves in two
and three voice settings.
Two Courantes is rather unusual and this first Suite is the only one
which has not only two Courantes but has also the second one followed
by a couple of "doubles" i.e. variations. Both are French style
Courantes, very fluid and with a wandering melodic line shifting from
one voice to another.
Majestic chords introduce the noble Sarabande. The monothematic piece
has in the middle section an improvisation-like development.
Bourrées I and II: the A major first one has a souple and sinuous line
elaborated in the imitation style. The second one in A Minor is more
austere. The contrary motion in its two voices and the motivic
inversions are to be noted.
The final Gigue is entirely made up of two voices in imitation. A brisk
and joyful movement in both its two sections, the second one being in
English Suite N.II in A Minor, BWV 807
3. Courante I &II (altern.)
5. Bourrée I & II
A full featured concerto movement opens the second Suite with its
brilliant Prélude. With two motives, the first one energetic and
vigorous, like a tutti while the second one sounds like a solo violin
part. All aspects of a concerto are here, even the short cadenza which
concludes the movement.
Calm and expressive, the Allemande is fully in imitation-style. Each of
the two parts has its own theme, the second one is exposed six times
shifting between voices.
Both the Courante and the Sarabandes are noticeably in the French
style. Very souple and improvisatory, the Sarabande has a "double"
(variation) where the ornaments are explicitly notated.
Bach uses extended pedal tones in both Bourrées. The first is a
vivacious dance and the second is more restrained.
The Suite ends, as usual, with a brilliant Gigue as a Finale. This
particular one seems close to the Italian style with a monothematic
N.III in G Minor, BWV 808
5. Gavotte I & II (altern.)
The numerous keyboard transcriptions of Vivaldi's violin concertos Bach
did in Weimar, seem to be the basis for the extensive concerto-like
Prélude which begins this third Suite. With many analogies to the
upcoming "Italian Concerto" (BWV 971) this precursor piece is also set
on the contrasts between the tuttis (forte) and the solos (piano),
although not explicitly notated here as they are in the Italian
A calm Allemande with an expressive and developed bass line which
carries motives that will jump to other voices follows the exuberant
The Courante is again in the French style. Souple, elegant and light in
The most expressive and highly developed Sarabande, which has its own
"double", appears as the center of gravity of the entire Suite. An
extremely rich harmonic écriture where numerous enharmonic settings
enhance the expressiveness.
The Gavottes I and II (Gavotte II is also named "Musette" in some
editions) bring joy and lightness after the deep and tragic Sarabande.
The charming simple Musette makes the B part in the A-B-A form in this
The Finale is a strong and brilliant Gigue in a fugato form which
opposes the straight and inverted themes all throughout.
N.IV in F Major, BWV 809
5. Menuet I & II
Rarely, J. S. Bach wrote a tempo instruction in his keyboard works.
Here he did: "vitement" (in French: rapidly). Again a large and
elaborated Prélude begins this suite and again, in the styles of the
Italian Concerto and the fifth Brandenburg Concerto which are to come
A simple but energetic main theme is exposed with a distance of one bar
and one octave by the right and left hands. Its main features, the
ascending scale and the dotted rhythms, will become the essential
elements of the movement.
The expressive Allemande is also very choreographic. It presents a
large variety of rhythms. The gentle swinging effect of the triplets
accentuates the dancing feeling of the piece.
As with all his English Suites, here too, Bach uses the French style
Courante, typical with its rhythmical complexity and counterpoint. Each
part starts in imitation, in octave in the first section of the piece
and at the fifth in the second.
The Sarabande is harmonic in its concept, simultaneously solemn and
simple. A simple melodic figure which functions as a theme appears
every four bar, above sustained and modulating chords.
Two Menuets are between the Sarabande and the final Gigue. They are to
be played as A-B-A.
The fast Gigue is a virtuoso piece. Its main theme, as an ascending
arpeggio, jumps from voice to voice and is always present throughout
the piece. The second part made with the inverted arpeggio theme, joins
the original ascending one in an exuberant ending.
N.V in E Minor, BWV 810
5. Passepied I & II
The Prélude of the fifth Suite is a monument in its elaboration and
sheer duration. Evoking an organ-style écriture, it looks like a grand
fugue. Two and three voice divertimento parts are full of creativity
and the beautiful sections elaborated on pedal tone are to be noted.
The imitation style Allemande with its moderate tempo and alluring
development part in the second section is an intense piece.
Even though the rhythmical complexity of this, again in French style,
Courante seems less than the other ones in the series, it shines
nevertheless with its harmonic elaboration.
The seemingly naive theme of the Sarabande is so deeply and complexly
set that it turns the piece into the expressive gravity center of the
Couperin-like French Passepied's: N.1 "en Rondeau" then N.2 and again
N.1 "da capo", make the bridge from the Sarabande to the final Gigue.
They are swift and light as well as brilliant movements.
The three-voice Gigue ends the Suite in a brilliant and virtuoso way.
N.VI in D Minor, BWV 811
4. Sarabande & Double
5. Gavotte I & II
The last English Suite begins with a large Prélude again. This time
Bach makes the connexion between the French style overture like prelude
which has a more improvised aspect and German type ones that are
usually more structured.
It starts with an improvisatory feel of thirty-six bars "a la
française" with full of fantasy and harmonic audacity. A cadenza bar
indicated "adagio" connects this with the "allegro" indicated main part
of the piece. This section is based on a fugue-like theme elaborated
with great freedom using inversions and imitations. This is the
lengthiest Prélude of all English Suites.
The Allemande is rhythmically animated even though in the traditional
moderate tempo. It is a melodically very rich piece.
The Courante, in with two voices, is less complex than the other ones
in the series but very charming.
The naivete of the Courante makes a delicious transition for the
amazing Sarabande. Unusually notated in 3/2 the piece employs large
note values and makes its first presentation as the harmonic background
upon which the elaborations and ornamentations will take place. This is
done with the "Double" (the main piece's variations). All apparent or
hidden elements in the first exposition: passing notes; embellishments;
appoggiaturas; held (delay) notes; anticipations and pedal tones are
fully expanded in the "Double".
This Suite proceeds with Gavottes 1. 2. and back to 1. ("da capo") to
the Final Gigue: a superb piece, extremely virtuose in three voices.