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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 6 Class of 1685 (I)
Richard Taruskin
Bach’s Suites

fig. 6-7 Title page of Anna Magdalena Bach’s music book (Clavier-Büchlein), 1722.

As we know, Bach never went to France. Instead, France came to him through the musical publications that circulated widely in the Gallicized musical environment that was Germany. Bach made his most thorough assimilation of the French style when he was professionally required to do so. That was in 1717, when he left Weimar for the position of Kapellmeister in Cöthen. This was an entirely secular position, the only such position Bach ever occupied and an unusual one for any “Bach.” His new employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, was a passionate musical amateur, who esteemed Bach highly and related to him practically on terms of friendship. (He even stood godfather to one of Bach’s children.) Leopold not only consumed music avidly but played it himself (on violin, bass viol or viola da gamba, and harpsichord) and had even studied composition for a while in Rome with Johann David Heinichen (1683–1729), a notable German musician of the day. He maintained a court orchestra of eighteen instrumentalists, including some very distinguished ones. And he was a Calvinist, which meant he had no use for elaborate composed church music or fancy organ playing. So Bach had no call to compose or play in church and could devote all his time to satisfying his patron’s demands for musical entertainments.

Thus for six years Bach wrote mainly instrumental music. The first book of the WTC dates from the Cöthen period, as we know, but that was done on the side. The kind of entertainments demanded of Bach as part of his official duties would have taken the form of sonatas, concertos, and above all, suites. Bach turned out several dozen of the latter, ranging from orchestral ouvertures through various sets for keyboard, to suites for unaccompanied violin and even cello, the latter unprecedented as far as we know. He even wrote a couple of suites for the practically obsolete lute, the historical progenitor of the idealized suite-for-listening, which still had a few devotees in Germany.

Most of Bach’s keyboard suites are grouped in three sets, each containing six of them. The earliest is a set of six large suites with elaborate preludes and highly embellished sarabandes, probably composed in Weimar around 1715. They were published posthumously as “English Suites,” and have been called that ever since, although no one really knows why. The set published (also posthumously) as “French Suites” are close to the Froberger model. The four dances standardized by Froberger provide the core, with a smaller group of faster and lighter “modern” dances interpolated between the sarabande and the gigue. Of the six French Suites, five are found in one of the music books of Anna Magdalena Bach, the composer’s second wife. They were probably composed for the private enjoyment of Bach’s family and the instruction of his children.

The final group of six, though written at Cöthen, were assembled, engraved, and published by Bach himself at Leipzig in 1731, as the first volume of an omnibus keyboard collection unassumingly titled Clavier-Übung (“Keyboard practice”). Bach borrowed the name from his predecessor as Leipzig cantor, Johann Kuhnau, who published a set of keyboard suites under that title in 1689. Bach also followed Kuhnau in calling the suites contained therein by the old-fashioned (and somewhat misleading) title “partitas.” When we last encountered it (chapter 2), the word “partita” referred to a set of variations, in Lutheran countries often based on chorale melodies. Bach’s fame has firmly implanted his unusual usage in the common vocabulary of music. When musicians use the word “partita” now, it almost always means a dance suite.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06005.xml