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Harpsichord Gems, vol 5. J.S.Bach ENGLISH SUITES


Text of the booklet "Harpsichord Gems, vol 5. J.S.Bach ENGLISH SUITES"

The French word ‘suite’ was quickly adopted throughout the European continent. The primary meaning (‘set, sequence’) has been preserved in widely diverse contexts – in ceremonial or court vocabulary (a group of attendants accompanying an important personage), and as an architectural term (an enfilade or series of rooms). But perhaps the word gained most currency in the world of music. As we know, the suite is a favoured cyclical form of baroque instrumental music, representing a series of dance-based pieces that are complementary in the type of movement and unified by a single key (and initially, by the common melodic source).
At the turn of the 18th century it was customary to publish collections made up of a ‘set number’ of pieces, such as 12 trio sonatas, 12 sonatas for violin and continuo, 12 concerti grossi by Arcangelo Corelli, two 6 piece collections Musicalische Ergöt-zung (1695) and Hexachordum Apollinis (1699) by Johann Pachelbel. Continuing this tradition, Bach wrote 6 English suites and 6 French suites, 6 Partitas for Keyboard, 6 Suites for Cello, 6 Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, and 6 Brandenburg Concertos. A list of Bach collections shows that the principle of the suite – a single musical composition consisting of several separate pieces (from 4 to 7) grouped together – was used in various genres, both for solo instruments and ensembles. Hence the suite was applicable as festive Tafelmusik at court or as music played in a small hall or chamber, for recreation and entertainment, and also for instruction on how to play the keyboard.
Bach presented Clavierbuchlein containing the French Suites and Partitas to his second wife Anna Magdalena. The manuscript of the English Suites may have been lost together with the keyboard notebook of his first wife Maria Barbara after her untimely death in 1720. This absence of a manuscript leaves many questions open, including the title of the pieces, which were already called the ‘English Suites’ by the mid-18th century. Curiously enough, the name by which they were recorded for posterity bears no relation to their style and they contain many typically French characteristics. All the Courantes in the English Suites are written in 3/2 time in the manner of the so-called French courante. And in the French Suites, on the contrary, we find the Italian courante! This curiosity is compounded by another amusing circumstance: the title of the first surviving copy of the English Suites was written in French. To this day the only possible explanation is the testimony of Bach’s first biographer Nikolaus Forkel, who was able to ask Bach’s sons for clarification on matters of interest. Forkel records that these suites were ‘composed as a commission for a certain English nobleman’.
Collections of works similar to the English Suites are very much in the spirit of baroque music, just as the art of this period showed a predilection for lengthy enumeration. According to eminent philologist and cultural philosopher A.V. Mikhailov, the baroque world can be seen as a combination of diverse constituents. In a mid-17th century German novel the reader can find exquisite inventories only obliquely related to the plot: a list of historical figures distinguished for their exceptional powers of memory, a catalogue of honorary titles and the holders thereof, even a record of famous persons spurned by their contemporaries. In turn, the calling card of baroque music was sequences or melodic ‘enumerations’ of all possible positions of a motif, transferred from one grade of the scale to another, as we frequently encounter in the English Suites. It is no coincidence that the first encyclopaedias and dictionaries appeared at this time, musical reference works among them.
However, a collection, enumeration or list must be organised and restricted in some way. The ‘set number’ which may carry symbolic meaning becomes an extraneous  principle, and at the same time a musical miscellany could act as an ‘inventory of keys’, if not of all possible keys, then those most in use.
With regard to tonal organisation the collection of English Suites is clearly divided into two equal parts: each half consists of one major-key suite followed by two minor-key works. The keys are arranged in the order of descending scale: A major and A minor (Suites I and II, respectively), followed by G minor (III), F major (IV), E minor (V) and D minor (VI). Bach’s suites descend the scale like a book with several stories by the same author proceeding in alphabetical order.
The sequence of a collection according to scale is an ancient tradition often favoured by Bach (in his 4 Duets for Clavier, his Inventions and Sinfonias, and finally, in the Well-Tempered Clavier). Interestingly enough, in Johann Reinken’s collection of suites entitled Hortus musicus (1688), which may have served as an example for the young Bach, the keys also proceed along a scale beginning at A, only in this case ascending: A minor – B flat major – C major – D minor – E minor – A major (as in the English Suites, A appears twice as a tonic).
Hortus musicus also contains 6 suites, and possibly the sequence of keys in the English Suite is a conscious reflection of the structure in Reiken’s collection. Bach greatly admired this composer, and as a lad of fifteen he walked all the way to Hamburg to hear Reinken play the organ.
Moreover Bach may have conducted a distant dialogue with Pachelbel, his elder brother’s teacher. In his Hexachordum Apollinis Pachelbel also uses a ‘tonal alphabet’, in this case rising in scale: D minor – E minor – F major – G minor – A minor – F minor. If we exclude the last movement of Pachelbel’s cycle and the first movement of Bach’s cycle, both to some extent exceptions, then the choice of key in the English Suites corresponds to Pachelbel’s collection but in the opposite order: if Pachelbel’s Apollo ascends the scale to the heavens, the Bach version descends to earth.
The ‘classic’ baroque suite in its German incarnation is based on an unvarying ‘core’ of four dances with different characteristics: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue. These are stylised dances obsolete before Bach was born. The traditional ‘host dances’ were joined by additional ‘guest dances’, usually as an insertion between the Sarabande and Gigue. These additional dances were still widely practiced and therefore enlivened the work as a whole.
Four kinds of dance are used as insertions in the English Suites: Gavotte and Bourree, Menuet and Passepied. The first two are in duple metre, the second two in triple metre. The first dances of both pairs are moderate in character, the second are very lively.
Having lost its direct connection to an intended application, in the baroque suite dance music becomes a series of allegories representing specific musical temperaments, based on the type of movement. In the Allemandes Bach creates an effect of concentrated movement and in the Courantes, of measured haste that is not without dignity and grace; his Allemandes are introverted while the Courantes are voluble and seemingly extrovert. He conceives of the Sarabande as a sublime or soulfully tranquil meditation, while the Gigue is the elemental force of fantasy.
The English Suites have a characteristic feature: here the Allemande precedes an extensive movement not based on dance music – the Prelude (Johann Kuhnau is considered the founder of this tradition in Germany). Writing in his Musical Lexicon (1732), organist, composer, music theorist and cousin of J.S. Bach Johann Gottfried Walther compared the first movement of such a suite with a door through which the subsequent dances must make their entry.
It was Walther that penned the earliest existing manuscript of the 1st English Suite in A major. This copy may have been made in the mid-1710s, when Walther and Bach kept in contact and lived in the same town, Weimar. Discovery of the Walther copy has prompted scholars to ascribe the English Suites to an earlier period of Bach’s career than was originally thought to be the case. They are now assumed to be the earliest clavier collections written by Bach (the date of composition is estimated between 1714 and the early 1720s). Analysis of the style and form of the English Suite Preludes, most of which were written using the first movements of the Italian instrumental concerto as an example, has led to the same conclusion. Bach made an impressive contribution to this genre in 1714 by producing 16 concertos for clavier and 5 for organ in the space of one year!
The first of the three movements of Italian concertos (and also Bach’s solo Italian Concerto) was written in the form of an extended virtuoso piece with a ‘wandering’ central theme and a distinctive accompanying series of interludes in various keys.
Only the Prelude of the 1st Suite bears no resemblance to an instrumental concerto. This 1st Suite, probably also the first to be composed, stands out from the others: the Prelude is rather modest in scale. It might have been one of the Preludes of the Well-Tempered Clavier. It is also notable as a response (a remarkable ‘rewriting’, free variation, parody) to a work by another composer. The Gigue in A major by French composer Gaspard Le Roux, who belonged to Pachelbel’s generation, is revived in the polyphonic texture of the Bach Prelude. We know that Johann Walther possessed the published oeuvre of this clavier teacher well-known in the late 17th century, and that he transcribed it himself. Le Roux’s Gigue is included in the present recording as a bonus track enabling our listeners to compare the original with Bach’s imaginative reworking. Moreover not only the Prelude, but also the Gigue in the 1st Suite should be appraised in the light of Le Roux’s piece. The link to the Gigue is more mediated and the only similarity lies in the melodic contours, but an inner affinity is revealed by a curious detail in the score. Bach, who very rarely indicated dynamics in his scores, makes an exception in this A major Gigue (just once in the entire Suite!) and twice marks the onset of abruptly muted sonority. This can be interpreted as the debt owed to Le Roux, whose sheet music contains an analogous designation, the word ‘doux’ (gently, softly).
That apparently minor direction turns our attention to the role scores played in the creation and future destiny of the baroque composition. Yes, a piece of music lives forever just because it has been recorded on paper. But the known incompleteness of the written record is a customary attribute of sheet music; baroque notation preserves the secret of the work’s source (due to the almost complete absence of rough drafts) and in comparison with later musical notation usually conceals how the piece should be played, a conundrum which in this case ‘surfaced’ in the form of an extremely rare authorial direction on the required dynamics.
If we distinguish notation as something rigid, determined once and for all, and improvisation as conditionally speaking an elemental impulse of music-making and the practice of music as the application of this impulse, it could be said that what we understand as improvisation is the ‘inverse’ of any musical score. The only question is how the information inscribed in the score can obliquely indicate other features that have not been recorded. Baroque written music should also be read between the lines, and only then can we imaginatively recreate the characteristics and historical circumstances of the work.
Many of Bach’s keyboard pieces, for example, have been handed down to us in several authorial versions. In baroque musical practice a piece frequently exists in a ‘still undefined’ form that allows for various presentations of what is generally speaking a ready-made concept. Bach wrote 15 Inventions and 15 Sinfonias, or 48 Preludes and Fugues, but they come from various sources and the works were only later collected in well-ordered miscellanies now perceived as monoliths. Clearly the Suites were also created in this way. The composer may have written down short keyboard pieces only when this was required by an imminent concert performance, or for teaching purposes. Quite probably compositions stored in his memory could change to some extent when next played. At the same time the music set down in a score was often just an intermediate version that could be perfected and altered when the composer returned to the piece.
The improvisational nature of Bach’s music is shown in his own autograph scores by the presence of the so-called ‘doubles’ – variations that might subsequently repeat the piece in a diminished rhythmic form, or with a richly ornamented melody. In the Courante of the 1st Suite there is a whole group of doubles – expansive ‘Courante complexes’ that have no equivalent in the other Suites. Courante I is followed by Courante II (both are lively examples of different French courantes) with two embellished repetitions, the second of which – with the characteristic uninterrupted flow of the bass part, like the entrance of an obligato cello. Quite possibly the developed doubles themselves refer back to Le Roux’s Gigue, since his published works allow for various versions to be played.
A moment of improvisation emerges also in the variable density in musical texture characteristic of the Prelude of the 1st Suite: there is no stable number of parts, as in subsequent Suites; the parts appear one moment, disappear the next. The texture of the remaining pieces in the Suite as a whole is also free and fluctuating: in the Allemande the tones of arpeggiated chords are often suspended without constraint, forming sudden accumulations followed by a space that lets us glimpse the delicate outline of a new melodic motif. In the Sarabande we are drawn to the chord ‘towers’ contrapuntally connected with each other as the piece deve-lops. This is followed in the traditional manner by symmetrical combinations of similar dances forming an arched da capo: repetition of the joyful first Bourree frames the muted minor-key second Bourree. These dances introduce a certain contrast by their distinctive two-part texture. The intonation of the two-part Gigue responds to that of the Prelude and together they create a kind of archway.
The 1st Suite can be seen as a kind of prelude to the entire collection by virtue of its position. Beginning with the 2nd Suite the dimensions increase, the character changes and the form of the first movement expands; the part-writing is increasingly linear and graphic. Here there is much greater contrast than in the 1st Suite between the prelude and other dance movements – a characteristic feature of the English Suites as compared with other such cycles.
The English Suites are in six movements.
1. Prelude. A virtuoso piece in concerto form (apart from the 1st Suite) similar to the concerto grosso movement arranged for keyboard and reflecting its characteristic tutti-soli contrast.
2. Allemande. A moderate dance in quadruple metre with exquisitely graceful melodics and traditional upbeat in the first motif. The allemande or ‘German’ dance became popular in France towards the end of the 16th century, but by the mid-17th century the renowned theorist Marin Mersenne declared it to be ‘completely extinct’, meaning that the allemande was no longer danced and had now become music for the listener. According to Johann Mattheson this dance has ‘a serious and well-composed harmoniousness in arpeggiated style’.
3. Courante. A lively dance in triple metre; in the English Suites all the Courantes are written in 3/2 time and each of the three main beats can be precisely divided into a further two, making the motifs melodically verbose, as if slightly entangled in their long dresses. This originally stately dance (the so-called French courante) became fashionable in the reign of Louis XVI.
4. Sarabande (usually with ornamental double). The focus of slow music in a suite, in triple metre. Since first appearing in the 16th century the sarabande had undergone the most pronounced genre metamorphosis of all the movements in a suite: from a dance with a doubtful reputation it was transformed into a slow, pious procession. Among such pieces the Sarabande in the E minor Suite is closest to a song (we know that Bach composed a sarabande theme based on a song tune for his Goldberg Variations).
5. Two similar dances chosen by the composer, a precise repe-tition of the first forming the ‘arched’ da capo form (e.g. Bourree I – Bourree II – Bourree I). The fifth movement is the varying position for lively dances contrasting with the other movements, in particular by the simplified part-writing; a kind of interlude.
6. Gigue. A fiery dance of English origin in triple metre, sometimes akin to the tarantella and often with a sharp dotted rhythm. This is the place for polyphonic tricks which may not immediately be detected by the listener. In this sense the Gigue from the 6th Suite stands out. The mirror-image voice exchanges traditional in the second part of the old binary form are particularly refined here. Not only thematic, but also secondary voices come into play, anti-cipating the technique of Art of the Fugue (written in the same key of D minor). Here even the trills are inverted: in the first part with the upper auxiliary note, and in the second – with the lower note!
No less original is the Gigue in the 4th Suite, filled with the hunting motifs so popular in the 18th century. One of these is the motif of a steadily returning sound, now ringing out in the upper register, now booming in the lower register. Reminiscent of hunting horns calls, and there is every reason for this motif to remind us of the post-chaise horn from Bach’s early composition entitled Capriccio on the Departure of the Beloved Brother. But an even more recognisable emblem of the hunt is the initial fanfare motif that evokes a whole series of associations: with part of Francois Couperin’s Ordre in D major, Bach’s own Prelude in D major from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Haydn’s ‘hunting’ compositions, the beginning of Mozart’s Sonata in D major, and the finale theme of Beethoven’s Sonata No.6.
The intonational ‘responses’ between the movements of the English Suites are worthy of special attention. For instance, the Courante in the 5th Suite in E minor is full of emphasised melodic leaps: these are downward leaps, corresponding with the beginning of the Prelude from the same Suite, where the melodic profile is defined by similar leaps. This intonation is also worthy of exami-nation: the same fervent leaps form the basis of an ‘apocalyptic’ theme in the A minor fugue from Book II and the first theme of the Dies irae fugue in Mozart’s Requiem. However, in the E minor Prelude this fateful intonation is used in an unusual way: despite the significant content, the theme is dragged into a dance movement that produces a very distinctive sound effect.
Citations and auto-citations in the Bach Suites owe their appearance not to a special concept, but rather to the European intonational lexicon of mature baroque music made up of Italian, French, German and English melodic idioms that travelled throughout the continent. Thus the Prelude in the 2nd English Suite begins with the same lightning leaps marked by Italian verve as in Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in C minor K.302 (the same motifs, although three times slower, also begin Johann Froberger’s Organ Fantasia FbWV 205 – a composer respected by Bach, who as a youth transcribed Froberger’s works for his own use). Not only during the Renaissance, but also in the baroque period ‘the citation was not distinguished as such, not purloined and not hidden, and like a wandering monk found itself a new lodging’ (L.M. Batkin).
One of the most delightful moments that sporadically occur in various sections of Bach’s pieces is when sooner or later the music unexpectedly eddies into incessant repetitions, as if caught in a vortex. You feel you could touch the even phonic configuration, like a carpet woven from homogenous motifs. Such instances are like an optical illusion. If you stand with your back to a mirror and facing another mirror parallel to the first the image is endlessly reproduced, getting smaller and smaller. This is how we can express the correlations between tradition and creative freedom in the baroque era. By observing certain common norms and reflecting in his stylistic mirror – for example, the genre tradition or intonational lexicon of the epoch – the composer makes it a medium of free selection which finally resolves everything. In this way the musician ‘tames’ tradition without stepping outside it. Bach was more obedient to tradition than any other composer, yet he was less restricted by it, freer than any other composer.
Nikolaus Forkel wrote: ‘Bach needed very special methods of which there was no mention in contemporary music manuals. I refer to the way he gave his parts extraordinary freedom. You might think he broke... all the rules, all the hallowed traditions that were apparently unshakeable in his day. Or so it seemed. But this was not the case. He did not diverge from the purpose… these rules pursued… but the paths he trod were unconventional.’ As we join Forkel in admiring Bach’s musical freedom, we can marvel at his obedience, too.

Grigory Lyzhov, translation by Patricia Donegan


Text of the booklet "Harpsichord Gems, vol 5. J.S.Bach ENGLISH SUITES"


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