JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
BORN: March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Thuringia (Germany)
DIED: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Saxony (Germany)
COMPOSED: ca. 1730, in Leipzig; we have no information about its early performance history
US PREMIERE: May 7, 1873. Theodore Thomas conducted at the first Cincinnati May Festival
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1937. Pierre Monteux conducted. MOST RECENT—January 2015. Paul Goodwin conducted
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 oboes, 3 trumpets, timpani, strings (first violins, second violins, and viola), and bass continuo
DURATION: About 20 mins
THE BACKSTORY Eighteenth-century orchestral suites were among the first real flowerings of the orchestra as a definable medium. If Bach’s solo concertos and concerti grossi were still hybrids displaying characteristics of both one-on-a-part chamber music and truly symphonic music, his orchestral suites can be described as truly symphonic—large-scale in conception and boldly etched in their sectional orchestration.
Orchestral suites—or Overtures, as they were often called—were immensely popular in Germany during the second quarter of the eighteenth century. These typically follow a plan that had been established around the turn of the century by French composers who assembled instrumental movements from their stage works into standalone suites. They usually began with a “French overture,” a two-part structure in which a slowish, attention-grabbing opening breaks into a quick, contrapuntal main section—and sometimes repeats the slow music to conclude. Then they proceeded through pieces inspired by French court dances, together referred to as galanteries—minuets, courantes, sarabandes, bourrées, gavottes, gigues, passepieds, and so on. Such suites were popular as entertainment music, particularly in German courts with Francophile leanings (of which there were many). That a number of such suites are identified by their composers as Tafelmusik (Table Music) underscores the role they sometimes played at formal banquets.
Compared to Telemann’s 200, Fasch’s 100, and Graupner’s 40 orchestral suites, Bach’s production of only four seems paltry indeed. It’s conceivable that he may have written others that have been lost, but it is nonetheless clear that orchestral suites were not a major thrust of Bach’s enterprise. The fact is that his professional obligations nearly always centered on genres other than orchestral music. None of his various positions required orchestral music from Bach, but his involvement with the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, which we also encounter in connection with his keyboard concertos, apparently provided a rationale for him to write his orchestral suites. All but the first of Bach’s four suites appear to have been written for this group. The Suite No. 3 is quite lavishly orchestrated, with trumpets and timpani adding festive flair. The two oboes mostly double the two violin parts; in fact, the Bach scholar Joshua Rifkin has argued that this suite was initially written for just strings and continuo, and that all the wind and timpani parts are later accretions.
THE MUSIC Following the standard layout of an orchestral suite, this one—a hefty specimen of its type—opens with a French-style Ouverture (Bach’s French spelling is far from incidental). The opening is a grand exordium and the quick, contrapuntal section that emerges from it is worked out at impressive length, with the violins often playing a concertante role vis-à-vis the rest of the orchestra. The slower material of the beginning returns to cap off the movement.
Next comes the Air for strings alone, a beautifully poised achievement in which a “walking bass line” keeps the momentum from being slowed by the subtle interweaving of inner lines. This is one of the most famous movements in all of Bach. It achieved bon-bon status thanks to the violinist August Wilhelmj, who, in 1871, published it in an arrangement for solo violin under the title “Air on the G String” (since his transcription was meant to be rendered entirely on the violin’s lowest string).
The courtly dances follow. First we hear a pair of strongly accented Gavottes, contrasting in their orchestral textures though not in their keys (as D major reigns over every movement of the Suite). We hear the first Gavotte, then the second, and then a reprise of the first. The gavotte was a duple-time dance whose character could vary, though by general consensus it was of moderate tempo.
There follows a Bourrée. A dance in duple time, the bourrée characteristically began on an upbeat and might incorporate interesting syncopations into its melodic line, as it does here in several measures.
A quick dance in compound meter (here 6/8), the Gigue here makes its unique appearance in Bach’s orchestral suites. Bach infuses a good humored geniality into this rollicking conclusion.—James M. Keller
Orchestral Suite No. 3—Giovanni Antonini conducting Il Giardino Armonico (Warner Classics) | Sigiswald Kuijken conducting La Petite Bande (Accent) | Jordi Savall conducting La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Concert des Nations (Astrée)
Reading: Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff (Norton) | J.S. Bach, edited by Malcolm Boyd (Oxford Composer Companions series, Oxford) | Bach, by Malcolm Boyd (Schirmer) | The Cambridge Companion to Bach, edited by John Butt (Cambridge)
Davies Symphony Hall
201 Van Ness Ave
San Francisco, CA 94102
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