Dancing was very popular during the Baroque era (of course, the same could be said for all eras, including the present). And dance music often inspired composers, not the least of whom was Bach. Although the influence of dance is most obvious in his suites for keyboard and suites for orchestra, dance-like gestures and forms are present in Bach’s works of every genre, including some of his sacred choral music.
But here we really are only concerned about the dance and his orchestral suites. In this case, composers like Bach and Handel wrote what was called “stylized dances,” which were intended for listening, not for dancing. This mean that the dances followed their particular stylistic norms, but allowed for more musical elaboration and ornamentation than would have been possible in a floor dance.
The orchestral suites of Bach all use traditional French dances. (Bach wrote several French suites and several English suites for keyboard.) The dance suite in fact traces its origin to the early Baroque period in France, most notably in the keyboard works of the celebrated harpsichordist/organist/composer/teacher François Couperin (1668-1733). Couperin did not call his compositions “suites”, but rather “ordres”. An ordre contains as few as four or as many as 24 short pieces, though 8-12 seems to be the norm. All the pieces contained in a single ordre are in the same key or in parallel tonalities (that is, they keep the same tonic note, but switch from major to minor; for example D minor and D major). Often, the pieces were arranged in alternating fast and slow movements. Some use the names of popular dances; more commonly, individual pieces feel like a particular dance, though they may only bear a tempo marking or nothing at all. Others have more descriptive titles, such as Le Rossignol en amour (The nightingale in love). At any rate, it is from this kind of organization of shorter pieces that is the origin of the dance suites of Bach and Handel.
The Orchestral suite in B minor is scored for strings, continuo, and solo flute. It contains eight movements, each described below.
Overture [Bach did not label this movement]
Though Bach did not provide a designation for this movement, it is clearly written in French overture style. Bach used the French overture design to open all four of his orchestral suites. A French overture, developed by Lully in the 1650s and 1660s, is a two-part movement which opens with a slow, dotted rhythm section leading to a faster imitative section. The slow section may or may not return to close the movement. (In this suite, the slow part does indeed return at the end.) The convention in the dotted-rhythm section is to “double-dot” the rhythms, making the shorter notes shorter still, and giving them more “snap”.
A rondeau in the Baroque refers to any piece that consists of a refrain (A) and different “couplets”, which were 8- to 16-measure contrasting strains. The “couplets” might be in related keys, or remain in the original tonic. This form later developed into the rondo, so popular in the time of Mozart. In this rondeau by Bach the main theme appears as follows:
What’s interesting about this movement is that it fuses two separate genres (or, if you prefer, two clearly different conventions) into one movement. The rondeau is obvious in the repetition of the melody given above. Using A to indicate this refrain, and the subsequent letters of the alphabet for each new couplet, we find the following form: A(repeated) B A C A. But at the same time, notice that each phrase (the one above serves well as an example) begins in the middle of a measure, and ends in the middle – the phrasing is two beats “off”. This kind of phrase structure is typical of the gavotte, a moderate-tempo dance in 4/4 or cute time (as in the excerpt above).
The sarabande has always been a favorite of the Baroque stylized dances, perhaps because Bach wrote so many lovely examples. (The sarabande from the French Suite in d minor for keyboard is one of the most hauntingly beautiful, plaintive examples out there.) Interestingly enough, though the sarabande is often included in French dance suites, its origin is Spanish, perhaps coming to Spain from Mexico in the 16th century.
The sarabande is a slow, dignified dance in triple meter. In contrast to the gavotte, the sarabande rarely uses an upbeat (although this example does). Frequently, the second beat receives an accent, sometimes by virtue of the placement of a longer note value on the second beat. Phrases tend to have “feminine” endings, that is, with the resolution to the tonic chord occurring off the downbeat, though that is not the case in this example. In this movement the flute doubles the first violin part throughout, and thus reduces this movement to a more intimate four-part texture. This intimate texture is hardly simple, however, as Bach writes very busy lines for all four parts. Here is just a brief example:
This is typical of Bach – taking advantage of the slower tempo to write an intricate web of ornate individual lines, weaving a more complicated fabric of of music.
Bourrée I & II
The bourrée was a French dance in quick duple meter, usually with a single upbeat. In this suite, Bach uses two bourrées in a da capo format. Each is a complete binary movement (a movement in two distinct sections, each repeated), but after the second is completed, Bach writes “Bourrée I da Capo“, indicated that the first is to be played again. Typically, the repeats are omitted on the da capo. Da capo form was very common in arias of the Baroque, and many examples can be found among the vocal works of Bach, Handel, and, most notably, Alesandro Scarlatti, who is generally associated strongly with the format. This ABA form carried over in subsequent eras, and is commonly linked with the minuet and trio during the Viennese Classical era.
Polonaise and Double
Pianists often immediately associate Fryderik Chopin (1810-1849) when they hear the word “polonaise”. Indeed, the polonaise is one of the many Polish-national forms and genres Chopin used in his piano compositions. But clearly the polonaise was known before Chopin emerged on the concert scene, else Bach would not have known of it. The polonaise is a stately, festive dance, always in triple meter. Often, the polonaise employed repeated rhythmic figures, as Bach does here with many dotted rhythms in each measure. The term double referred to a type of variation, usually composed mostly of embellishments. In this case, the double employs the main theme of the polonaise, though it is banished to the continuo line, while the flute plays an ornate variation over-top. Thus, this is the barest movement, in terms of scoring, in the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor. As in the bourrées, the double is followed by a da capo indication, and the polonaise, sans repeats, is heard once more.
The minuet (or “menuet”) is again a binary movement, though not with a da capo, as we expect of the minuet in the later eighteenth century. it is another triple-meter movement, grateful, moderate in tempo, and simple in texture.
The badinerie is a favorite movement in the suite, perhaps because it is so lively, perhaps because it is so delightful to watch the flautist perform this piece. Finally, Bach really features the solo flute. Yes, of course, we hear the solo flute in the double, but this is entirely different in character. it is energetic…playful…virtuosic…perpetual motion…just plain fun. The badinerie is a relatively rare dance movement, and this is by far the best-known example of this genre. It rarely appears outside 18th-century suites, and is generally defined merely as a “dancelike piece of jocose character” (Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music).