Bach’s Orchestral Suites

Christoph Wolff © 2013

For a long time, most of Johann Sebastian Bach’s chamber and ensemble music was  assigned to the years 1717 to 1723, when he served as Kapellmeister at the princely court of Cöthen. However, more recent studies based on original sources and style criticism have led to a thorough revision of the traditional chronology affecting this part of his output, including the four Orchestral Suites BWV1066–1069. It now seems that only the smaller part of the instrumental ensemble music (or at least the part which survives) belongs to the Cöthen period, while the greater part was composed at Leipzig — principally for the Collegium Musicum, a concert society consisting of active professional and amateur musicians as well as passive members.
Throughout the 17th century, students primarily from the University of Leipzig had formed private societies that played an increasingly important role in public musical life — they were often led by the city’s most prominent professionals, such as Adam Krieger, Johann Rosenmüller, Sebastian Knüpfer, and Johann Kuhnau. In 1701, the young and energetic law student and first organist of the recently rebuilt New Church, Georg Philipp Telemann, founded a new Collegium that he led for four years and that attracted the most capable musicians from within and outside the city. Bach was associated with this organization throughout his Leipzig years, and he served as its music director from 1729 until the early 1740s.
There is no question that the Collegium directorship amounted to a major commitment. Bach was now responsible, in addition to his regular church music obligations, for preparing and carrying out a weekly series of performances throughout the year. The schedule of these ‘ordinaire Concerten’ was made even more demanding by the additional commitments of the thrice-yearly trade fairs, when the Collegium performed twice weekly. Programmes were printed only for very special occasions such as the reception of members of the Electoral Saxon and Royal Polish Court
in Dresden. However, vocal and instrumental pieces by a great variety of composers must have been included in the weekly concert series; it is impossible to reconstruct, even in the broadest outlines, any of the more than 500 two-hour programmes for which Bach was responsible.
Pertinent performing materials from the 1730s are extremely sparse. Nevertheless, among the traceable compositions are four overtures by Bach’s cousin, Johann Bernhard Bach of Eisenach, the cantata Armida abbandonata by Handel, four Italian solo cantatas by Porpora and Scarlatti, and a Concerto Grosso in F minor by Locatelli. Additionally, “Mr. Bach de Leipzig” is found among the subscribers to Telemann’s Nouveaux Quatuors, published in Paris in 1738, which suggests that he wanted these pieces for his Collegium series. Although these few works and composers cannot be considered representative at all, they confirm that the repertoire was both instrumental and vocal, and that the most modern kind of music — such as the Porpora cantatas and the Telemann flute
quartets — played a role. This is definitely also the primary context for most of Bach’s extant instrumental chamber music. The concertos for one, two, three, and four harpsichords and strings, for example, were among his major contributions to a new kind of instrumental music.
The four Orchestral Suites belong here, too. Their sources definitely point to Leipzig, even though it remains unclear whether they were specifically written for the Collegium Musicum or perhaps for Bach’s activities outside of Leipzig. One needs to keep in mind that the Thomaskantor maintained the position of titular court Kapellmeister after leaving Cöthen until the death of Prince Leopold in 1728, and that he immediately accepted another titular Kapellmeister appointment at the ducal court of Saxe-Weißenfels in 1729, followed in 1736 by the appointment as Electoral-Royal court composer in Dresden.
Moreover, a recently analysed inventory of the old St Thomas School library indicates that at least some of the Orchestral Suites and the Brandenburg Concertos were used for student
performances. This happens to be corroborated by some extant early copies of scores and performing parts that point to their use even during the decade after Bach’s death. There is new general evidence that instrumental music played a much larger role in the life of the St Thomas School students than heretofore assumed. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the school produced a significant number of professional musicians so that it earned the reputation of a true conservatory of music.
The use at the School does not mean, however, that any of Bach’s instrumental ensemble works were composed for this purpose, it only suggests their broader function. The principal sources of the Orchestral Suites indicate that the first and forth originated from around 1725 whereas the third Suite can be dated to 1731. No.2, with its hybrid mixture of concerto elements and suite form and the extraordinary virtuosity of its flute writing, dates from 1738–39 and hence counts as Bach’s very last orchestral work.
In terms of format, the Orchestral Suites differ significantly from the keyboard suites in that they do not adhere to any kind of pattern in their organization of movements. However, they all have in common an ouverture that serves as an opening movement — a tradition going back to the ballet suites in 17th-century French opera. Apart from this, no suite resembles any other and taken together they offer the broadest possible spectrum of traditional dance types and modern gallantry movements: Courante, Gavotte, Forlane, Minuet, Bourrée, Passepied, Rondeau, Polonaise,  Badinerie, Air, Gigue, and Réjouissance — presenting a much more innovative mixture than can be found in the keyboard suites. In quite a few movements Bach also takes an adventurous approach. Characteristic examples in this respect are on the one hand in No.3 the tantalizing and lilting melody of the ‘Air on the G string’ that put Bach right next to the very best tunesmiths in the business, and on the other the daring venture of strict canonic treatment of the outer voices in the Sarabande of the B minor Suite.
Another differentiating element consists in the orchestral scoring of the works. Nos. 3 and 4 resemble each other the most because both of them make use of three trumpets and timpani, two and three oboes, respectively, and a standard string ensemble. Suites nos.1 and 2, however, feature two completely different orchestral sounds: oboes, bassoons, and strings versus solo flute and strings.
Above all, the four Orchestral Suites serve as a vivid reminder of the general importance of Bach’s art of dance composition that Forkel so rightly emphasized in his 1802 biography. This art transcends the genre proper as it indeed affects all facets of instrumental and vocal music, notably the arias and their expanded expressive range. By composing dances Bach significantly refined his musical language, not so much in the basic realm of vocabulary, syntax, and grammar but notably in the area of articulation and expression. Nowhere else but in his suites of dances do we encounter a more systematic, sophisticated, and far ranging exploration of the subtleties of musical articulation and along with it the fine tuning of musical expression.

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