Bach composed three sets of clavier suites, each containing 6 suites. Of these, the English Suites are the earliest. They were probably compiled during Bach’s Weimar years, the French Suites during the Cöthen years, and the Partitas at the beginning of the Leipzig period.
The English Suites (the title was added sometime after Bach’s death, for reasons that are unclear) are densely contrapuntal, large in scale, but less polished and idiomatic than the French Suites or the Partitas. There is nevertheless much to cherish in these earlier suites, which represent Bach’s first large- scale experiment in combining imitative counterpoint with the well established forms and idioms of gallant dances. We can admire their expressiveness, virtuosity, inventiveness (especially in the opening preludes and gigues), contrapuntal mastery, and dramatic impact. There are obvious sources of influence; earlier German masters, especially Froberger, French composers like Dieupart and Le Roux, in the First Suite, and the Italian concerto style of Vivaldi and Corelli. In Bach’s time, it was common to borrow material and ideas from other composers and indeed it was considered a gesture of respect from one colleague towards another. Bach often borrowed from other composers and was not shy about it. But whatever he borrowed, whatever he touched, he transformed and perfected.
The English Suites are less homogeneous, less of a cycle, than the French Suites or Partitas. Bach is clearly experimenting with idioms and techniques and honing his craft. This process of experimentation never ended for Bach; all of his output could be looked at as an unceasing ascent towards perfection.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when the English Suite No. 1 in A major was first written down. It stands apart from the harmonic pattern of the other suites in the set, which descend gradually from A to D. It also differs from the other suites in that its Prelude is a gigue, very similar to the suite’s actual Gigue in melodic and harmonic pattern. The First Suite has four (!) courantes. The first is a simple, traditional courante and the three others present the same material differently. These courantes, along with the additional versions of the sarabandes in the Second, Third, and Sixth Suites, offer very telling and important examples of the different ways in which one musical material can be treated and presented. These “second versions” could (and should!) be taken as guidelines for how repeats should be played. A repeat should never be a mere rote repetition, but rather a new, more personalized reading of the same material. There are several aspects of interpretation that can be altered when the same material is presented for the second time; embellishment, rhythm, phrasing and articulation, dynamics and registration. These options should be used sparingly, with good taste, and they require an understanding of basic Baroque performance practice.
The Second Suite is quite angular. Like all the remaining suites in the set, it opens with a concerto- like prelude, contrapuntal, and written in Bach’s familiar da capo form, with alternating tutti and solo episodes that require changes in dynamics. The Allemande is imitative, idiomatic, and a bit awkward. The allemandes in the English Suites are all somewhat similar in style and composition, but Bach seems less at ease in the allemande here than in the other suites. The Sarabande is the first of the three sarabandes in the English Suites for which Bach provided “Les agréments [embellishments] de la même [same] Sarabande.” There are two superb bourées in minor and major keys. There is no da capo sign after the second bourée, but it seems needed nevertheless. The Gigue is vigorous and has the da capo sign – the only gigue in all of Bach’s clavier suites that does.
The Third Suite in G minor is a masterpiece. The Prelude is a concerto grosso opening movement with a real ritornello structure similar to the Italian models of Vivaldi and Corelli; the middle (solo) episodes are written mostly in three parts. The Allemande is one the finest in all of Bach’s suites, in spite of the parallel octaves that Bach did not even try to hide. It flows freely and naturally. The theme is given in the bass (!) and is repeated and inverted later. The Courante is rather complex and sophisticated rhythmically – there are simultaneous combinations of different rhythms in the melody and bass that are quite unusual. The Sarabande is a marvel. It opens with a pedal point in the tonic that lasts for the whole first part and changes into the dominant only in the last bar. The harmonic progressions of the second part are revelatory, mysterious, and have the feeling of a free improvisation that is happening before our eyes. The second version of this sarabande brings even more expressiveness, with lavish and elaborate embellishments added by Bach himself. There are two gavottes in minor and major keys without the da capo sign, which nonetheless seems needed as in the two bourées of the Second Suite. The second gavotte (ou la Musette) has a tonic pedal all throughout and imitates a bagpipe. The bass should be repeated, otherwise it gets lost. The Gigue is a real three part fugue that inverts its theme in the second part – a contrapuntal device Bach used frequently. In the last two bars the theme comes in stretto in both s treble and bass. With the exception of two bars, the second half of this gigue is written in two parts.
The Fourth Suite is in F major. The Prelude opens with a solo entrance of the treble, a rather unusual beginning, though not unique; Vivaldi’s Concerto Op. 3 No. 3 (which Bach arranged) opens in a similar fashion. Bach used his own material from the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto in the solo episodes of this masterfully written prelude. The Allemande contains both ordinary and triplet 16ths as does the Allemande of Bach’s Partita in G major, written almost twenty years later. The Allemande and Courante are imitative and invert their themes in the second half. The Sarabande is simple and traditional with the obligatory rest on the second beat. The menuets are quite conventional (what else are the menuets for?) and contain some imitative counterpoint. The Gigue is a “hunting” type with octave leaps (a post horn motive) that are especially prominent in the second half, and closely resembles another hunting gigue from the French Suite No. 4 in E flat major.
The Fifth Suite in E minor opens with a prelude that is a marvelous concerto da capo fugue – the only such fugue in all of Bach’s output for the clavier. There are similarities to his Third and Fourth Brandenburg Concertos in the solo episodes. All the material is put together tightly and flawlessly; this amazing prelude generates tremendous energy. The Allemande is densely contrapuntal with some rather tricky voice crossing that suggests a double manual harpsichord. The inversion in the second half leads to a harmonically tense outcome quite unusual for Bach in his early works. Such chromatic tension would be reserved for especially dramatic occasions in his later works. The Courante is vigorous and should be played in a lively tempo as a real dance. The Sarabande is homophonic and gallant in style. The bass line moves very freely and covers a wide range of the keyboard. There are two stylish and elegant passepieds in minor and major keys (as usual) without the da capo indication, but again it seems that the first passepied should be repeated. The Gigue is a rather strict three part fugue with some chords at the end of each half. The subject of the Gigue is very expressive and can be articulated in a variety of different ways. The E minor Suite as a whole is a coherent composition that is intensely expressive, angular, and dramatic.
The final suite of the set, in D minor, is the largest and perhaps the most ambitious. The opening Prelude is an actual prelude and a fugue that begins with an improvisatory arpeggiated sequence on the pedaled tonic in the bass. Such openings were common in the organ toccatas and the stylus fantasticus of the older German and Italian masters. There is no tempo indication (as is the case in absolute majority of Bach’s works), but the shared time signature suggests that the following fugue (an Allegro) should be played in the same tempo. This fugue, the longest in the English Suites, unfolds in irresistible perpetual motion with dramatic intensity and a sense of urgency. This prelude is one of the finest openings in all of Bach’s clavier suites. The Allemande is elaborate and densely contrapuntal – the first imitation happens in the very first bar between the tenor and the treble. The Courante is not among Bach’s most successful. The walking bass does not quite work and seems a bit superficial. The Sarabande is very frugal (almost like choral writing) and for it to be effective some ornamentation in the melody and arpeggiation of the chords should be added even when it is played through the first time. There are two gavottes with the customary upbeats, in minor and major keys; the second is similar in its tonic pedal to the Gavotte of the Third Suite, but instead of imitating a bagpipe this gavotte sounds like a music box. The Gigue offers the most rigorous and impressive examples of imitation and inversion in the English Suites. This gigue could be seen as a predecessor of the polyphonic intricacies of the “Art of Fugue.” There are some technically challenging places in this gigue; the trills in the upper and middle voices are not easy to execute while simultaneously playing another material in the same hand.
The six English Suites laid the foundation for Bach’s exploration and perfection of the clavier suite form, articulating important technical and stylistic principles and idioms that he would develop further in the French Suites and Partitas.