Johann Sebastian Bach never set foot outside his native Germany, and even there he spent his entire life within a relatively small area. Other musicians, thus confined, would have been at risk of provincialism. This was certainly not the case with him. Not only was his musical genius so extraordinary that his memory retained and elaborated what his curiosity sought, but he managed to be extremely informed about the newest trends throughout musical Europe.
This did not mean, however, that he uncritically accepted whichever fashion came from all quarters. He was ready to welcome new musical ideas and styles, to absorb the best of them after careful and humble study, and then to present the result in a highly original fashion. The works he wrote in the style of other countries or traditions succeed in creating an almost impossible alchemy: to fully correspond to that country’s typical traits, on the one hand, and at the same time to be quintessentially “Bachian”, personal, unique.
Researchers have thoroughly investigated the presence of “international” traits in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach; for instance, Szymon Paszkowski has beautifully written about his “Polish” style, and scholars from Tagliavini to Mellace and Borghesi analyzed the “Italian” marks in Bach’s style.
So, what exactly is “French” in the “French” programme presented in this Da Vinci Classics album? There is plenty of French elements, of course; but, oddly, there are fewer of them than in other similar works by Bach.
The genre of the Suite, to which both the so-called “French Suites” and the “French Overture” belong, certainly owes much to the French tradition, and particularly to the sets of Pièces de clavecin written by the Couperin family and their likes. The practice of creating collections of stereotypical and “undanceable” dances (i.e. works destined for playing and listening rather than for dancing) was typical for the Baroque era, mainly as concerns works for keyboard instruments or plucked-string instruments such as the lute. Of course, dance suites were also written for orchestra and for other instruments (Bach himself wrote suites for unaccompanied cello and Partitas for unaccompanied violin and flute).
The dances’ names were frequently French, and some dances actually originated in France or acquired their standardized form there. Furthermore, the classical ordering of the dances, while not “French”, was in turn influenced by the French tradition. Yet, these traits are found practically throughout Bach’s oeuvre, not just in the French Suites or in the French Overture.
Indeed, in comparison with other suites by Bach, the “French” Suites are much more “Italian” than their siblings. And in fact Bach never called these Suites “French” – he would have known better. The tile by which they are now known is in fact posthumous and spurious; yet, it sticked, and today not even the purest purists call them by a different name. It was Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg who, in 1762 (i.e. twelve years after Bach’s death) labelled them “French”, probably in order to distinguish them from those which had by then begun to be called “English” (another very misleading attribution, to tell the truth). The name was definitively adopted when Johann Nikolaus Forkel issued his foundational biography of Bach, in 1802. Even though that biography is a milestone of Bach studies and literature, at times it contains faulty information, and this is one example of musicological inaccuracy. Forkel wrote that “One usually calls them French Suites because they are written in the French manner”. But, as we saw earlier, their “manner” is much less French than that of other works by Bach – indeed, they are distinctly and unashamedly Italianate.
Similar to many instrumental works by Bach, the “French” Suites were written during his employment at the court of Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen. As is well known, Leopold was a Calvinist; therefore, during that period, and for the only time in his life, Bach was not under any obligation to write church music, and had rather to focus on secular music, which meant mostly instrumental works. His large keyboard output was probably intended mainly for pedagogical purposes, but this does not detract from the artistic value of the results.
While he was composing the so-called “English Suites”, Bach proceeded in parallel to write some collections of keyboard music, one conceived for the education of Wilhelm Friedemann, his firstborn, and another for his second wife, Anna Magdalena. While the works found in Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s notebook are clearly intended for the education of a prospective professional keyboard player and composer (Bach was unambiguous about that), those found in Anna Magdalena’s notebook tend to be more recreational, even though they are also extremely useful for improving the player’s technique and knowledge of composition. Yet, evidently, he offered his young wife something which could delight her and alleviate the daily cares of their large household. The first four “French” Suites are found, in their earliest version, precisely in that collection. They are generally thought to have ben composed around 1722 (the same year as the Well-Tempered Clavier, volume I), but it has been surmised that the first may predate the others by a few years.
After he moved to Leipzig in 1723, Bach was again in the employment of a church, and then had to focus mainly on sacred music; but this did not prevent him from creating fine instrumental music, and to revise what he had already created. In Leipzig, in fact, he also had to teach the pupils of the Thomasschule, along with his own children. And works in the genre of the Suite were by no means purely recreational; they rather served also pedagogical purposes.
The French Suites, in fact, are generally easier to play than the other similar works written by Bach for the keyboard (such as the “English” Suites or the Partitas); today, as in Bach’s time, they were employed as a first approach to the genre of the Suite. Their comparative simplicity in terms of digital virtuosity is absolutely not detrimental as concerns their exquisite beauty and the elegance of their form.
Among the most “French”-like movements, however, the Courantes of the first and third Suites are worth mentioning – only to highlight, precisely by pointing this out, that the remaining four Courantes are instead typically Italian. Decidedly extraneous from all pretense of Frenchness is the presence of movements such as the Polonaise: here, “Polishness” becomes a symbol for regality and kingship, just as happened very frequently with other musical elements such as the dotted rhythm (and we will soon see that this is the characterizing mark of the French Overture). Two further Suites, BWV 818 and 819, are very similar in style and technical demands to the French Suites; yet, since Bach was keen on grouping his works by six, they were left out from the “official” series of the French Suites.
The Partitas cited a few lines above are among the few works for the keyboard that were published during Bach’s lifetime, within the framework of the so-called Clavier-Übung, in four volumes including the Italian Concerto, Goldberg Variations, and organ works. The volume in which the Italian Concerto is found also comprises the “French Overture”, another Suite whose name, in this case, is perfectly suited to its content. While, in fact, the French Suites (different from both the English Suites and the Partitas) miss an opening movement in the style of a Prelude, the French Overture has a… French Overture as its initial piece. French Overtures were a highly fashionable genre in the Baroque era, and were characterized by a slow introductory section in the dotted rhythm, followed by a highly complex contrapuntal part, in a much quicker tempo. This structure appears, among others, in the Orchestra Suites written by Bach.
This French Overture (intending in this case the entire composition), which has a very long duration and complex structure, is an extremely fine example of a really “French” Suite, in the style of Forqueray or Couperin. Interestingly, it constitutes the “French” piece of the second volume of the Clavier-Übung: all four volumes, in fact, have a “French” movement at their exact centre.
This Suite is atypical in Bach’s oeuvre as it lacks the Allemande, the “German” dance (perhaps as a further token of “Frenchness”); it also displays an exceptional number of what Bach called Galanterien, i.e. optional dances which precede and follow the Sarabande (two Passepieds and two Bourrées). Another unusual trait is the presence of an additional movement after the Gigue, the Echo: a piece intended as demonstrating the potential of the harpsichord’s manuals for rendering echo effects such as those which were fashionable at Monteverdi’s time and for the entire Baroque era. This also explains the presence of dynamic indications (f and p), which normally are missing in Baroque works for the keyboard; they clearly indicate the use of the one or the other manual.
Together, these magnificent works display Bach at is lightest. There is no frivolity, though; just the joy of dancing, or rather of evoking the pleasure of dancing. Indeed, perhaps the most French trait of these works is precisely in their joie de vivre and in their refinement; they are like glasses of champagne, to be savoured by the knowledgeable with a unique delight.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023
Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.