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Orchestral Suites Nos. 1, 3 4
When one glances at the list of compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), one realizes that his instrumental output, particularly that for orchestra or chamber ensemble, is very small. The thematic catalogue of his works lists some 1,080 entries. Of these, one-half comprises sacred vocal and/or choral music, and one-quarter comprises solo organ music.
Of the remaining 300 instrumental works, some 225 are for solo harpsichord, leaving a mere handful of works for solo violin, solo violoncello, small chamber ensemble and orchestra. Ironically, it is upon this small portion of his output that much of Bach’s present renown rests. Ask an average music-lover to hum an aria from a Bach cantata and they may well have difficulty, but few would have to think twice before whistling the theme of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto or the Air “on the G String” from the Third Orchestral Suite. The reason for this apparent imbalance is simple enough: the shift of public music making in Germany from a sacred to a secular stage post-dated Bach. His largest audiences were to be found in the congregations of the many churches in which Bach found employment, and a large portion of his time as both performer and composer was spent providing music for this public.
Only two of Bach’s official posts required him to compose and perform a quantity of instrumental music: that of Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Cöthen (1717-1723), and that of Director of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig (1729-1741). At Cöthen J.S. Bach had under his direction an ensemble of very talented instrumentalists and a discerning employer, who together inspired many great works from the pen of their Kapellmeister. In Leipzig he was responsible for the weekly Friday concerts of the Collegium Musicum at Zimmermann’s Coffee House. The Collegium was made up of university student musicians, supplemented by amateur and professional musicians, and frequented by travelling guest soloists, often of considerable renown.
The dating of Bach’s extant instrumental music is in many cases impossible. Many of the works first thought to have been written at Cöthen are now thought to have been composed for the Leipzig Collegium. Many works, including the orchestral suites, have survived only in the form of copies by friends or colleagues of Bach. Only four orchestral suites have come down to us, the first orchestral suite scored for two oboes, bassoon and strings; the second orchestral suite for flute and strings; and the third and fourth orchestral suites for a larger ensemble with oboes, bassoon, trumpets, timpani and strings.
All four suites are in the style favoured by the Germans and made famous at the time by such composers as Telemann and Fasch: each has an extensive overture, with a complex and lengthy fugal section incorporating elements of the Italian concerto grosso, followed by a series of dances and character movements.
Suite No. 1 in C major (BWV 1066)
Throughout the First Suite the three wind players—two oboes and a bassoon—take centre stage. The dance movements show how completely Bach mastered the styles of the French courtly dances, evidenced also in his keyboard suites. Among the dances is the only extant example in Bach’s output of a forlane, a Venetian street dance accompanied by mandolin, castanets, and drums. Forlanes became popular dances in the 18th-century French ballet, and Telemann in turn imported them into the German orchestral suite.
Suite No. 3 in D major (BWV 1068)
The more extrovert Third Suite, scored for three trumpets, timpani, oboes, bassoon, and strings, is arguably the most popular of Bach’s suites, perhaps because of the inclusion of the exquisite Air. The latter is an oasis of beauty and calm between the energetic overture and the boisterous final dances. Mendelssohn Mendelssohn championed this suite, and reports in one of his letters that he played the work for Goethe in 1830.
Suite No. 4 in D major (BWV 1069)
The Fourth Suite is scored similarly to the Third Suite, with the addition of a third oboe. It has a more extensive history: in its original version, probably written at Cöthen but unfortunately now lost, it did not employ trumpets and timpani. The overture, with the addition of flutes, trumpets and timpani, was later used as the opening movement in Cantata 110, “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens.”
The majestic outer sections were purely orchestral, but in the lively fugal allegro Bach added a four-part chorus in a masterful parody. At some yet later point in Leipzig, he turned to the work again, creating the orchestral suite as we now know it. For this version Bach retained the trumpet and timpani parts of the cantata, with slight alterations, and re-worked the dance movements to include the brass.
© Charlotte Nediger