The origin of dance music for keyboard instruments is a foggy one. The only thing that historians can seem to agree upon for sure is that yes, in fact, some kinds of music can be organized into suites, and styled after dances, and the agreement ends there.
The time of the suite lasted from the 14th century to the mid 18th century. Since the suite’s heyday was so early on in the history of music, it is probably safe to say that if a writing on the topic of where and when the dance suite left the ballroom and came to the keyboard ever existed, it has been lost to antiquity now.
The suite existed for keyboard instruments like the harpsichord and clavichord for years. The term suite first appeared in the mid 16th century, however, the style of the suite and the order of pieces included was not standardized for at least another 100 years. Many different styles of dance were featured throughout Europe in suites and were actually danced to. By the time of the standardization of the suite, however, the dances had been limited to four standards with a few others that could be added for variety, and no longer were these dances actually danced to, but were played as stylized dances – that is, in the style of a particular dance, but meant to be listened to as the primary source of entertainment, not as the accompaniment.
It is mostly Johann Sebastian Bach’s doing that the dance suite became standardized in Germany, and for most of Europe. He has written two sets of suites, the French Suites and the English Suites. There are 12 suites in all, six in each set.
Interestingly, Bach never actually titled his suites. While fragments of music appear in a notebook he gave to Anna Magdalena as a gift in 1722, and he then turned these fragments into full-fledged suites by 1725, it is unclear whether his suites were ever meant for public performance. It is also unknown who first called the French Suites “French.” Some argue that the English Suites actually have more of a French style than the French Suites do. There is some evidence, however, that the French Suites were called that by the Bach family, and that the suites were actually written for Bach’s piano students who had completed his Two and Three Part Inventions but were not ready yet to play the Well Tempered Clavier.
Bach’s suites follow the pattern of Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, X and Gigue, where X is usually two or sometimes three or four different dances, sometimes Menuetts, Gavottes, or even Bourrees. All the dances are played in binary form, that is, there is an A section that gets repeated and a B section that gets repeated.
The Allemande is one of the more popular of the dance styles, and in Bach’s suites, serves as a prelude to each suite (other composers actually included a prelude before their suites officially began). It is quick and in a duple meter, and, in the majority of the French suites, has an improvisatory air.
The Courante is another quick movement, this one, however, is in triple meter. The Courantes of the French Suites seem to feature more ornamentation that suggests an attempt to imitate one of the instruments that also plays dance music – the lute.
The Sarabande is in triple meter, and while the Courante and Allemande have French origins, the Sarabande originally comes from Spain. Sarabandes can be played fast or slow, but Bach seems to appreciate the slower approach. If the first two dances of each suite are a call to the dance floor, each Sarabande is Bach’s way of saying, “hey, why don’t we slow things down a bit and catch our breath.” The beat moves, but at a stately, reserved pace.
The Gigue is a quick movement, usually in duple time. It is the piece that wraps up the suite, and makes the final statement.
Over the course of his six suites, Bach also features Menuetts, Gavottes, Loures, Bourrees, a Polonaise, Airs and an Anglaise. With the exception of the Bourree in G Major and in E Major, most of these pieces maintain a slower, steady tempo.
The French Suites were written and used mostly as pieces for Bach’s students, and it is clear to see why. The pieces are shorter than what one might have come to expect from a suite, or from any of Bach’s music. The average dance is no longer than 2 minutes, with many coming in under the 1-minute mark. The technical level required to learn any of the individual dances also is not that high and while they do present a challenge, it is not a hurdle that the intermediate pianist can’t get over eventually.
Also, the harmonic structure of the pieces is easier not just for the student, but also for the listener. Each of the pieces, even those written in minor (the stereotypical sad mode) is light and airy. True to the suite form, each set of dances stays within one key, with very little modulation to any other key, major or minor. Each suite plays around in it’s own key (d minor, c minor, b minor, E-flat Major, G Major and E Major) and doesn’t stray too far from the path by venturing to a neighboring key or relative minor or major, allowing the ear to recognize each key and become comfortable with it. The thematic structure and rhythmic patterns stays relatively simple and uncluttered as well.
While many factors have gone into the development of the dance suite as a musical art form over the ages, and we may never know the exact details of who did what when and why, it is clear to see that Johann Sebastian Bach’s influence was an important one in the shaping of the suite style that we have today.