The origins of the Orchestral Suite No. 1 are uncertain, but musicologists now suspect that the work dates from Bach’s early years in Leipzig. The score appeared no later than 1725, by which time Bach had already begun his association with the Collegium Musicum, the amateur group he went on to direct starting in 1729. Suites in the French style were fashionable among German composers in Bach’s day; such a work would have been known as an Ouverture (to use the French spelling), taking the name from the substantial opening movement. The subsequent movements employed dance styles popularized during the seventeenth century in the French royal court, especially during the reign of Louis XIV, an avid dancer himself. Orchestral suites by Bach and his contemporaries were not intended to accompany dancing, but the familiar rhythms and patterns would have contributed to their entertainment value.
True to form, the first Orchestral Suite opens with a grand overture in the French style. The structure employs the expected slow introduction, complete with dotted rhythms to invoke a majestic mood, which then connects to a fast fugal section. The ensemble’s small woodwind section, just two oboes and a bassoon, emerges for several exposed contributions before the slow tempo returns for a stately recapitulation.
The dances that constitute the remainder of the suite each adopt the usual binary structure, consisting of two repeated sections. All but the Courante and Forlane come in sets of linked pairs organized in a da capo format, meaning that the first dance returns for a final pass after the second concludes. The suite’s Forlane is the only movement with that title in Bach’s surviving output; the pastoral oboe melody, droning bass, and slurred accompaniment make for a memorable effect. Instead of ending with a typical gigue, the suite closes with a pair of Passepieds, another rare form found only four times in Bach’s music. This fast spin on a minuet reuses the same melody for the second part, dropping the tune to a lower octave and adding a dizzying counterline from the oboes.
Aaron Grad ©2013