Bach French Suite no. 1: An Analysis and Closer Look

In the last video, we took a look at the history and structure of the typical Baroque dance suite. Today I’d like to look through one of the famous dance suites by JS Bach, written for keyboard: the Bach French Suite no. 1 in D minor, BWV 812.

Though Bach wrote a vast amount of dance suites and dance music, this music wasn’t intended for dancing. It was music based off of dance, but it was meant to be listened to.

Bach French suites

Bach wrote a set of six French Suites, of which we’ll be focusing on the first. In each suite, all of the dances are in the same key (to provide unity between the dances).

He starts us off with a serious allemande, followed by a majestic courante, then a slow and expressive Sarabande. After that, Bach alternates some optional dances, such as the minuet or gavotte. Finally, the suites are finished with a lively gigue.

His first three French Suites are in minor keys, and are thus more serious and somber. The last three are in major keys, and thus have the opposite character.

These suites are nowadays known as “French” suites, but Bach himself didn’t give them that title (He called them “Suites for Harpsichord”. It’s also somewhat misleading that Bach’s English Suites actually sound more French in nature than his so-called French suites.

History of the french suites

The year was 1722 and Bach was newly married to Anna Magdalena, a singer. She was his second wife (the first, Maria Barbara, passed away in 1720). These suites were thought to be composed for her as a sort of wedding gift.

These suites were written during one of Bach’s most prolific times – he also wrote the Well-Tempered Clavier and Inventions and Sinfonias around the same time, all of which he used for teaching.

He gave her the French suites to help her learn piano – she was very musical, but was much more of an advanced singer than a keyboardist.

It’s thought that the six suites were completed by the year 1725.

Bach had some children at this point (several with his previous wife, and new ones on the way with Anna Magdalena), and it’s because of this that he started turning toward instruction and teaching. He wanted to provide his children a proper musical education, and he wanted to offer the same education to his new wife, as well.

Bach French Suites difficulty

Bach’s French suites are a little easier than the English suites. Henle ranks the English suites between levels 6-7 (fairly advanced), whereas the French suites are level 4 to 5/6.

The French suites are simpler in part because they don’t use as much counterpoint, and so they make a good starting point for listeners too (since they’re not as dense).

Bach French Suites: Style

A lot of Baroque music, including the music of Bach, was very contrapuntal and dense, and therefore difficult as a performer and listener. But there was a movement toward style galant – a simpler, more melodic style – which is evident in the French suites. It was a style that became popular during the late Baroque era, as music began to shift in a new direction.

Bach French Suite No. 1 in D minor, BWV 812

Bach’s first French suite in D minor has five movements:

  1. Allemande
  2. Courante
  3. Sarabande
  4. Menuet I/II
  5. Gigue

The Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue are the standard four dances in a suite, with the two minuets being optional extras that he added.

Since this dance suite is in D minor, that means every single one of the movements are in the key of D minor.

The allemande movement is steady and serious, the courante is in the slower French style in 3/2, and the Sarabande very slow and almost chorale-like. The minuet pair (meant to be played as Minuet I, Minuet II, then Minuet I again) are the simplest, and the suite finishes with an ornate gigue.

Bach French Suite no. 1: Allemande

The German allemande is what typically kicks off a Baroque dance suite, if there’s no overture or prelude as an introduction.

Features of an allemande include:

  • Moderate tempo
  • Usually in 4/4
  • Serious sound and mood

This allemande is faster than the typical dance (mainly because of the constant running 16th notes), but the stately and serious mood of the dance comes through clearly. It’s steady and consistent, with minimal breaks and pauses from the continuity.

It’s also highly ornamental, though since there was no official manuscript for the French suites (it wasn’t published in Bach’s lifetime), the ornaments tend to vary by edition. That’s why performances of these suites can sometimes sound quite different from another. Let’s take a listen.

Courante

The next dance in the set, the courante, is fast and insistent like the allemande. A main difference is the meter (allemande was 4/4, the courante is 3/2). This particular courante was written in the slower French style – some of Bach’s other courantes in the French suites are quite a bit faster.

Whether happy or sad (major key or minor key), I find the courante to be more emotional than the allemande. The allemande is all business; the courante, though still serious, lets us in a little deeper.

Some common features include:

  • Usually in 3/2 or 3/4
  • Fast and lively
  • A sweet character

Sarabande

The third movement, the Sarabande, is the most emotional of the bunch, and is very chorale-like in sound. There are four voices in this piece – soprano, alto, tenor and bass (SATB) – you can practically hear it be sung.

From a playing standpoint, chorale or counterpoint writing can be a challenge. The fingering is often unusual, and there’s a lot to think about. I find melody/chord writing to be simple – it’s in two parts – but with chorale writing, suddenly we’re juggling four parts at once.

Some common features include:

  • Usually in 3/4
  • Very slow
  • Has a halting sound due to emphasizing the second beat

Let’s take a listen to this moody, singing-like Sarabande.

Menuet I/II

Next, we have two menuets, paired back to back. Inserting a menuet between the Sarabande and gigue is optional, since it’s not one of the core four dances – but it does add more interest and variety.

The menuet pair is by no means easy to play, but they’re about the easiest in this French suite. Menuets tend to be a little easier because by their very nature they have a steady and repetitive rhythm, they aren’t melodically complicated, and move at a moderate to moderately slow tempo.

The first menuet carries on the solemn mood set by the Sarabande, only this time with a slightly faster tempo and a little more movement. We start crawling out of the hole, so to speak. The B section in this short little menuet serves as a peaceful major-key contrast for a few moments, like glimmers of sunlight through the clouds.

The second minuet moves us a little further, and gives us a little more energy. The rhythm is lighter and just a pinch quicker, and the notes are decorated with quite a few ornaments.

here are some of its musical features:

  • Triple meter (like 3/4)
  • One of the most popular Baroque dances
  • Some suites have two minuets played back to back
  • French origin
  • Simple moderate rhythm

Let’s take a listen to a few moments of each menuet.

Gigue

Surprisingly and unconventionally, this gigue isn’t in compound time (like 6/8) – it’s in simple 4/4 time. However, the dancing lilt is achieved by the abundance of dotted notes. When you listen to the recording, it still moves as though it’s in compound time.

This gigue is also particularly ornate, with the assortment of trills and running 32nd notes (which, as you’ll see, really aren’t all that fast given the moderate tempo of this movement).

You’ll also notice the contrapuntal texture (common to gigues) – there are three different voices, moving seemingly independently. Counterpoint just means that instead of the melody/chords format, it’s instead written as three (or more) melodies weaving in and out of each other.

Counterpoint is challenging to play, but it’s excellent for your brain. Once you know there are three melodies to follow, it’s even a brain exercise to listen to.

Some features of a gigue are:

  • Compound time (like 3/8 or 6/8)
  • Fast and lively
  • Contrapuntal texture

Conclusion

So there you have it – a fairly typical Baroque dance suite. Bach has quite a few of them – there are the five other French suites alone, in addition to the Partitas and English suites. And composers aside from Bach have also written important suites, especially Handel and his Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks – all worth checking out.

xo,
Allysia

Video Recording Credits

Performer: Marco Alejandro Gil Esteva (Piano)
Publisher: Marco Alejandro Gil Esteva
Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.