Movement 01: Ouverture
Movement 02: Courante
Movement 03: Gavotte I
Movement 04: Gavotte II
Movement 05: Gavotte I da capo
Movement 06: Passepied I
Movement 07: Passepied II
Movement 08: Passpied I da capo
Movement 09: Sarabande
Movement 10: Bourrée I
Movement 11: Bourrée II
Movement 12: Bourrée I da capo
Movement 13: Gigue
Movement 14: Echo
These dance movements follow, beginning with a Courante (the usual allemande is omitted). The first thing to remember here is that the French dance of this name is very different from the Italian corrente. The latter is almost a virtuoso showpiece; the former is ranked with the sarabande as one of the slowest triple-metre dances in the suite. Its qualities are described as serious, solemn, noble and earnest by the theoreticians of the time. It is also marked by rhythmic ambiguities in its 3/2 metre. Bach brings this out beautifully in the left hand of this Courante, which lands on every other beat in the opening two bars. Then we have two graceful Gavottes, the first using semiquaver ‘tirades’, the second restricting itself to the lower register and demanding a change of colour. One of the most attractive dances of the suite comes next – the Passepied. Again in a pair, the first of these opens with an energetic trill that propels us to the end of the phrase. The usual definition of a passepied as a ‘fast minuet’ ignores its more vigorous accentuation and off-beat accents (such as in the alto voice of bars 5 to 6 and 29 to 30). The second Passepied is much calmer, resembling a musette with its drone bass. Mattheson described the passepied as frivolous, but pleasant – ‘just as many a female who, though she is a little inconstant, nevertheless does not therewith lose her charm’.
The core of the suite is occupied by a beautiful Sarabande. This dance, besides being noted for its noble character, is also intense, passionate, and meant to disturb the tranquillity of the mind. A certain ‘nonchalance’ was required to dance it: impeccable carriage of the head and body, but at the same time being alert and ready to execute any movement. A description dating from 1671 gives us some idea of the effect it made: ‘Now and then he [the dancer] would express anger and spite with an impetuous and turbulent rhythmic unit; and then, evoking a sweeter passion by more moderate motions, he would sigh, swoon, let his eyes wander languidly; and certain sinuous movements of the arms and body, nonchalant, disjointed and passionate, made him appear so admirable and so charming that throughout this enchanting dance he won as many hearts as he attracted spectators.’
In this particular Sarabande, Bach clearly adopts the French tradition of accenting the second beat of the bar, making it the high point of the phrase. It is also very contrapuntal, with unusual dissonances and swift modulations. A perfect legato without the use of the pedal is needed to do it justice.
Bourrées are often played far too quickly. Although energetic and joyful (lustig), they still need to be danceable. While the first of another pair in this suite uses the characteristic two-note upbeat and syncopation in bar 4, the second is unorthodox in using three notes as an upbeat. Again the range is considerably lower than its partner. The French Gigue that follows is a perfect example of what it should be: lightly skipping, sprightly, with the constant use of the ‘sautillant’ figure. It should not be anxious or frenzied. The phrases can be clearly marked to make it more intelligible to the listener. Only towards the end does the left hand become more involved, rather than just accompanying, with extra ‘tirades’ adding to the excitement.
The work could end here, but it doesn’t. Instead Bach gives us his pièce de résistance, the Echo, to top it all off. Though obviously orchestral (we think of the famous Badinerie concluding the B minor Orchestral Suite), Bach makes dramatic use of the two keyboards by writing in echoes that require a rapid change of manual. On the piano, of course, this is a bit less dramatic, but the effect must still be there. The actual echoes do not always simply repeat what has gone before but often ornament it, adding that extra stroke of genius. Scheibe declared that Bach’s music ‘is exceedingly difficult to play because the efficiency of his own limbs sets his standards’. Fortunately Bach made no compromises!
from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2001