SOPP284: How can you detect the German, French, English spirit or accent in Bach’s suites?
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 284, of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Irineo. He writes: “How can you detect the German, French, English spirit or accent in Bach’s suites? There weren’t so many different answers back then, so how can you tell?”
V: First of all, Ausra, we could also talk about other, like German and Italian influences, right? In Bach’s music in general, right?
A: Yes. Because he sort of, synthesized all the influences from different countries.
V: But talking about the suites that history with the name, is kind of strange, right? English suites don’t exhibit specifically English baroque, characteristics.
A: That’s right. Actually I don’t think we have so many common English dances at all. And I think this title was given later and not by J.S. Bach himself.
V: Mmm-hmm. By Forkel who was the first 19th Century Bach’s biographer. And he claimed that these works might have been composed for an English nobleman. But there is no evidence to back up this claim.
A: And in general, Bach’s suites and all those dances that Bach’s suites contain, they’re not intended as real dances. I mean nobody intended to dance.
V: Mmm-hmm. In earlier days, in 17th Century of course, they would be dancing on one minuet and allemandes and courantes and sarabands and gigues, composed for this specific suite, right? But in Bach’s style, they’re so complex that probably they would be a little bit too complex to dance to.
A: Yes, I think so too. They are too elaborated.
A: So, do you think French and English suite for example, very much differ from each other?
V: Yeah. In general, English suites are longer.
A: Yes, and they are considered to be more complex than French ones.
A: So if you are working on these suites, you better start with French and then go on and play some English suites.
V: And also, probably Italian partitas could be part of that suite tradition too, from the first part of the clavierbung.
A: Yes. But then we, I would say that probably France was that country which dictates the passions of dances.
A: Because either in general they are very famous for the dances and ballet too.
V: Right, and even the term was English suite, there were French spirit in it all over the composition.
A: I know, and if you would look in general how the suite is constructed, you would see that each suite actually consists of dances that come from various countries. Because if you would take like, difficult suite, it starts often with allemande, which is I believe came from Germany. And then courante, which is the French dance, and saraband,,,
A: Spanish, yes. And minuets of course is French royalty dance. And gigue, that comes from England.
V: Mmm-hmm. So those four dances, allemandes, courante, sarabande, and gigue, are kind of required, at least in later suite tradition in 18th Century, like when Bach was writing. But Bach would add, for example, in his English suites, prelude, as you say, minuets...
A: Gavottes too were often included.
V: Right. Rigaudons, chaconnes, all kinds of other dances. And then the suite would become very long.
V: What’s interesting is that you could actually construct entire suite based on one figured bass formula, and it was written and described in Niedt's Musikalische Handleitung in 17th Century source, that you take let’s say, bass line of some keyboard composition, and you adapt it to fit the meter and even the structure of other dances. And remember, we sometimes improvised when we were students at Eastern Michigan University, when Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra taught us and really, you could even take a hymn melody, and you could create entire dance suite based on any hymn. Remember Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern, by Buxtehude?
A: Yes, I remember that. Yes, it has a gigue at the end it.
V: Mmm-hmm. Or Buxtehude wrote another suite, in E minor.
A: Auf Meinen Lieben Gott.
V: Auf Meinen Lieben Gott. This is also dance suite, based on a chorale tune.
A: That’s right. So in general when playing these you need to analyze what kind of dance you’re playing and what kind of meter it is. Because meter and rhythm is a basic grounds for all the suites and for all dance.
V: Mmm-hmm. And I sense a little bit of interest in Irineo’s question about general stylistic elements, right? Maybe not necessarily in dances, but in general in Bach’s music. What makes Bach’s music a little bit French, Ausra?
A: Ornamentation, of course. Because all the ornaments that Bach has written should be performed following French tradition.
V: At least the latter part...
A: Yes, yes.
V: when he was influenced by French music more than Italian.
V: Right? It’s an interesting tradition, because when Bach, remember, traveled on foot to Lubeck to visit Buxtehude, he was influenced by German style in that period. And Germany was heavily influenced by Italians. So you would play ornaments from the main note, not from the upper note.
A: That’s right.
V: In early Bach’s compositions. Maybe up until Weimar I would say, and even perhaps later. Because in Weimar remember, he would transcribe those Vivaldi concertos. It’s still Italian.
A: In his own Italian concerto.
A: But if you would play his French overture, then of course you would have to play French ornaments.
V: Basically, in his mature style, you would create ornaments in the French tradition, right?
A: That’s right. And if you would follow his directions as educator, and he put for his son Wilhelm Friedemann in little keyboard book, all that ornamentation as written as it should be performed in French tradition.
V: Right. From the table by D'Anglebert. And French overtures have this stylistic features in Bach works—a lot of suites start with overture. And even not only suites, but other pieces like E flat Major Prelude for the organ.
A: Although French overtures always throw in ¾ meter.
A: But E Flat Major Prelude is in 4/4 meter, so common meter. But still you know, very French spirit in it.
V: What about Italian stylistic features in Bach work?
A: Well you can find a lot of it, as he constructs that plan of keys. It’s very Italian. He often uses that circle of fifths—principle and sequences that are total Italian.
V: Which he found probably transcribing Vivaldi concertos and of concertos by other composers from Italy.
A: That’s right.
V: And of course the ritornello structure.
A: Yes. If you would look at his cantatas they are all based on ritornello. And also if we go back to that famous E Flat Major Prelude, it also has ritornello...
A: throughout the piece.
V: So in just in one piece, like E Flat Major Prelude, you would have Italian elements, French elements, and of course the German elements, right? Because he was German.
A: That’s right.
V: So in his style, especially, mature style of Bach, connected entire cultural heritage of Europe.
A: That’s right.
fV: Thank you guys for listening. We hope this was useful to you. Please send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow. This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember, when you practice...
A: Miracles happen!
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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