The Suite 01
Not to mention that apparently Beethoven has written more than one work of the same name.
But that’s a mistake that’s easy to clear up. One only must realize that the titles of music pieces are not proper names, but generic names.
The easiest way to understand this is to compare it with literature. There are also different genres like the novel, a poem or an essay. This simply describes the form in which the book was written, just as symphony, sonata or song do in music.
In literature, the individual works are named because it is an art form based on the written word. This is not the case in music. Here the titles should not distract from the main thing, the music, and it should speak for itself. Therefore, the names only serve as an indication of the form in which the music was written and to distinguish the individual works from each other.
In the last 500 years an incredible amount of different forms of music has developed. We are hardly aware of this anymore, because the only ones we normally deal with are the simple song or the music we know as background from television.
But it used to be different. There are countless musical genres, all of which are more or less different, depending on what the music was used for and what one wanted to express with it.
One of the earliest musical genres is the “Suite”. Today I actually wanted to talk about the six “Cello Suites” by J.S. Bach, but I noticed that I didn’t have much to say about them. Because I wasn’t even clear anymore how the suite came about and where its origins lie.
So I took my dusty books off the shelf and read myself back into the subject. In the next articles I will try to give you a small overview of the development of the suite. Only then to talk about their climax in Bach’s works.
At its core is a suite of dance movements, i.e. music that has evolved over time for parties and entertainment. Therefore I would like to talk first about dances and rhythms.
There’s an interesting experiment. Musicologists investigated which parameters are most important for recognizing a work: the melody or the rhythm.
In an experiment, simple, familiar songs were played to the audience. In one case with the right melody, but a completely different rhythm, in the other case with a freely invented melody but in the right rhythm.
The result was that the songs were only recognized if they were played in the right rhythm. This was almost never the case in the second series of experiments.
How can we also check this with ourselves when we think of “Little Hans”. Through its concise rhythm short-short-long, short-short-long, short-short-short-… we would probably recognize it with any melody.
This result is only surprising at first glance, because we have to remember that rhythm is something primordial. Already the child grows up in direct contact with its mother’s heartbeat and our life follows an individual rhythm, no matter if it is our breath, our speech melody or the way we walk.
Even in groups, a common rhythm, whether through clapping or singing together, is important for the feeling of togetherness and well-being. You can see this very well at rock concerts or various folk festivals.
Already thousands of years ago this method was used in ritual actions by creating a common trance by clapping and stamping. Out of this, the first dances developed over many intermediate steps and detached from any ritual meaning.
Let us now make a leap in history and look at the development in the Middle Ages.
By this time a rich tradition of dance music had already developed in our latitudes. Because of that time’s desire for the greatest possible variety, the form of the dances was designed in such a way that an odd bar jumping dance followed an even step dance.
In Germany these dances were called Dantz and Hupfauf, at the court Pavane and Gagliarde. In other countries these dances had different names (Pavane and Saltarello, Pavan and Galliard), but the principle of pair formation remained the same everywhere.
The form of these dances was well known and popular among the people. Either there was someone in the village who played for the dance or there were musicians who moved from village to village and improvised over the traditional melodies at festivals.
As you can imagine, these musicians did not have a high status in society and their kind of music was not very respected either. It was simply passed on orally and, unlike church music, neither written down nor stored.
It was only in the 16th century that this attitude began to change, for which there are several interlocking reasons.
With regard to our topic, the most important thing is that in the culturally most important countries of Europe, especially in France, there were massive social changes that created particularly favourable conditions for the emergence and dissemination of polyphonic dance music.
Here the royal central power had finally established itself and hand in hand with it came the rise of an urban bourgeoisie through trade and industry. Thus, on the one hand, the royal court needed music for its glamorous festivals and, on the other hand, the bourgeoisie increasingly used music as a means of representation and for its amusement events.
At the same time, there were significant improvements in instrument making during the Renaissance, which increased interest in both instrumental playing and the players’ skills.
All this led not only to the music becoming more important, but also to the musicians no longer remaining on the low level of a dance musician, but being socially recognized.
In the interplay they also began to take their work more seriously and to write down their interpretations of the old melodies.
The term “Suite” has become established as a collective term for the written deposit of these dance movements and their collection in booklets.
At first the traditional dances were simply collected, but soon the musicians began to create and print their own compositions.
At the beginning there was no uniform standard in the sequence of movements, but until the middle of the 17th century it simply remained an arbitrary collection of dance movements. But from country to country firm conventions were established, which dances were used and in which form they were strung together.
In the Baroque period, the suite finally experienced its heyday and the term “suite” refers to an instrumental composition consisting of several movements of the same key and predominantly dance-like character. They were still based on traditional dances, but at their core it was now pure art music.
But before we take a closer look at the baroque suite, let’s take a look at the dances that form the core of the suite next time.
These are the Pavane, the Galliarda, Allemande and Courante, the Chaconne, the Bourrée, the Sarabande and Gavotte, the Siciliano, the Gigue, the Menuett and the Polonaise.
With a click on this picture you can order a beautiful recording of Bachs Cello Suites directly from Amazon. There are no further costs for you, but I get a small commission.