The French Suites

(BWV 812–817)




Sex Sviten


pur le Clavesin.


                           par Mos: J. S. Bach




Title-page from Johann Schneider's copy
 (SBB, Mus. ms. Bach P 418)


The French Suites (BWV 812–817) are a set of six keyboard suites Bach compiled in his late thirties, the most prolific period of his life producing a series of important instrumental works. Together with the Inventions and Sinfonias and the Well-Tempered Clavier, the French Suites formed an integral part of Bach’s comprehensive programmes for the education of his pupils. Keyboard suites – a popular genre consisting of about half a dozen stylized dances – had high educational value; one was expected to learn from them the essence of manners and good tastes.

    Traditionally, the French Suites were considered as pair with the English Suites, the other unpublished collection of suites Bach wrote earlier. The ‘French’ are distinguished from the ‘English’ by both the lack of prelude and being smaller in scale. Stylistically, the ‘French’ are the more charming and elegant of the two: they tend to avoid the use of counterpoint, and focus more sharply on the exploration of such galant elements as cantabile melodies and sonorous, idiomatic keyboard texture. When discussing these characters, one cannot disassociate them from their origin: a sort of wedding gift to his young, musical wife – Anna Magdalena Bach (née Wilcke, 1701–60).

The Origin

Anna Magdalena was just twenty when Bach married her on 3 December 1721; it was his second marriage, having lost his first wife, Maria Barbara, from sudden illness 17 months earlier. One can only imagine what an uplifting change this marriage brought to Bach and his children.

    She was a professional singer; her keyboard skills were predictably no equal to her singing abilities. That Bach sent her so soon after their wedding a Clavierbüchlein with the first five of the French Suites seems to attest to their loving relationship. How did she feel when receiving such a gift? Esther Meynell, the author of The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach – a romantic fiction published anonymously in London in 1925 – depicts this scene with remarkable clarity: “Very soon after our marriage he gave me a music-book he had made for me. … When I turned the pages with eager fingers, while he stood and watched me with a smile so good and kind, I found that he had written for me in this book many easy pieces for my playing on the clavier – on which instrument he had begun giving me lessons. I was not yet very advanced, though I could play a little before I was married, and he had written these little melodious compositions to please me, to encourage me, to suit the stage of skill at which I had arrived and lead me gently on towards a higher one. Amongst these pieces was a grave and beautiful sarabande – I always thought his sarabandes in the clavier Suites and Partitas were peculiarly lovely and expressive of his mind – and the gayest little minuet, and all were of a charm to tempt any student to the keyboard.  Thus he was ever ready to stoop from his own height and take by the hand a child or a beginner. Nothing ever made him impatient with a pupil save indifference or carelessness.”

The Title

Except those movements that are found their way into Anna’s Clavierbüchlein, no other copies of the French Suites in Bach’s hand survive. How Bach called this collection is still open to debate. In all likelihood, to the lost autograph is given a plain title ‘Six Suites for Harpsichord’, if one can trust the wording – ‘Sex Sviten pur le Clavesin’ in somewhat misspelt French – found in a copy of Bach’s pupil (probably Johann Schneider, 1702–88). It is striking that no further distinction was given when there was another set of keyboard suites, the English Suites, in Bach’s household. Bach’s obituary (1754), for example, merely describes them ‘Six suites for the same [i.e. clavier]’ (English) and ‘Six more of the same, somewhat shorter’ (French). How did Bach distinguish between them? It was in one of Marpurg’s treatises in 1762, as far as we can trace, that we learn the first reference to this work as ‘Six French Suites’. Considering his close relationship with Bach family circles, this information seems credible; it was perhaps how the work was generally called. Forkel endorses this view in his biography of Bach (1802), explaining that they are ‘written in the French taste’.

Process of Compilation and Revision

The loss of Bach’s autograph manuscript of the work also poses a serious problem when trying to establish an authoritative text of the work. In fact, a very confusing picture emerges from the study of the surviving manuscripts; some contain different suites as a set, while others give clear evidence of Bach’s continuing revisions, refining voice-leading, tightening textures and adding further ornaments, bars, and even movements. Below, then, is a brief summary of the account as we learn from the main sources.

    The earliest of these is Bach’s only surviving autograph in Anna’s Clavierbüchlein. The first five suites were entered here in this order. Nos. 1 is a fair copy, which presumably had already been copied when the book was presented to his wife in early 1722. It strongly hints that this suite was a new composition. This was soon followed by nos. 2 and 3 in a little rough handwriting; they were perhaps subsequent addition as Anna had learnt the first to Bach’s satisfaction. No.4 is transmitted in a near fair copy. According to Georg von Dadelsen’s study of Bach’s handwriting (1958), it was added towards the end of the year or in early 1723. The first few bars of no.5 were also entered around this time, but the remaining portion was not entered until the second half of 1724. No.6 is not found here, but since about 40 pages are now considered being removed at the back of the volume, it may have been once present in this volume.

    One may be surprised to find therein many traces of revision as if this quasi bridal gift has turned into Bach’s own workbook. The addition of minuets to nos. 2 and 3 is particularly meaningful, for these are among the easiest movements to play. The revisions are not restricted to this book, however; the evidence of Bach’s tireless efforts are also found in his pupils’ copies, including the second book of Clavierbüchlein for Anna that Bach dedicated to her in 1725 (possibly to compensate for the virtual repossession of the previous gift). There we find nos. 1–2, in a revised shape, in Anna’s handwriting, to which Bach again added further refinements.

    Schneider’s copy paints a similar picture of Bach working incessantly with the set. It contains six suites: nos. 1–4, with BWV 818 and 819 placed between nos. 3–4. (Nos. 5 and 6 are not found in this copy.) According to Alfred Dürr’s study (1982), the first four were copied by 1722 partially from Anna’s first Clavierbüchlein, and the last two in 1725 or later. Except BWV 818, all the pieces were subsequently updated by him to the state of text reflected in the second volume of Anna’s Clavierbüchlein. The manner in which the minuet of no.4 was copied in an empty space after the gavotte is interesting: since this movement is absent from the first book of Anna’s Clavierbüchlein, it may also have been a later addition.

    A copy by Heinrich Nikolaus Gerber (1702–75) contains seven suites sequenced as follows: no. 1, BWV 818, BWV 819, nos. 3, 2, 4, and 5. He copied no.6 as well; but it was grouped under the English Suites, entitled ‘Suite 6ta avec Prelude pour le Clavesin’. (The prelude is taken from the Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 854/1). Textually speaking, the first six generally follow the earlier version, whereas the remaining two take the later version. It is in this source that two minuets are found in no.6, the latter being called ‘Petit Menuet’ which was placed at the end of the suite.

    A copy by Johann Caspar Vogler (1696–1763), made by the end of 1725, exclusively transmits the later version; it permits us to say that all the revisions were completed by that year. His copy consists of nos.1, 2, 5, 4, 6 and BWV 819a, thus lacking no.3 and BWV 818. In no.6, the minuet was placed at the back.

    A copy by Johann Christoph Altnickol (1720–59), made after 1744, contains all six French Suites in the correct order. It bears an elaborate title-page, starting in English ‘Six Suites’ followed by the description in German, which basically follows the wording used in the published title-page of Bach’s Six Partitas. What striking is that contrary to what one would expect, it copies the earlier version of the work, similar but not identical to Anna’s first Clavierbüchlein. Clearly, Bach kept multiple copies of the work, both revised and unrevised versions, from which his pupils made their copies.

    When reassessing all this from a broader context, one may begin to appreciate how Bach conceived and developed the French Suites. The work almost certainly originated in 1722 when Bach was hard at work, assembling a range of educational works. It seems significant that the French Suites were Bach’s nostrum to improve and cultivate the keyboard skills of his wife, while the Inventions and Sinfonias (1723) and the Well-Tempered Clavier (1722) – the two most distinguished methodical studies – derived from the education of his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann: from Gerber’s biographical account we learn that these suites were placed on him between the last-mentioned works. From these sources we can also learn how Bach expanded the work and added numerous textual details to his pupils’ copies, suggesting not only its importance in Bach’s teaching curriculum but also how he taught his pupils. The work was largely finished by 1725, the same year Bach sent to Anna another Clavierbüchlein. In this more lavishly bound volume is included two new suites that are later known as nos. 3 and 6 of Six Partitas, the first of a series of keyboard works that Bach published in print. This fresh ambition was perhaps the primary cause for the shift of Bach’s focus; it appears as if Bach never produced the definitive fair copy of the French Suites.

    Given that the final text of the work was not entrusted to us in any single source, it is up to us to decide which version to take. This recording is based on ‘Version B’ of the New Bach Edition (1980), which takes readings from various sources that are thought to give later text. Two companion suites, BWV 818a and 819a as well as some notable variants are also included.

Stylistic Features

The most prominent feature of the French Suites is the way Bach actively seeks the style galant. Bach’s focus is the singing melody, and to achieve this end he carefully avoids the use of technically complex figuration and thick texture. This can even be seen in the sarabandes, traditionally homophonic movements. The reduced usage of contrapuntal writing is also evident in the allemandes, which, with the absence of preludes, assume a prefatory character. The courantes appear in two different types: slow and deliberate French (nos. 1 and 3) and lively Italian corrente (nos. 2, 4, 5 and 6). Also worth noting are the varieties shown in the gigues of first half: stately French overture (no.1), joyful French canarie (no.2), and smoothly-flowing Italian giga (no.3). With the Galanterien Bach expands his stylistic dimension: here we find air, anglaise, loure and polonaise, the types are not employed in the English Suites. Bach’s freer, stylized treatment of dances is also evident, the tendency which is even more apparent with Partitas.

    When viewing from a wider historical horizon, one can see how Bach’s compositional style and technique developed over the years. Chronologically placed between the English Suites and the Six Partitas, the French Suites attest to the advanced stage of Bach’s own compositional styles, which are still to mature. Yet in terms of their compactness and accessible character, the French Suites make for many the most favourite keyboard suites.

(c) Yo Tomita 2003
This essay was written for Masaaki Suzuki's recording of this work released in June 2003 from BIS. (BIS-CD-1113/14)