Tablet - Portrait

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Johann Sebastian Bach

Some of Bach's keyboard compositions during his time in Cöthen were not written for the court, including the so-called French Suites, the first five of which appear in the Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena. Written in 1722, the Suites open the book of instructional material. Here, and in other manuscripts, the works are entitled, "Suites pour le Clavessin" (Suites for the Cembalo, or Harpsichord). The term "French" was applied to them much later, perhaps to distinguish them from the "English" Suites, which are more musically extended, stylized dance suites.

Each of the six French Suites contains the four dance movements that Bach made standard for the genre -- Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. To these, Bach added two to four movements between the Sarabande and Gigue. Because the different movements are associated with different European countries, the Suites have an "international" character. All movements of a particular suite are in the same key, although minor-key movements often end in the major.

The general air of the Fifth Suite is cheerful and relaxed; yet, it is in many ways the most difficult of the six French Suites. The opening Allemande, the "German" movement, is typically processional in style and in 4/4 meter. The highly decorated melody of the two-part movement is supported by a bass that at first moves slowly, but gradually becomes animated. The ensuing Courante, originally a French ballroom dance, appears here in an Italian-influenced style, in a light, quick 3/4, with voice exchange occurring between the hands. The Sarabande has none of its traditional Spanish character, moving instead in a stately rhythm and 3/4 meter, but retaining the accent on the second beat. Bach's melodic invention is clear in his modification of the opening motive to create the first idea of the second half.

Bach inserts three movements between the Sarabande and Gigue. The first of these is the famous Gavotte, a sprightly, French ballroom dance in 2/2 meter with a modulation to the dominant at the end of the first half. The Bourrée, too, is a dance of French origin, and Bach brings out its country flavor with accents and mordents on the first and third beats. In 6/4, the ensuing Loure is much slower with a soaring, sustained melody. The closing Gigue is a three-voice fugue that never rests; its second half begins with an inversion of the subject of the first half, a typical device in Bach's gigues.