Historians have noted that Bach’s music is intensely infused with the spirit of dance, whether expressing joy, felicity, sorrow, or devotion. The musical forms of dance were some of the most essential and permeating components of music from the Baroque era. Those clearly defined elements determined tempos, moods or affects, and the structural architectures of the vast majority of Baroque musical works, both with texts and purely instrumental.
Bach’s suites not only celebrate the dance, but also the phenomenal technical abilities of his musicians. Bach titled them Ouvertures referring to the grand opening movements that are followed by suites of dances, all requiring the most virtuoso instrumentalists.
In 1732, Johann Gottfried Walther published his Musicalisches Lexicon in Leipzig. It was a monumental dictionary of musicians and musical terms. Regarding the term “overture,” he wrote: “The overture takes its name from ‘to open,’ because this instrumental piece opens the door, as it were, to the suites or following music.” Walther further explains that the “real place” of an overture is at the “beginning of an opera.” Bach must have known Walther’s definition. They were colleagues and, in fact, cousins, and Bach acted as a sales agent for Walther’s dictionary.
Traditionally, when compilations or suites of individual movements from ballets or operas were selected for a concert performance, the overture to the complete work was included as the suite’s first movement. This practice determined the basis of works that would be composed as independent suites, and Bach, following this practice, titled each of his orchestral suites “Ouverture.” Unfortunately, only four such works have survived.
We assume that many of Bach’s orchestral compositions have been lost. The surviving repertory gives us only an incomplete idea of his output for larger instrumental ensembles. What has survived can only add up to a small fraction of the works that he must have written during his years at Cöthen (1717-1723) and while he was working with the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. For a long time, Bach scholars assigned most of his chamber and ensemble music to the Cöthen years, but it now seems that only the smaller part of the extant, or surviving, instrumental ensemble music belongs to the Cöthen period. The greater part was composed at Leipzig, and principally for the Collegium Musicum, which Bach directed from 1729 to the early 1740s. The four Orchestral Suites, with their leaning towards French style, were probably written in Leipzig during these years.
In 1729, as previously noted, Bach became director of Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum, a semi-professional musical performance society that Telemann had founded in 1701–1702. Telemann had gathered together musically proficient and keen students from the University of Leipzig (founded in 1409). He described the venture: “This collegium, despite the fact that it consisted mainly of university students, often reaching a total of 40 musicians, nevertheless could be listened to with great appreciation and pleasure.” This was one of two such societies in Leipzig: the other one had been founded in 1708 and was directed during Bach’s time in Leipzig by J. G. Görner, the University Church music director and Thomaskirche organist (with whom Bach was not on the best of terms!). Bach’s Collegium Musicum was similarly supported by university students and some professional musicians, almost certainly including his older sons. This ensemble could be adapted to the performance of anything secular from chamber music to small orchestral and choral work. It flourished as a fixture of the lively middle-class musical life in Leipzig. Meetings were held on Friday evenings at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house (or sometimes al fresco in summer).
In addition to these ordinary meetings—or rather concerts, which were open to the public—the Collegium also performed from time to time for royal or academic occasions. We know that Bach composed several pieces for such events, but unfortunately there is no known record of the music played at the Collegium’s ordinary concerts. Nevertheless, we believe that Bach arranged his many harpsichord concertos for these evenings, and also quite probably pieces of his chamber music and the Orchestral Suites were used. Except for a brief two-year period, Bach oversaw the Collegium Musicum until at least 1741.
In setting an “Ouverture”—basically a French-style overture followed by a collection of dances—Bach was continuing a tradition in German orchestral music which can be traced back to the final two decades of the seventeenth century. Orchestral suites seem to have originated in France where Lully and his followers abstracted dance movements from larger dramatic works and formed them into purely orchestral collections. Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (1656-1746) and Georg Muffat (1653-1704) were the principal German importers who found that the new genre worked well in the courts of German-speaking states, so much did the nobility wish to emulate the practices and affectations of the Sun King’s court. German suites are to a certain extent a weather-vane, each pointing to the most popular dances of its time. What is really significant about Bach’s suites, though, is not so much their complexity or their ingenious manipulation of established dance patterns. It is the fact that the music sounds so direct and clearly profiled. Bach may have had a typically German obsession with intricacy and motivic detail; but he never forsook his primary duty as a performer to make music that “works” for an astonishing variety of audiences.
Jude Ziliak (Leader)
Anonymous Italian, circa 1730.
Anonymous, German, circa 1820.
Joseph Hollmayr, Freiburg, Germany, circa 1760.
Anonymous, English, early 19th century.
Katherine Kyme (Principal 2nd)
Johann Gottlob Pfretzchner, Markneukirchen, 1791.
Anonymous, German, 18th century.
Jay Haide, El Cerrito, California, 2012; after Tomasso Balestrieri, Mantua, circa 1772.
Celia Bridges, Cologne, 1988; after Nicolò Amati, Cremona, circa 1640.
Ramón Negrón Pérez
Jay Haide, El Cerrito, California, 2016; after Giovanni Paolo Maggini, Brescia, circa 1580.
Jay Haide, El Cerrito, California, 2008; after Giovanni Paolo Maggini, Brescia, circa 1580.
Timothy Johnson, Connecticut, 2017; after Andrea Guarneri, Cremona, circa 1676.
Anonymous, Northern Italy, circa 1680.
Anonymous, German, 18th century.
Violone grosso & Contrabass
Hammond Ashley Luthiers, Issaquah, Washington, 1977; after 17th-century models.
Anonymous, Bohemian, mid-19th century.
Roderick Cameron, Mendocino, California, 1986; after Thomas Cahusac, London, 1740.
Randall Cook, Basel, 2004; after Jonathan Bradbury, London, circa 1720.
Joel Robinson, New York, New York, 2003; “Saxon Model,” patterned on various builders from Dresden & Leipzig, circa 1720.
Randall Cook, Basel, 2009; after Jonathan Bradbury, London, circa 1720.
Guntram Wolf, Kornach, Germany, 2003; after “HKICW” (maker’s mark), Germany, circa 1700.
Keavy Vanryne, London, 1987; after Johann Wilhelm Haas, Nuremberg, circa 1710-1720.
Kathryn James Adduci
Rainer Egger, Basel, 2005, after Leonhard Ehe III, Nuremburg, 1748.
Rainer Egger, Basel, 2008, after Johann Leonhard Ehe III, Nuremburg, 1748.
Anonymous, England, circa 1840.
Willard Martin, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1990; after François Blanchet, Paris, circa 1730.
Recorded May 15–17 2018
St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere, California
Producer: Chris Landen
Engineer: Andrés Villalta • Assistant Producer: Steven Lehning
Assistant Session Producer: John Kendall Bailey
Production Logistics: John Jaworski
This recording was made possible by the generous support of Kwei & Michele Ü.
Cover Art: Detail from Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence