Bach's Orchestral Suites

Bach: Orchestral Suites

  1. Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069 
    I. Ouverture

  2. Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069
    II. Bourrée I & II
  3. Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069
    III. Gavotte
  4. Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069
    IV. Menuet I & II
  5. Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069
    V. Réjouissance
  6. Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066 
    I. Ouverture
  7. Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066
    II. Courante
  8. Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066
    III. Gavotte I & II
  9. Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066
    IV. Forlane
  10. Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066
    V. Menuet I & II
  11. Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066
    VI. Bourrée I & II
  12. Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066
    VII. Passepied
  13. Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068
    I. Ouverture
  14. Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068
    II. Air
  15. Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068
    III. Gavotte I & II
  16. Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068
    IV. Bourrée
  17. Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068
    V. Gigue
  18. Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067
    I. Ouverture
  19. Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067
    II. Rondeau
  20. Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067
    III. Sarabande
  21. Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067
    IV. Bourrée I & II
  22. Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067
    V. Polonaise & Double
  23. Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067
    VI. Menuet
  24. Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067
    VII. Badinerie

Program Notes

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.

Zimmermann's Coffee House

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.

Two of Bach’s orchestral suites are scored for comparatively modest forces: The first employs a trio of soloists (two oboes and bassoon) supported by strings and continuo, and the second features a solo flutist accompanied by strings and continuo. The third and fourth suites are many times more grand, each utilizing trumpets, timpani, oboes, and a full complement of strings. Additionally, a bassoon is specified in the fourth suite. True to form, each work begins with a “French Overture,” which combines a slow opening—marked by stately dotted rhythms and suspensions—with a lively fugal second section. The sheer expansiveness of these introductory movements is magnificent, and almost overwhelming. But what is most miraculous is Bach’s ability to utilize the full ensembles in the ensuing movements. Whether a Bourrée, Gavotte, Menuet, or Gigue, each dance appears light, graceful, and ebullient.

[Notes regarding individual suites are given below in recording order.]

Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069

Notable in the fourth suite, the title of the final movement is Réjouissance, which, by definition, is a public festivity designed to celebrate events such as a royal birth, or, in one thoroughly chronicled case, the 1699 dedication of the statue of Louis XIV in the Place Vendôme, which was accompanied by fireworks and concerted music performed from barges. Subsequently, the term was applied to especially jubilant movements within orchestral suites, such as the one at hand. Handel also used the title La réjouissance for a movement from his Royal Fireworks music, composed to celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1749. There is some fine scholarship that strongly suggests that the fourth suite did not originally include trumpets and timpani. The music of the suite’s first movement (the Overture) exists in a slightly different form as the opening movement of Bach’s Christmas cantata, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, BWV 110, first performed in Leipzig on December 25, 1725. In the cantata movement, three groups of instruments—strings, oboes, and trumpets—interact with each other on an equal triumvirate basis. In the version of the orchestral suite that has survived, only two groups interact—the strings and the oboes—with trumpets merely doubling one group or another, never playing independent material. Additionally, in the cantata movement there are slight compositional adjustments to the strings and oboe parts to accommodate the possibly new trumpet parts; in the suite, the absence of those adjustments creates some uncharacteristic problems. Finally, in the series of dance movements that follow, the trumpets and timpani play little more than the opening and closing measures, hardly representative of Bach’s customary writing for those instruments. So, the conclusion is this: the suite existed first without trumpets and timpani. In 1725, in the cantata, Bach reused musical material from the earlier-composed suite for oboes and strings, but added trumpets appropriate to the celebration of Christmas day. Then, perhaps hastily for a performance with the Collegium Musicum, Bach added trumpets to the original suite, failing to transcribe the detail of the modifications in 1725, and further adding trumpet and timpani highlights in the sequence of dance movements. That is the version of the suite that has survived.

Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066

As mentioned above, it was not so very long ago that historians blithely lumped the majority of Bach’s instrumental and orchestral works into the Cöthen period (1717–1723) since that was the period when he was employed as a court Kapellmeister and was not required to produce church cantatas. (The Calvinist court at Cöthen had no use for the sort of complex music of which Bach’s cantatas were comprised.) Even though many scholars have admitted that some of the pieces could have originated later, some works still do not seem to fit into the neat categories provided by the course of Bach’s career. Among them, the Orchestral Suite in C, BWV 1066, can be dated in performing sources to circa 1725, precisely the time when Bach was supposed to be immersed in his remarkable production of cantata cycles. Of course, this date does not exclude the possibility that Bach may have composed the work at Cöthen, but it does at least suggest that Bach was involved in instrumental performance of some kind at precisely that juncture when he was supposed to have been occupied with other things. Whatever its origins, the C major suite was probably composed and performed independently of the other three, which do, however, match it in style and form; only in the 19th century were all four perceived as forming a set. Bach’s C major suite contains no less than five “modern” dances (or more specifically, pairs of dances): Gavotte; Forlane; Menuet; Bourrée; and Passepied in addition to the more traditional Ouverture and Courante. What makes Bach’s dance movements so unusual is the sheer detail of the writing: The inner parts of the Courante, for instance, exploit the opening melodic gesture to create a highly cohesive texture, while the traditional metrical clashes of the dance are exploited to their fullest. The paired dances show a degree of wit which is often neglected in Bach studies: Gavotte II introduces an actual horn call as counter melody, but not, as might be expected, in the wind instruments; rather, it is played by the (inappropriately enlisted) strings. Menuet II dispenses with winds altogether and sounds, on first hearing, as if the melodic line has been omitted. But soon it emerges that the “accompanimental” material is all there is, and very satisfactory it proves to be. Other important “accompaniments” are the lower strings in the Forlane, which in some ways determine the character of the movement more than the melody. The same sort of figuration reappears in the second Passepied, as a complement (rather than mere accompaniment) to the melody of the first Passepied.
Cöthen Palace
Cöthen Palace
Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068

The third orchestral suite contains one of the most popular works among Bach’s compositions, one that has become known as the “Air for the G string.” Bach’s title is simply Air, and within the context of the entire suite, it is the only movement that is not scored for the full forces, but rather employs only four-part strings. This brief movement is admired for its extremely lyric melody, quiet counterpoint, and a very poetic sense of inward reflection and contemplation. Shortly before 1900, it was arranged for violin solo with piano accompaniment by a German violinist. Transposed into C (a fifth lower than the original), the entire solo part (which was the first violin part in the original) fits comfortably on the G string, the lowest and darkest of the violin, and thus, the arranger called it “Air for the G string.” The Russian-American violinist Mischa Elman (1891-1967) helped popularize this arrangement in concert and recordings, and thus brought renown to the movement behind it. Even though it has since been transcribed for, and played on, a wide variety of other instruments and media, as well as being heard often in its original form, the name “Air for the G string” now seems inseparably tied to this exquisite work.

Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067

Both the sources and the style of the music of the Orchestral Suite in B Minor suggest that it was composed in the mid-Leipzig years. Some of the movements show traces of an earlier version, perhaps in a different key with a different solo instrument, and certain features—the solo flute (a popular “royal” instrument) and the inclusion of a Polonaise—have led at least one commentator to affirm that the work in its present state was compiled in honor of Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland; Bach was, after all, made an honorary Kapellmeister at the Dresden court in 1736. Nowhere else in his four suites did Bach achieve such a subtle blend of styles and genres: the opening movement combines the traditional French overture with the Italianate concerto idiom. The dance movements achieve the necessary lightness and grace required of practical dance music without ever forsaking musical quality. Indeed it is a particular feature of Bach’s genius that he managed to achieve such simple and inevitable movements with the most complex of musical language: the graceful Sarabande employs a strict canon between soprano and bass lines; the melody of the Polonaise forms the bass line of the Double. Even the Badinerie—the famous quick-paced, frothy final movement of the suite, airy and light like a musical soufflé—has a complex texture and a subtle phrasing; every note plays its part in the sophisticated motivic argument.  

— © Jeffrey Thomas & John Butt  

The Musicians and their Instruments

performing on period instruments


Jude Ziliak (Leader) ​

Anonymous Italian, circa 1730.

Cynthia Black ​

Anonymous, German, circa 1820.

Tatiana Chulochnikova ​

Joseph Hollmayr, Freiburg, Germany, circa 1760.

Chloe Kim ​

Anonymous, English, early 19th century.

Katherine Kyme (Principal 2nd)​

Johann Gottlob Pfretzchner, Markneukirchen, 1791.

Toma Iliev ​

Anonymous, German, 18th century.

Holly Piccoli ​

Jay Haide, El Cerrito, California, 2012; after Tomasso Balestrieri, Mantua, circa 1772.

Noah Strick
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.

Jason Pyszkowski ​

Jay Haide, El Cerrito, California, 2008; after Giovanni Paolo Maggini, Brescia, circa 1580.

Yvonne Smith ​

Timothy Johnson, Connecticut, 2017; after Andrea Guarneri, Cremona, circa 1676.


William Skeen ​

Anonymous, Northern Italy, circa 1680.

Gretchen Claassen ​

Anonymous, German, 18th century.

Violone grosso & Contrabass

Steven Lehning ​

Hammond Ashley Luthiers, Issaquah, Washington, 1977; after 17th-century models.

Daniel Turkos ​

Anonymous, Bohemian, mid-19th century.


Sandra Miller ​

Roderick Cameron, Mendocino, California, 1986; after Thomas Cahusac, London, 1740.


Debra Nagy ​

Randall Cook, Basel, 2004; after Jonathan Bradbury, London, circa 1720.

Stephen Bard​

Joel Robinson, New York, New York, 2003; “Saxon Model,” patterned on various builders from Dresden & Leipzig, circa 1720.

David Dickey ​

Randall Cook, Basel, 2009; after Jonathan Bradbury, London, circa 1720.


Dominic Teresi ​

Guntram Wolf, Kornach, Germany, 2003; after “HKICW” (maker’s mark), Germany, circa 1700.


John Thiessen ​

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.

Dominic Favia ​

Rainer Egger, Basel, 2008, after Johann Leonhard Ehe III, Nuremburg, 1748.


Kent Reed​

Anonymous, England, circa 1840.


Corey Jamason ​

Willard Martin, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1990; after François Blanchet, Paris, circa 1730.

Additional Information

This recording was made possible by the generous support of Kwei & Michele Ü.

Producer: Chris Landen

Assistant Producer: Steven Lehning • Assistant Session Producer: John Kendall Bailey

Engineer: Andrés Villalta

Production Logistics: John Jaworski

Cover Art: Detail from Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence

Recorded May 15–17 2018 at St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere, California

© ℗ Copyright 2019 American Bach Soloists - All Rights Reserved