Orchestra Suite No. 3, BWV 1068

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        There are two great collections of instrumental ensemble music by Bach, one being the Brandenburg Concertos, and the other being the four orchestra suites, or as Bach called them, “ouvertures.” The latter were not composed as a set of four, but stem from various years, and perhaps various places of origin. Bach referred to them as “ouvertures” because the first movement of each originated in the grand overtures to French operas. It was a common Baroque genre, which consists of a stately, slow initial section, often featuring high trumpets and dotted rhythms, followed by a faster section, often in fugal style. By the 1720s French overtures had long lost their exclusive association with French operas, and were used everywhere a majestic beginning was thought appropriate—the opening of Handel’s Messiah may come to mind. We call Bach’s four works “suites” today because they are just that, suites of dances, prefaced by an overture. The dance suite was one of the preëminent Baroque genres, consisting of a series of well-known dances from France, Italy, and England, and Spain. Dance music had been an important part of secular music in Europe for centuries, and most folks knew well their rhythms and associated steps. Knowledge of these dance rhythms were (and still should be) an essential part of every musician’s education. They were ubiquitous, and lurked in almost all music of the time—in fugues, sonatas, cantatas--secular or sacred: they were there, usually not even identified as such. Everyone easily recognized them, just as many today can instantly spot a tango rhythm.

        Bach’s second suite, written sometime in the late 1720s during his long tenure in Leipzig, consists of the opening overture, followed by an “air,” two gavottes, a bourrée, two minuets, and a gigue. The opening overture typically has important parts for the timpani and three trumpets, and afterwards, the majestic opening section moves into the usual faster section that starts like a fugue—although it’s not a literal one. It bustles along, and then returns to the opening slow material to finish with a flourish of pomp. The second movement, the “air,” is one of the most beloved of all musical compositions in Western civilization. Known for years as “Air on the G string,” in an arrangement done long ago for solo violin, this is the original incarnation. Like almost all instrumental movements at the time, it’s cast into two repeated sections. Listen especially for the intricate inner voices of the string section, as they twine and intertwine underneath the first violins and over the “walking” bass line that eases the whole thing along. The “air” of the title references its vocal style, redolent of Italian operatic arias, the basic source of all of Bach’s lyricism. What else to say, except immerse yourself in one of Bach’s loveliest creations. The gavottes that follow are a wonderfully “thumping” evocation of the dance. Imagine leaping into the air on beat one, and falling with your weight on beat two, and you’ve got the feel. So, listen for the natural—not notated--accents on beat two, characteristic of the gavotte. Next is a bourrée, a lively French court dance in two beats, with a beginning upbeat. Two minuets follow, one of the few dances of the time that modern audiences are familiar with, owing to their use in symphonies until the time of Beethoven. Finally, a lively Gallic gigue—based upon the traditional Irish and English jig—ends this masterful example of the quintessential church musician’s ability to write stunning secular music.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan