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Excluding the numerous organ compositions, the majority of Bach's keyboard music is classified under well-defined headings – the 48 Preludes and Fugues known as The Well-Tempered Clavier, the English Suites, French Suites, Partitas, 2- and 3-part Inventions, Toccatas, and arrangements of other composers' concertos. Works which stand alone include the Goldberg Variations, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and the Italian Concerto, but there remain many other gems which are relatively neglected simply because they are not so readily pigeon-holed.
Bach composed his six French Suites probably around 1722-5, but there is another suite “in the French Style”. Published in 1735 in Clavier-Übung II together with the Italian Concerto (an ideal contrast), and catalogued as BWV 831, this large-scale Overture in the French Style might well be grouped with the six French Suites, or perhaps with the six Partitas. It exists in an earlier version in C minor (BWV 831a), copied out by Bach's wife Anna Magdalena in the early 1730's. The Overture begins with a typically grand, intensely serious section with powerful dotted rhythms and many flourishes of rapid notes contributing to forward momentum. The opening movement – or overture, from which the complete overture/suite genre originally derived its title – is always the most extended, but here Bach takes this principle to an unusual extreme. As the actual French Suites lack preludes, this particular work represents the only “complete” overture/suite from Bach's maturity. The splendour of the opening passage gives way to a 6/8 fugal section evoking the style of a concerto. This equally extended part of the movement includes the dynamic marks piano and forte – not a common occurrence in Bach's keyboard works, but intended to suggest tutti and solo passages, as in a concerto. (It should also be noted that Bach wrote this work for a two-manual harpsichord). After the modified reprise of the imposing opening section, the marked final repeat takes in the whole of the long fugal passage once more. The following sequence of dance-movements begins with a Courante of the French type. Here Bach creates effective rhythmic ambiguity in the first two bars (and again near the end) by re-articulating the tonic pedal on every fourth beat in the context of a 3/2 time-signature.
There follows a pair of Gavottes, the first including many semiquaver groups which add variety to the usual rhythmic character of this dance-movement. Marked piano, the second gavotte brings a contrasting tone in its use of a lower register. The courtly dance known as the Passepied was popular in the 18th century. Faster than the minuet, it is often “playful, flirtatious and even frivolous in character”, according to the Oxford Companion to J. S. Bach. These two examples are gentle, charming and rather wistful, the second passepied being in the tonic major key and characterised by intermittent, musette-like drone-bass. The Sarabande is clearly the most substantial and distinctive of the dance-movements. Within its 4-part writing Bach gives considerable rhythmic independence to each line, while the many passing dissonances create a momentary pungency. The two Bourées continue the general, relatively sober character of this suite - quite unlike the more brilliant or extrovert manner of many other keyboard works by Bach. Contributing to this effect is the downward transposition of the original C minor into B minor. Throughout the suite Bach's writing is concentrated in the middle and lower registers of the keyboard, the top of the treble stave being rarely touched. An unusual feature of Bourée II is the three-quavers upbeat to each phrase, rather than the traditional crotchet. This is just one example of how the typical features of simple dance-forms may be modified when adapted into the context of an “art-work”. Similarly, a few decades later, Haydn and Mozart retained little of the minuet's original character in many of their symphonies, quartets, etc. The robust Gigue, with its constant skipping rhythm, would usually be the finale of the suite, but here Bach adds an Echo movement of some grandeur - rather orchestral in character and including alternations of forte and piano. These are not straightforward, literal echoes but are intended rather for dramatic effect – again bearing in mind the original two-manual harpsichord.
The attractive Sarabande con partite BWV 990 is really a sarabande with variations. The C major theme leads to eleven variations, before a further variation-sequence including a group of dances (allemande, courante and gigue) concludes the work. The variations are genial and uncomplicated, closely adhering to the theme, or more especially to its bass, while rhythmic vitality is generally restricted to quaver passages. The exception is the sprightly rhythmic character of the eleventh variation. Here also, belatedly, in a 3-bar passage in G minor, there is a brief and unexpected moment of pathos. The final four variations include the three in the style of dance-movements. Unpublished until 1894, BWV 990 is considered by some scholars to be of doubtful authenticity. David Schulenberg has commented: “A significant work [that] would considerably broaden our view of Bach's early style if it could be shown to be his.” The most recent musicological studies also tend to support this cautious opinion.
Bach's six English Suites are believed to be the earliest of his three collections of keyboard suites, although the precise chronology for all these sets – English, French and Partitas - has never been established. However, it is known that Bach composed most of his instrumental music while employed at Köthen from 1717-1723. The most obvious difference between the so-called English and French Suites is the addition of a Prelude at the beginning of each English work, but the latter are also longer and include more ornamentation. Various possible explanations for the title have been advanced, including one which suggests that Bach wrote them for an important English gentleman visiting Köthen. More curious is the fact that Bach's youngest son Johann Christian made a copy of these suites and inscribed it “Fait pour les Anglois” (“Written for the English”). The Sixth English Suite in D minor, BWV 811, the last and grandest of the set, begins with a prelude of such extended length - effectively a prelude and fugue – as to dominate the suite even more than customary. Opening in improvisatory manner, with arpeggio figures above a six-bar tonic pedal, the preludial half gives way to a massive fugal section of driving momentum. The main subject begins with an ascending figure, but another idea, beginning with repeated notes, appears in bar 86 and temporarily assumes greater importance. At times the semiquaver figuration is reminiscent of the finale from Brandenburg Concerto No 3. A calm but harmonically rich Allemande follows in which Bach treats a little turn figure – the first notes in the left hand - rather obsessively throughout the movement. Next is the Courante, which has long phrases above a continuous walking bass in quavers, then a dignified Sarabande, its melodic line simpler than most. It is followed by a double (or variation) which provides more “filling” in the melody. Of the attractive pair of Gavottes (D minor then D major) the second is a musette in which the left hand plays the tonic D (off the beat) throughout. The final Gigue is unusually fierce, almost demonic in its intensity.
– Philip Borg-Wheeler