Orchestra suites (Bach)

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Four orchestral suites by Johann Sebastian Bach have been preserved ( BWV 1066-1069). Each is a sequence of dance movements preceded by an overture. Since Bach did not give these suites a special title, they are often called simply "overtures" after the title of the first movement.

This first sentence often takes up more than half of the space, which underscores its importance. It always consists of a French overture with a first section in the typical dotted rhythm, a subsequent fugato with extensive concertante passages and a resumption of the opening section, which is always highly varied. Repetition signs at the end suggest repeating the second and third parts together; since this would give too much weight to the first movement for today's taste, the repetition is mostly omitted today.

The extensive first movement is followed by a free sequence of dances; In the orchestra suites, Bach does not observe any particular dance sequence; so there is not a single allemande and only one gigue (which is so common with him) ; on the other hand, dances such as Forlane , Réjouissance or Badinerie appear , which Bach otherwise practically does not use at all. While the introductory movements are clearly characterized by concertante elements, the dance movements usually contrast the instrumental groups in a rather simple way, especially in the first and second suite.

The four compositions have been handed down independently of one another; they do not form a cycle . There are no autograph scores, only copies of the individual parts. Dating was therefore not possible for a long time (see below ). It is certain that Bach performed the works from 1723 as part of his concerts with the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig.

In 1909 Gustav Mahler performed a suite based on the orchestral works by JS Bach. that combined movements from the second and third orchestral suites.

The four orchestral suites

Suite No. 1 in C major BWV 1066

Sentence sequence
  • Overture c - ¢ - c in C major
  • Courante 3/2 in C major
  • Gavotte I ¢ C major
    - Gavotte II ¢ C major
  • Forlane 6/4 in C major
  • Minuet I 3/4 in C major
    - Minuet II 3/4 in C major
  • Bourrée I ¢ C major
    - Bourrée II ¢ C minor
  • Passepied 3/4 I
    - Passepied II 3/4 in C major

Little is known about the creation of the entire group of works, and the first suite is no exception. At least voices from Bach's first year in Leipzig have survived; Since these are most likely not based on a composition score, but on an already existing set of parts and the copyists did not otherwise write for Bach, it is assumed today that Bach brought the work to Leipzig and made it available to a colleague for performance. It is unknown whether the suite was created in Koethen or in Weimar.


The overture is the only movement actually worked in concert form and contains extensive three-part parts for the oboes and the bassoon (only here with its own part). The winds do not introduce an additional theme, but do introduce a characteristic counterpoint . In some of these solo passages they also play around the orchestral violins, which successively bring the theme to different pitches in unison. So the fugue theme is constantly present throughout the middle part of the movement.

The third section is a free variation of the beginning, with the first violin and bass - at least rhythmically - swapping the voices.


After the overture, the work generally starts with the trio of woodwinds chorally opposite the strings. Thus, Courante and Gavotte I put in four parts; both oboes double the first violin. Gavotte II is a "classic" trio of oboes and continuo, to which the high strings add a little fanfare in places. This is followed by a forlane in which the oboes and first violin spread their calm theme over the excited swirling middle voices.

The minuet again contains a “trio”, but this time for the strings alone. Spitta described its mysterious character with the words “fragrant, sweet and secretly kissing, it floats with an elastic step.” This is followed by a bourrée , which again contains the classic trio for the woodwinds.

The concluding passepied uses the original theme in the high strings in the contrasting middle movement and, like a variation, adds a continuous eighth note chain of the two oboes performed in unison.

Suite No. 2 in B minor BWV 1067

  • Overture in C - ¢ - (Lentement) 3/4 B minor
  • Rondeau ¢ B minor
  • Sarabande 3/4 B minor
  • Bourrée I ¢ B minor
    - Bourrée II ¢ B minor
  • Polonaise (Moderato) 3/4 B minor
    - Double 3/4 B minor
  • Minuet 3/4 B minor
  • Badinerie 2/4 in B minor

An autograph score has not survived, but parts from the period 1738/39 are. After a two-year break, Bach took over the Collegium Musicum again in 1739 and will have provided the work for his regular coffee house concerts in Leipzig. But this will not have been the first performance; Today's research suggests a previous version in A minor. There are good reasons to believe that the first version was only written for strings; it then probably did not yet contain the solo Bourrée II, and the strikingly few remaining solo parts were probably entrusted to the first violin.

The second suite contains some masterly technical finesse, including in the final part of the overture an implied multiple canon of all voices and in several movements canons between upper voice and bass; in the Sarabande even a strict canon of fifths; this allows some researchers to begin the work only in the late Leipzig period.


The introductory section uses the flute only to double the first violin and builds on imitation between it and the bass. The fugato theme in the following part is characterized by a characteristic lead (which is mostly played staccato today); it is performed through all voices in the exposition before the first interlude introduces the flute as a solo instrument. In the mostly very extended solo passages, the continuo repeatedly brings the fugue theme clearly, which ensures a strong thematic cohesion of the extended movement. The final section - again in the dotted rhythm of the beginning - clearly alludes to its theme and leads it counterpoint through all the strings.


Central movements are bourrée and polonaise . They each contain a second movement that gives the flute space for virtuoso solos - in the bourrée supported by soft ("doucement") string chords, in the polonaise by the theme in the continuo. The two movements are framed by a sarabande and a minuet , which are based on continuous imitation between first violin and bass - the flute here only doubles the violin.

The sequence of dances is introduced by a rondeau - this inserts contrasting passages between the theme repetitions, which mostly emphasize the middle voices (i.e. not the flute). The concluding badinerie ("Dändelei") then fully relies on the virtuosity of the flautist, supported by a driving continuo and chord strokes of the strings. The movement is probably one of the best-known individual movements in baroque music.

Suite No. 3 in D major BWV 1068

  • Trumpet I / II / III
  • Timpani
  • Oboe I / II
  • Violin I / II
  • viola
  • Basso continuo
  • Overture c - 2 (vite) - c in D major
  • Air c in D major
  • Gavotte I ¢ D major
    - Gavotte II in D major
  • Bourrée ¢ D major
  • Gigue 6/8 in D major

No autograph score has survived that could provide information about the genesis of the work. What is striking, however, is the compositional technique, since the basis of the orchestration lies solely in the strings: the oboes invariably double the first violin (only in Gavotte II the first and second violins), and the trumpets provide rhythmic and sonic support by particularly thematic heads and cadenzas highlight. It makes sense to consider a first version for strings alone; The schematic orchestration with constant emphasis on the first violin part does not necessarily mean that it was composed early; Time constraints could just as well have been the cause. Since it was obviously primarily about reinforcing the melody voice, there was possibly a special occasion - Bach regularly performed in Leipzig with the Collegium Musicum in Zimmermann's coffee house , which also had a garden for open-air performances .


The fugato theme is basically a widely spun dominant seventh chord and, as Diether de la Motte notes, could only emerge when the harmonics had generally incorporated this seventh chord into their language. There are only two - quite extensive - solo passages, and both are structured very similarly: A large-scale solo of the first violin, initially only supported by the strings. Gradually, oboes and trumpets with accompanying voices are added until the full tutti sound is finally achieved. Another two bars of the first violin with continuo then lead back into the tutti, and into a new development of the fugue theme.

Subsequent clauses

The following Air (“melody”, i.e. no dance movement) , performed by the strings alone , with its long chords and wide-reaching cantilenas above the bass line, which progresses in characteristic octave leaps, is one of the best-known individual movements in classical music, as it is very often the subject of arrangements has been.

The other movements of the now quite short composition are based very heavily on clear and repeatedly repeated characteristic rhythms, which give the movements a somewhat small character. A gavotte with a contrasting middle movement and a bourrée now follow. Shortly before its end, the final gigue introduces the chromaticism so typical of Bach.

Suite No. 4 in D major BWV 1069

  • Trumpet I / II / III
  • Timpani
  • Oboe I / II / III
  • bassoon
  • Violin I / II
  • viola
  • Basso continuo
  • Overture c - 9/8 - c
  • Bourrée I in D major
    - Bourrée II ¢ B minor
  • Gavotte in D major
  • Minuet I 3/4 in D major
    - Minuet II 3/4 in D major
  • Réjouissance 3/4 in D major

Except for the first three bars of the overture, Bach only uses the trumpets to double other instruments; therefore it was assumed that an archetype managed entirely without trumpets. Since the original score has not been preserved, this remains speculative.

Only the - certainly later - revision of the overture in his cantata Our mouth full of laughter (BWV 110) gives a clue for dating : Here Bach adds a four-part choral movement to the fugitive middle section. This cantata was performed on Christmas Day 1725; Since Bach's first years in Leipzig concentrated primarily on composing cantatas, it can be assumed - similar to the first suite - that he brought the score with him from Köthen or Weimar.


In contrast to the third overture, the oboes are obligatory, and so here the instrumental groups are clearly separated from each other and used against each other right at the beginning. The fugato uses a rather inconspicuous theme in continuous triplet movement, the characteristic counterpoint of which is made up of repetitions of notes in dotted rhythms, which explains why Bach later used this movement to illustrate laughter. A first solo section only occupies the woodwinds, but does not introduce any further subject matter. A second solo section introduces the individual choirs, lets them reunite and then leads them against each other in longer passages, whereby the long motivic triplet chains in the bass are particularly noticeable. The third solo passage is reserved for the strings, before the oboes step back in and bring the section to an end with another suggested theme. The final dotted part is not a literal resumption of the beginning, but uses the same motif material and leads the instrumental groups against one another with similar intensity. Particularly noticeable at the beginning is the strongly dissonant, expressive harmony.


The first bourrée consistently uses the oboe and the string choir against each other and has the thematic sections performed alternately, with the other group interspersing small fanfare-like motifs at the end. Bourrée II (in the parallel minor key) consists of a plaintive, accentuated oboe melody over a witty, virtuoso bassoon solo, with a small, sweeping throw-in motif of the strings.

In the gavotte , the first half of the theme is performed together, the second consists of a bass motif over which the oboes and high strings alternately dab simple quarters.

The minuet forms the haven of calm and is more conventional. In the first movement the oboes double the strings, in the trio the strings remain alone.

The final réjouissance plays a very unusual game of melody and period, as one would rather expect from a composer of the next generation. An expressive upper part, which prefers wide intervals, is supported by an imitating bass and simple, harmoniously filling middle voices; the second part divides the two instrumental groups again and contains almost development-like features, especially in a passage before the resumption of the theme, which uses excessive chromatics on one organ point.


Since instrumental parts are only available from Bach's time in Leipzig, it was often assumed that the works were not composed until Bach took over the Collegium Musicum . On the other hand, for stylistic reasons, they seemed to fit in well with his time as court musician in Köthen, especially suites 1 and 2 with their somewhat smaller cast.

More recent investigations come to the conclusion that the surviving versions were written for Leipzig needs, but that the accessible first versions must have been created much earlier - at least before the French suites (BWV 812… 817). This is inferred from the lack of certain stylistic features in the introductory part of the overtures. Since a number of French overtures also appear in Bach's Weimar and Köthen cantatas and these movements can be dated due to the existence of autograph scores, further precise detailed comparisons were made.

As a result, it seems quite certain today that the fourth overture (in a version without trumpets) was written in Weimar around 1716, then at the beginning of the Koethen period (around 1718) the third in a purely string version, then the other two (of which the second in A minor with solo violin) at least before 1723. These early versions would then have contained the well-known overtures, but not necessarily all dance movements.

Further orchestral suites

Suite in G minor BWV 1070

The Bach Works Directory lists this suite with an instrumentation of two violins, viola and basso continuo. The style of this work is difficult to reconcile with that of Johann Sebastian Bach; Today it is attributed to the next generation of composers, probably one of his sons.

Suite in F major BWV 1071

This is an early form of the First Brandenburg Concert . Unlike the suites just discussed, this concerto does not begin with a French overture, but in its early version represents a so-called Italian overture - a three-movement form made up of a fast concert movement, adagio and dance.


  • Siegbert Rampe, Dominik Sackmann: Bach's orchestral music. Origin - sound world - interpretation: creation, sound world, interpretation. Bärenreiter, 2000, ISBN 978-3-7618-1345-4 .

Web links


  1. Joshua Rifkin: Lost sources, lost works, in: Martin Geck (Ed.): Bach's orchestral works. Report on the 1st Dortmund Bach Symposium 1996 . Witten 1997, ISBN 3-932676-04-1
  2. ^ Philipp Spitta: Johann Sebastian Bach, Leipzig 1873–79, 2 volumes.
  3. Joshua Rifkin: The B-Minor Flute Suite Deconstructed, in: Gregory Butler (Ed.): Bach Perspectives, Volume 6: JS Bach's Concerted Ensemble Music, the Ouverture, University of Illinois Press, ISBN 978-0-252-03042- 0
  4. Werner Breig : On the prehistory of Bach's Overture in B minor BWV 1067, Bach Yearbook 2004.
  5. ^ Christoph Wolff : Johann Sebastian Bach, 2nd edition 2007. S. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main, ISBN 978-3-596-16739-5
  6. Diether de la Motte: Harmonielehre, ISBN 3-423-04183-8 , p. 59
  7. ^ Siegbert Rampe, Dominik Sackmann: Bach's Orchestermusik, Kassel 2000, ISBN 3-7618-1345-7 , p. 266 ff.