French Suite No. 6 in E major, BWV 817
Johann Sebastian Bach
It is impossible to pinpoint a date or a composition that marked the beginning of Bach’s consummate creativity since his output is of such a whole piece. His life in music can only be divided geographically and the compositions organized as to the locales in which they were written. Bach never went outside the borders of Germany, but within his homeland a list of the many cities in which he worked and composed reads like a tour itinerary. His penultimate position as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold at Cöthen, however, looms particularly large in Bach’s biography, for in Cöthen, from 1717 to 1723, he wrote a large variety of secular music – solo, chamber, and orchestral – and many instructive pieces.
Cöthen too was important to Bach on a personal level, for it was there that he suffered the loss of his wife Barbara, whom he had married in 1707. He remarried in 1721, this wife, Anna Magdalena, bearing him 13 children, bringing his total progeny to 20, of which only nine survived him. Bach’s life was energized by the marriage to Anna Magdalena. She was an accomplished singer and a member of the church choir, a position she continued in, with her husband’s full support, until they left Cöthen. With a musician wife, as well as young children to be trained, Bach could now engage an activity that was vitally important to him, that of educator. Whether teaching harmony or composition, he was a tireless and inspired master. He was no less so as a teacher of the keyboard, and for his clavier students, which included Anna Magdalena and the most musical of his children, he created his own teaching material, designing it to take the student from basic techniques through to the most advanced technical situations.
Early in their marriage, Bach took seriously his role as teacher to Anna Magdalena. The dutiful and eager wife started an album, which she titled Clavier-Büchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bachin, Anno 1722, in which Johann Sebastian entered instructive compositions intended to help improve her keyboard skills and her musicianship. The entries include scores of five harpsichord suites, the first versions of pieces that eventually became the six French Suites.
In the period between the latter part of the 16th century and the beginning of the 18th century, serious composers in England, Italy, France, Germany, and Spain, perceiving the appeal and attractiveness of their countries’ various dances, appropriated them and by idealizing them took them into the realm of music for listening rather than for dancing. By the time Bach began to compose keyboard suites, four dance types had become standard: allemande (the French word for German); courante (a French dance) or its Italian equivalent, corrente; sarabande (of Spanish origin); and gigue (developed from the Irish or English jig). Optional movements fleshed out the suites, e.g., overtures and sinfonias preceded the allemande, while minuets, airs, bourrées, etc., were interspersed among the four.
One wonders whether Anna Magdalena was up to playing the French Suites, so called, by the way, for no apparent reason and without the composer’s sanction. It’s true that these Suites are somewhat less demanding than either the English Suites (also mysteriously named) or the Partitas, yet the considerable requirements for technical dexterity, tonal definition, and stylistic understanding place them on a high level of performance acumen.