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French Suite No. 2 in C minor, BWV 813

March 19, 2023 – Rachel Naomi Kudo, piano

As demand increased for his keyboard teaching, Bach realized that he needed instructive materials other than the virtuoso works of his early years—not only for students who sought him out, but for his own children who were beginning to show considerable musical talents. Thus between 1717 and 1725 he composed a large number of works of varying degrees of difficulty as teaching tools. Heinrich Nikolaus Gerber, who studied with Bach from 1724 to 1727, left an account of his teaching methods, which included starting a student on the two-part Inventions, followed by the three-part Sinfonias, moving on to the so-called French Suites, then the English Suites, and finally to the great “48,” the preludes and fugues of the Well-tempered Clavier. Bach’s own son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, reported the same course of study.

The title “French” that became attached to these Suites in the years following Bach’s death is somewhat mystifying. Though he gave the title in French—Suites de clavecin—the Suites contain as many German and Italian characteristics as they do French. Similarly, the “English” Suites, whose original title was also given in French, do not seem particularly English. In Bach’s lifetime the French Suites were called the “Little” Suites to distinguish them from the more extensive English Suites.

Bach first began collecting the so-called French Suites, composed c. 1722–25, in a notebook he was compiling for his second wife, Anna Magdalena. It is clear that these pieces were, to a certain extent, works in progress, because Bach returned to them several times to make revisions, perhaps with different students in mind. He also left his own copy relatively free of ornamentation, possibly to encourage his students to develop improvisational skills in that regard. What is now Suite No. 6 does not appear in that notebook, having been added to the other five around 1725; there also exist two other similar suites that Bach might have considered including at one time. In all of these “French” suites he decided to omit the prelude that opens his other suites, even going so far as to remove one he had already composed to make it fit the group.

Bach based his suites on a standard series of Baroque dance movements, which by this time were no longer meant for actual dancing—Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. All the movements employ binary form (two sections, each repeated). A variety of additional dance movements could be inserted between the Sarabande and Gigue, the typical place for any slightly more “modern” dance forms. Because the French Suites contain no preludes, the opening Allemandes take on that function and even contain gestures and figuration similar to that of Bach’s preludes.

Suite No. 2 in C minor is one for which several variants exist in the sources, particularly in the Allemande and Courante. The Courante exhibits the “running” style of the Italian corrente in a two-voice texture. For his inserted dances Bach chose an Air, also in two voices, and one or two minuets, depending on the version one follows. The delightful Gigue employs the upbeats, dotted rhythms, and strong-beat accents of the French dance known as the canarie. Bach’s imitative entries add another level of allure.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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