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Suite in B minor, BWV 1067 for flute, strings, and continuo

April 3, 2016: Sir James Galway, flute; Benjamin Beilman and Danbi Um, violins; Mark Holloway, viola; Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Timothy Cobb, bass; Paolo Bourdignon, harpsichord

When music scholars began sifting through Bach’s long-forgotten works in the nineteenth century, they came across four orchestral masterpieces that they catalogued as “orchestral suites” because of their similarity to suites for keyboard or individual string instruments—and simply to avoid confusion. Bach, however, had called them “ouvertures” in the tradition of his German contemporaries, who used the term for orchestral works headed by a “French overture,” followed by a string of French-style dance movements, such as bourrées, gavottes, and minuets, in binary form—two halves each repeated.

Since the seventeenth century, French composers had been introducing their ballets and operas with multisectioned ouvertures, which Jean-Baptiste Lully expanded and standardized into what became known as the “French overture.” These introductory pieces consisted of two contrasting sections: the first marchlike and majestic with characteristic dotted (long-short) rhythms, and the second faster, in contrasting meter (triple or compound) with imitative, contrapuntal texture. They often closed with a brief return to the opening stately music. English and German composers adopted this style to satisfy the prevailing taste for things French.

Bach’s four existing orchestral suites (there may have been others that did not survive) cannot be precisely dated, but the First in C major and Fourth in D major probably stem from about 1725 (the Fourth also exists in a later version). The Second in B minor may date from around 1738–39, and the Third Suite—also in D major—from about 1731. Since 1723 Bach had been working in Leipzig, where he was responsible for the music of the town’s four principal churches and civic music events, and trained the musicians at the Thomasschule. In addition to those myriad duties, he began directing the Collegium Musicum in 1729, continuing until the early 1740s (with a short interruption from 1737 to 1739). The Collegium Musicum presented weekly public community concerts, for which he produced all manner of music: overtures, duo and trio sonatas, sinfonias, concertos, and suites. The earliest existing copies of the orchestral suites indeed date from Bach’s Leipzig days, but it is conceivable that he could have composed some of them previously in Cöthen when he was employed by music-loving Prince Leopold.

The beloved seven-movement Second Suite, with the sparest scoring of the four, includes only flute along with the strings and continuo. Its opening “French overture” features characteristic dotted rhythms and elegant ornamental figures in its majestic first section and a fugal fast section. Here for the most part, and in the Rondeau, Sarabande, and Minuet, the flute mainly doubles the first violin part, but in the movements that include an interior second dance before the opening dance returns—the Bourrée and Polonaise—the middle dance contains a more elaborate solo flute part. In the lively perpetual-motion final movement—Badinerie—the flute takes the spotlight throughout in the manner of a flute concerto.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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