The Baroque Suite

If you have been to many guitar recitals or heard many guitar recordings the chances are you have been exposed to the baroque suite. You may even have had the chance to wonder what it is, why there are some pieces that seem to be called the same in each one, and why there are other groups of pieces that sound pretty similar but are not called "suites". What's going on?

This article looks at the Baroque Suite from the historical point of view, defines it, analyses its components and discusses its relevance to the classical guitar.

Firstly the historical question. By 'Baroque' we mean that period of musical history starting sometime around 1650-75 and ending circa 1750. Music before this had been predominantly in smaller musical forms, for small ensembles and written in a style that was heavily influenced by vocal music, even when played on instruments. So it was usually pieces just a few minutes long (6 minutes is pretty long for a renaissance composition!), for typically up to 5 or 6 players, and in a very polyphonic style where the voices are of equal importance. The Baroque developed the use of larger forms, larger instrumental groupings, and while composition remained largely polyphonic, instrumental writing became more idiomatic to the instruments concerned and slightly less concerned with equality of voices.

One important part of music making in the Baroque period (as before and since) was music for dancing, and the standard pieces used both for actual dancing and also for much abstract 'listening' music became consolidated in what is now recognised as the Baroque suite This is based on a group of four core dances, the Allemande, the Courante, the Saraband and the Gigue. Other dances can be added to the list, usually between the sarabande and the gigue, but a suite is quite complete with just those four core elements. All the dance movements are in binary form, that's to say, in two sections, both of which repeat. The first section is usually slightly shorter than the second, and introduces melodic ideas which will be somewhat developed in the second.

To start with an analysis of the core ingredients.

The Allemande, as its name suggests, is a dance of German character and origin. It is in 4 time, and stately and dignified in nature. Most allemandes are ruined if played at all fast, they need an air of unhurried propriety and a smooth gliding motion.

The Courante is of French origin. Literally it means 'running', and this is reflected in the rhythm and character of the piece, which is in triple time. However there are actually two variants; the courante is the French form and is typically of a broken texture (often described as being influenced by the lute style), not overly fast though brisk. The corrente is the Italian form, and this is often of a smoother, lighter texture, frequently made up of a running upper line and supporting bass line, and suitable for a faster tempo than the courante.

The Sarabande in the Baroque style is a very slow dance in triple time. It wasn't always thus; it came originally from the New World and when imported to Spain was a fast and wild dance with lascivious movements - it was banned as a result, and ended up with its naughty origins sublimated into an intense and emotionally charged form in the baroque suite.

Gigue comes from the jig, the dance associated with Scotland and Ireland and in fact of Scandinavian origin. It is in compound time, ie 6/8, though occasionally 12/8 or 3/8. Being the final dance it is fast and energetic. Some composers, principally Bach, use the gigue as the occasion of a little contrapuntal invention, the first statement of the movement's melodic idea (heard right at the beginning of the dance) being inverted - ie literally turned upside down - at the beginning of the second section.

While the national characteristics described are important background for each dance, and their understanding and suitable interpretation are important matters to the performer and audience, it should not be supposed that much of each nation's more superficially obvious musical characteristics are found in baroque dances; a gigue does not sound Irish!

However you can see from these four dances, slowish-quickish-slow-fast, how composers and listeners found the contrast of tempo and mood a productive way to structure a musical entity of some 15-20 minutes. There is rarely if ever however any tangible musical thread running through the dances, by way of motif or recognisable common musical element; rather a suite will tend to have a certain common mood or feel that lends it a sense of integrity and cohesion. It should also be noted that the same key is generally used throughout a suite.

Additional movements are commonly found in baroque suites. A prelude to precede the allemande could be in more or less any shape or form, though necessarily something to contrast with the allemande in mood and style. Most other additional movements - sometimes called the galanterie are found after the sarabande. They include;
Bourée - a brisk dance in four time starting on the 4th beat of the bar
Gavotte - a medium tempo dance in four starting on the 3rd beat, often found in pairs
Minuet - a graceful dance in three, usually found in pairs, the second of which commonly takes a 'rustic' style with imitated drones
Chaconne or Ciaccona - a stately dance in three (somewhat sarabande like) formed of variations on a melodic/harmonic sequence
Passacaglia - sometimes confused with the above, but strictly a variation form based on a bass figure.

These and some other less used dances are then the elements composers could draw on to compile a suite of dances for publication or the edification of employers. The instruments used could be the lute, baroque guitar, harpsichord, cello, viols, small ensemble groupings or orchestral-size groupings (which at this period means upto about 20 players.) It could function as background music for fancy occasions or dinners, or as listening music for guests. It was highly organised and stylised music - despite its roots in the common soil - and was not the sort of music ordinary people heard on a regular basis, or would be likely to appreciate, as it was associated primarily with the well educated and the aristocratic.

It should be noted that while the commonest grouping of pieces in this manner is referred to as a 'suite', there are other possible names, and the differences are more than merely academic.

Firstly, nearly synonymous with 'suite' is 'partita'; this is a group of dance movements, the difference usually being that a partita has a much larger proportion of non-standard movements than the suite, often not possessing all of the usual four.

Secondly, the term sonata, as used by most baroque composers, refers to a set of four movements, on a slow-fast-slow-fast-pattern (like the basic suite!) but without the dance qualities being always present. Thus usually the slow first movement is too free in style to be an allemande; the second movement is also free and may be a fugue (as in the Bach solo violin sonatas). The third movement is sometimes more like a dance, and the conclusion will usually feature a dance-like rhythm of some kind, and is certainly very lively. This usage of 'sonata' must be carefully distinguished from that made by Domenico Scarlatti, who used the term to describe his large output of single movement, binary form keyboard compositions, many of which are today heard transcribed for guitar.

One instrument that was never used in fact at this period was the classical guitar, which in its present form did not exist until the later 18th Century. The baroque guitar was a smaller instrument with fewer strings and various differences of tuning and technique, and there are several difficulties involved in arranging music written for baroque guitar for the modern equivalent, as there are with music for the baroque lute, despite the apparent similarities of sound, style of playing etc. However it is true to say that once guitarists started taking the whole integrity of the music they were performing more seriously, the issue of performing whole suites, rather than isolated movements or collections of movements from various different suites, it became very important to present the suite as a complete unit. It is therefore part of the issue guitarists have long had with length in compositions, it being often supposed that the instrument was not suited to long compositions of structural complexity. The suite solves this by presenting a large structure that is broken down into easily identifiable parts, ie the various movements, but still offering a large chunk of music that can be played without breaks for applause.

Certainly, no other instrument draws on such a wide and varied range of musical sources for its suites; from the cello (and violin) solo repertoires, the harpsichord music of Bach and sometimes Handel, the lute music of Weiss and friends, the baroque guitar music of de Visée and others. In its way the adoption of the baroque suite was a major step forward in the instrument's maturity of artistic purpose.

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© 1997 Stephen Kenyon