Dance Forms and the Suite

Suite refers to any instrumental composition usually compose in one key and which consists of several movements. It was developed in the 16th century, in the Baroque era, as series of dance steps. Thus, pieces of dance rhythms are often grouped together into suites. The tunes are so arranged so as to present strong contrasts between slow and fast tempos and dignified and gray moods. The dance suites reached its perfection in the works by Johann Sebastian Bach. By the 18th and 19th centuries the suite gradually merged with and was eventually superseded by sonatas. Modern compositions called suites are primarily symphonic works characterized by considerable freedom of structure and tonality.

The following are basic movements of suites:

Allemande is a stately dance of German origin, it has a moderate tempo, that is, four beats to a bar. It is generally initiated by an introductory note (or “upbeat”) before the first accentuated note, producing the same rhythm as the word “begin.” Allemande became the standard opening movement of the Baroque suite. It was frequently used as such by Bach and Handel, whose suites are the earliest to have secured a place in the piano repertoire.

Bouree is a brisk French dance in duple metre, dating from the early 17th century and is one of the optional movements of the Baroque suite. Composers seldom make use of this movement in their works: it may be encountered occasionally in Bach’s, very seldom in Scarlatti’s and only once in case of Chopin’s.

Courante is a court dance popular during the 1600s and the 1700’s, it is a quick lively dance often complex in its rhythms. Courante is one of the standard movements of the Baroque suite. This musical form has two types: the Italian corrente, which is in fast triple meter, with continuous running figures in a melody-and-accompaniment texture; and the French courante, which is a more sophisticated version, characterized by greater contrapuntal weave and a teasing rhythmic ambiguity resulting from shifts of metre, usually between ¾ and 6/4. Bach use both forms, but mostly favours the French.

Gavotte is a dance which originated among the peasants in the region of France and became popular at the French court during the 7th century. In moderate tempo and duple metre, it often has a two-note upbeat figure rhythmically analogous to the word “tambourine.” Gavotte was one of the most popular optional numbers in the Baroque suite. Bach was fond of it and used it frequently in his keyboard works.

Gigue is a rapid and lively dance form which was originally derived from the 16th century Irish or English “jig.” In triple time, it frequently uses fugal techniques, dotted rhythms (uneven: long, short-long, short-long) and inversion, that is, the beginning of the second half being the opening tune upside down. Gigue is traditionally the final movement in Baroque suites. It concludes virtually all of Bach’s suites, his Fifth French Suite being the most popular.

Minuet is a French dance of peasant origins and was cultivated in the royal courts of Europe during the 17th century. Minuet can be seen as an ancestor of waltz, sharing with it the triple metre and moderate tempo. It became one of the most popular optional dances of the Baroque suites and is the only one to have survived the decline of the suite in the middle of the 19th century. Minuet was widely employed by all major composers of the 17th and 18th centuries in their instrumental music-it was widely used in the piano music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. It encountered a brief revival in the works of Debussy (Suite bergamasques, 1890), Faure, Bartok, Schoenberg and Ravel (Minuet antique, 1895; Sonatine, 1905; Menuet sur le nom d’ Haydn, 1909).

Sarabande is a stately dance of Spanish origin in triple time, rich in harmonic embellishments and characterized by an accent or prolonged tone on the second beat of each bar. Originally a sung dance popular in Latin America and Spain (banned in 1583 for its suggestive movements), it became a slow processional dance by the time it reached the French court in the 17th century. As a stylized musical form, the Sarabande was a slow piece in France and Germany and faster in Italy, Spain and England. The Sarabande is typically the third movement of the Baroque suite and is present in all of Bach’s and Handell’s fully-pledged suites. After a hundred years or so of neglect, Sarabande staged a modest comeback in the late 19th and 20th centuries in the works of Brahmm, Debussy (Pour le Piano, Images, Hommage Rameau), Satie (Trois sarabandes), Busoni (Sarabande und Cortege, Op. 51), among others.