The Development Of The Baroque SuiteBy Bill Tyers

The Dance Suite along with the Fugue and the variation form, were the most important forms of instrumental composition in use during the baroque period. The Dance Suite may be defined as a cycle of dance pieces in various meter and tempo, written in binary form, all sharing a common key throughout.


The gradual emergence of instrumental music from the dominance of vocal music during the sixteenth century saw a need for suitable forms to accommodate the new instrumental style. Composers looked in two directions, firstly they experimented with the adaption of existing vocal music, secondly, they looked to the popular ce forms in use at the time. The origin of the baroque dance suite is to be found in this second direction. The popular dances of the period, the Pavane and the Galliard shared a common key but were in contrasting tempo. The Pavane was performed in slow duple meter whilst the Galliard was in a faster triple meter.

Many examples of paired dances for the Lute and the Keyboard exists, for example the English composers William Byrd (1543 1623), John Bull ('1562 1628) and Orlando Gibbons (1583 1625) have left us examples of pairs of Galliards and Pavanes for the Virginal published in 1611 in the Parthernia. Some of these pairings commenced with a prelude, which was later to be incorporated into the Classical Dance Suite of the eighteenth Century.


The development of the dance suite was shared by all the countries of Europe, in fact it could be described as a 'fruit salad' creation, therefore it existed under the guise of numerous titles depending on the country of origin. For example, the German title was usually the Overture or Partita, whereas in England the term most frequently used was Lessons, the French used the title Ordre, and in Italy it was generally known as Sonata de Camera (Gillespie 1965,p.39). Because the form was a truly international one, these terms were quite often interchangeable.

Development During The Seventeenth Century

The early part of the seventeenth century saw "a great deal of mobility and interchange among musicians of all nationalities"(Stolba 1990,p.348). This resulted in the grouping of dances from all parts of Europe to form the nucleus of the Classical Dance Suite. During this century the Pavane was eventually superseded as a fashionable dance by the German Allemande, likewise the Galliard was replaced in favour of the Italian Courante. These new dance steps were quickly stylised and incorporated into the dance suite (New Oxford Companion to Music, p. 1770).

The colonisation of the new world was beginning to have an influence on European culture. The Sarabande and the Chaconne, two exotic dances originating in Latin America and introduced to Spain by the colonists bought a new vitality to the courts of Europe in the 1580's, Curt Sachs comments on the need for regeneration in the dance by cultural cross fertilisation.

'when the dance in a too highly refined society becomes anaemic fresh blood must be taken from the dance of foreign peoples, who are more primitive in their way of life and superior in physical mobility and expressiveness' (Sachs 1963, p.350).

Both the Sarabande and the Chaconne were considered much to crude and suggestive in their original form for European society, so they were stripped of their cruder suggestions on Spanish soil, polished, painfully adapted to European non imitativeness and close movement, and in this transformation introduced into the courtly dance North of the Pyrenees' (Sachs 1963, p.350). In this censored form they soon spread throughout Europe, and like the Allemande and the Courante were quickly incorporated into the stylised instrumental dance suite.

The typical Dance Suite from around 1620 30 consisted of the following combination (Grove 1980, p.339).

Allemande - A piece of moderate tempo, serious in character in duple metre.

Courante - In triple metre at moderate tempo.

Sarabande - Slow stately dance in triple meter.

Numerous examples of the suite in this form can be found in the music of the French Lute composers such as Dennis Gaultier (1603 72) and Ennemond Gaultier (1575 1651), who in turn influenced musicians from other countries including the German composer Froberger (1616 1667). As the seventeenth century progressed the number of movements and the order of placement varied greatly, especially among the French composers. Dances such as the Gavotte, the Bourree and the Minuet, featured in the popular French Opera and Ballets by composers such as Lully (1632 1687) were added to the traditional dance forms.

As the seventeenth century progressed the number of movements and the order of placement varied greatly
The Gigue, a fast dance in compound duple meter originating in England, was also added to form the basis of the Classical Dance Suite. According to Grove (1980 p.341) this change happened simultaneously throughout Europe. He quotes examples by Gaultier (1650) in France, Froberger (1649) in Vienna, Playford (1655) in England, all of which include the Gigue. Therefore, the typical dance suite around the year 1650 generally consisted of two pairs of slow and fast dances as follows:





It should be noted however that the above order was not fixed, for it is not unusual to find the position of the Gigue and the Sarabande reversed. Optional dances such as the Bourree, the Gavotte, and the Minuet were also included in many dance suites, particularly those of the French composers.

The French contribution to the development of the Dance Suite during the seventeenth century was a major one and was twofold, firstly they transformed the dance movements 'from their 16th. century plainness to Baroque refinement' (Harvard Dictionary of Music, p.717), secondly, they added various optional dance movements and introduced the overture, thereby bringing variety and contrast to the suite. Even so, the French composers 'failed to grasp the idea of the suite as a musical form' (Harvard Dictionary of Music, p.717), and seemed to view the suite as method of conveniently grouping together a collection of dances. On the other hand, German composer J.J.Froberger (1616 1667) was interested in the suite as a musical form. He was fully aware of, and was subsequently influenced by, the French composers such as Chambonnieres (1602 72) and Gaultier (Sharp 1972 p. 1178), but, his music 'of a complexity and expressive intensity quite beyond anything French that he could have known, and his cultivation of the suite as a compact, closed unit, often knit more tightly by thematic links among the pieces, was characteristically German' (Grove 1980 p.341).

Development During The Eighteenth Century

During the first half of the eighteenth Century the Suite was the favourite instrumental form throughout Europe.

The French, led by the harpsichord composers Couperin (1668 1733) and Rameau (1683 1764), were "addicted to long. suites and fancy titles for the many movements" (Scholes 1972, p993). This French influence can be seen in the works of German composer Georg Philip Telemann (1681 1767), his suites are typified by the large number of varied movements often titled in French.

All kinds of dances are represented as well as a number of movements bearing programme titles. Telemannís suite for orchestra Musique de Table written for entertaining at banquets is a fine example of his work. This practice of providing music for the table was quite common during the late baroque period especially in Germany (Grove 1980, V 18,p.345).

The two other great Germans composers of the late Baroque, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 1750), and George Frideric Handel (1685 1759) absorbed the French developments and continued to refined the suite to provide, in the suites of J.S.Bach, 'a brilliant and masterly synthesis of the entire history and development of the baroque suite' (New Oxford Companion to Music, p. 1771).

The suite, once the domain of the Lute and the Keyboard, was now written for orchestra, the Orchestral Suite No.3 by J.S.Bach is one of the best known, and finest example of this period. The first of the five movements is written in the French Overture style, the second movement departs from the traditional suite grouping by replacing the traditional Allemande with a simple Air in binary form. Bach then returns to the use of traditional dance forms by including a pair of Gavottes in ternary form, a Bourree, and then finally a Gigue both in binary form.

As well as his four Orchestral suites, Bach wrote around suites for various instruments including:

Six suites for solo Cello which feature the traditional suite grouping of Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, a pair of optional dances followed by a Gigue:

Six English Suites

Six French Suites

Six harpsichord partitas.

The suite, after reaching such heights with Bach and Handel during the first half of the eighteenth century, ceased to be an important compositional form by the year 1750 its place was eventually taken by the Symphony and the Concerto of the Classical period.


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Gillespie, J., 1965, Five Centuries of Keyboard Music, Dover Publications, New York.

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Spitta, Philip, Johann Sebastian Bach, 1952, V2, Translated by Bull, C. and Fuller Maitland, J., Novello & Co., Ltd. London.

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Telemann, G., Musique de Table, 1733, Ed. 1927, Seiffert, M. DDT, Beihefte.


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