Notes on the Baroque Suite

by Roger E. Bissell

April 1974

The principal areas I will cover in this brief discussion of the Baroque Suite are (a) its significance in the history of instrumental music and its origin as stylized dance music, (b) its overall structure and the structure and other characteristics of the individual movements, and (c) some historical and musical facts pertaining to the Suite in C Major for Unaccompanied Violoncello by J. S. Bach.

I.           Dance Music and the Baroque Suite

In the broadest musical sense of the term, a “suite” is a multi-movement group of instrumental pieces, in forms smaller than the movements of a sonata. The possible range of pieces is from dance or dance-like pieces, to excerpts from ballets and operas, excerpts from motion picture scores, incidental music for plays, and freely assembled movements of relatively short, light character.[i]

But it was during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the so-called Baroque period in music, that “the suite became established in its most definitive form and universal acceptance…”[ii] This variant of the suite is comprised primarily of dance movements and is commonly known as the Baroque suite—or, sometimes, “the classical suite in the French Style.”[iii]

The Baroque suite is one of “the two chief multi-movement forms of the history of instrumental music,” and the major one prior to 1750.[iv] Furthermore, it possessed melodic and harmonic features which foreshadow the sonata form of the Classical period, which replaced it after 1750 as the major multi-movement instrumental music form.[v] During the latter Baroque period, the suite was “the vehicle for a large share of the instrumental music of the time…”[vi]

The development of the Baroque suite is a very important milestone in the history of modern instrumental music in that, apparently for the first time, a larger secular instrumental work had been produced by grouping together shorter pieces of contrasting but related nature. The suite evolved from the secular dance forms of the Medieval and Renaissance periods,[vii] which, since the 14th century, have been grouped together in pairs of dances of related key, but contrasting tempo, meter, and style. By the 16th century, the pairings were made, however, more for considerations of music than of dance, a practice which was widespread in Western Europe and which led directly to the development of the Baroque suite.[viii]

A significant portion of all musical literature is constituted by dance music, which is not surprising “in view of the inevitability and universality of the alliance of dance and music.”[ix] Throughout recorded history, perhaps longer, dances have been performed with some kind of musical accompaniment. Since dancing has always been such an important musical activity, in view of its function in both religious and social ceremonies, dance music has probably “the longest and most universal tradition” of any of the types of music.[x]

It was with the advent of the Baroque suite that a large body of dance music arises which functions not as a background for actual dancing—i.e., as functional dance music—but instead is composed purely for listening enjoyment. Such non-functional, or stylized, dance music usually “retains the general rhymic and metric character of the original dance, and often its structure as well,” but is refined and sophisticated “to such an extent that it is no longer feasible to dance to the music,” and that its dance origins are sometimes obscured.[xi]

This stylization pertains more to the more-or-less standard movements of the Baroque suite than to the optional dances. The optional dances, most of which originated in the 17th century French ballet, were “more primitive, more symmetrical, more sectional in form, simpler in texture, more straightforward in expression, and lighter in quality.”[xii] Even the optional dances, however, “lose something of their original innocence in the later development of the suite.”[xiii]

II.       Dance Music and the Baroque Suite

As the Baroque suite gained wide acceptance and popularity in the late 17th century, its most prevalent arrangement of movements was based upon a nucleus of four dances: the allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. In addition to these fairly standard movements, usually one to four of the optional dances from the French ballet were inserted between the sarabande and gigue, and a prelude of non-dance character preceded the first dance, the allemande.[xiv]

The allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue “form an ideal distribution of expressive elements,” having a “metric sequence of duple-triple-triple-duple” (that is, 4/4, 3/4, 3/4, 4/4) “and a tempo sequence of, for example, moderate-fast-slow-fast, providing a vital contrast between movements.”[xv] The optional dances (e.g., minuet, bourree, etc.) provide “another important element of contrast, tending to be less stylized…” as mentioned in the previous section.[xvi] And the prelude, being a non-dance movement, provides sill another source of form and style contrast.[xvii]

This matter of contrast, or variety, is one of the two aspects of the esthetic problem of how to achieve unity in variety, or esthetic integration, in an artwork. In a multi-movement form such as the Baroque suite, there must be sufficient variety to justify the extended length of the work. And the features of the suite movements just noted do provide that necessary contrast.

On the other hand, there must be sufficient connectedness or unity among the movements, too, in order to permit the performer or listener to integrate the work into a coherent whole. This is achieved in the Baroque suite by the unity of key and form of the standard movements, and by the same or closely-related keys of the optional movements (including the prelude).[xviii] Within the movements themselves, this unity in variety is best seen by examing their characteristic forms.

The allende, courante, sarabande, and gigue are all organized in what is called two part, or binary form. In binary form, the same melodic material is used in both parts, especially in the opening and closing sections, but often with some modification by various compositional techniques. Harmonically, a binary form’s first part modulates from the tonic key to a related key, where is comes to a well defined close, or perfect cadence, in the new key. The second, somewhat longer part proceeds from the new key and gradually returns to the tonic.[xix] Since the two parts are each repeated, we may discern the essential outline of binary form as follows: 

A             A


The optional dances (e.g., minuet, bouree, etc.) are all examples of large, or compound ternary form, which consists of three parts, the third one repeating the first, although it is shorter than the first, since sectional repeats are ignored. Also, each part is in itself a small form, sometimes a binary form.[xx] Thus, the overall form diagram of one of these optional dances might well look like this:

A                                B                         A

a           b              c            d             a        b

|:tT—rT:|:rT—tT:|  |:tR—rR:|:rR—tR:|  |tT—rT|rT—tT|

The prelude has no established formal mold, but instead relies upon a very few simple melodic ideas which are “spun out,” so to speak, in such a way by the composer as to produce a definite effect of extemporaneous, improvisatory playing.[xxi] Even so, it is deliberately designed that way, and can result in a musically integrated movement, under the condition which is required for unity in other, more well-defined forms, too.

This condition is that some of the structural components of the music receive “corroboration through repetition…”[xxii] As Wallace Berry notes:

Since music passes in time, consisting of contiguous events, the faculty of memory is necessarily engaged in its perception. As an aid to tying together the successive components, it has been customary to use the device of recalling a particular, significant idea after its initial appearance.[xxiii]

In binary form, the principal method of repetition is that of using a distinctive melodic idea, or motive, throughout both parts of the piece. In ternary form, the basic structural principle is that of repetition (i.e., return) of melodic ideas after digression.[xxiv] Again, Berry has some fruitful observations to make:

The practice of making a musical statement, and then restating the original material is, when carried out convincingly, an extremely satisfactory solution to the problems of unity and variety in musical form…The digressive material of the second part must, of course, be complementary to that of the first (therefore, like it in many respects) and, while contrasting, never contradictory.[xxv]

The ternary principle is “the most significant fundamental achievement in the history of music structure, as viable now as ever.”[xxvi] Most of the more elaborate traditional forms (e.g., compound ternary, rondo, and sonata-allegro) are in some way “a manifestation or extension of the ternary principle.”[xxvii]

Even the binary form is ternary in a certain, non-essential sense. There is a statement in the original key, which digresses harmonically toward a related key, then a re-statement during a return to the original key. It is the repeating but non-digressing melodic structure, however, which is considered the defining characteristic of binary form.[xxviii]

III.    J. S. Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suite in C Major

The suite in C major is one of a group of six suites which Back wrote for violoncello during the period he worked at the court of Cothen from 1718 to 1722. At this time, he was in his mid-30s and was a skilled organist and ambitious composer. Much of the solo and instrumental music of Bach was produced during this time, and it is mainly of the secular, virtuoso type.[xxix]

Bach’s solo cello suites are a remarkable example of Bach’s composing ability. He creates an “illusion of a full harmonic and contrapuntal texture by means of multiple stops and single melodic lines which outline or suggest an interplay of independent voices.”[xxx]

Beyond the scope of this paper is a detailed analysis of each of the movements of this suite, or even of all of one of them for that matter. But I do have a few closing remarks based on what I discovered when I did a harmonic analysis of the first part of the courante. The harmonic progression is according to the following scheme:

F: I  -  V  -  I  -  (I6/4  -  V7) -  I  -

V4/2/V  -  V6  -  (V6/5/ii/V or V6/5/vi?)  -  (ii/V or vi?)  -  V6/5/V  -  V6/4  - 

V4/2  -  (IV6/V or I6?)  -  V6/5/V  -  vi6/V  -  viio6/V -  V6  -  V4/3  - 

(IV/V or I?)  -  V6  -  V6/4/V  -  vi6/V  -  V7/V  -  i/V  -  iio4/3/V  -  V7/V  -

V  -  V6/5/V  -  V  -  IV/V  -  V7/V  -  V

                C:  I  -   IV     -   V7    -  I     

Before I interpret this analysis, let me offer the following brief explanation of the terms and symbols I’m using:

(1)        Capital letters (e.g., F, C) denote the key a piece (or section of a piece) is in. They each implicitly refer to a set of different harmonic relationshipsbased upon the major scale of which they are the first note (viz., F G A B-flat C D E F and C D E F G A B C). A minor key would be denoted by a small letter, and is based upon a minor scale.

(2)        The Roman numerals indicate a chord built in thirds (i.e., built by omitting every other note), beginning with the corresponding scale tone. (E.g., a V chord in F is based upon the 5th scale tone, C, and also contains the 3rd and 5th scale tones following, viz., E and G.) A triad is a three-note chord in thirds; a seventh chord is a four-note chord in thirds. A major chord has an upper case Roman numeral; a minor chord has a lower case Roman numeral; a diminished chord has a lower case Roman numeral with small circle to the right of it. (Augmented chords, none of which appear in this piece, have upper case Roman numerals, with a plus-sign to the right of them.)

(3)        Whenever a chord’s bass note is the same as the first one in the scale from which it’s derived, we say it’s in root position. A root position triad is shown by a Roman numeral alone. A root position seventh chord is shown by an Arabic 7 appearing to the right of the Roman numeral. Whenever a chord has a note in the bass other than the first one in the scale from which it’s derived, we say it’s in inversion. First inversion triads are shown by an Arabic 6 to the right of the Roman numeral, second inversion by an Arabic 6/4. First inversion for a seventh chord is shown by an Arabic 6/5, second inversion by an Arabic 4/3, third inversion by an Arabic 4/2.

(4)        Since root position chords are considered more “stable” than inverted chords, progressions cadencing (ending) on a root position chord are considered more conclusive or definite than those ending with an inverted chord. When the tonic (or I chord) is preceded by the dominant (V chord), they form a strong cadence (phrase or section ending) known as the V – I (“five-one”) cadence. When a dominant has an added 7th, the melodic tendencies of the 3rd and 7th to move by half step in contrary motion make possible an even stronger cadence, the V7 – I cadence. (Other cadences found in the section analyzed are the half cadence, I….V, and the plagal or “amen” cadence, IV – I.)

(5)        One Roman numeral above another, and separated from it by a bar, indicates that its chord has that function in relation not to the tonic, but instead to the key of the chord of the Roman numeral below it. (E.g., IV/V in the key of C, means IV in the key of G.) A parenthesis enclosing two Roman numerals with question mark indicates an ambiguity of function, so that a given chord is interpreted in terms of two different keys. This frequently occurs in modulatory, transitional sections, as when the section analyzed is in the process of modulating to the dominant (i.e., to the key of the dominant).

The section of the courante analyzed above begins typically enough with an eight-measure section following a standard I – V – I – IV – I6 – V7 – I progression in the tonic. Immediately thereafter, all harmonic hell breaks loose, with a life-and-death struggle between the keys of F and C to establish themselves as the tonal center. It is a crisis which lasts for 28 more measures, until a strong half cadence in the dominant settles the issue. Then, another standard progression, I – IV – V7 – I in the dominant closes out the section.

During this crisis, there is a cadence in the tonic which is weakened by the tonic’s being in inversion, and by a B-natural being introduced immediately in the melody, while the tonic key contains a B-flat. This melodic-harmonic weakening of the tonic chord’s implications allows it to function alternatively as a IV chord in the dominant key, where the melodic B-natural functions more appropriately.

From this IV chord in the dominant, there is a weak progression upward by step, with every chord in first inversion. Thus, the new key, the dominant, does not yet receive strong confirmation, even though the tonic key has been considerably undermined.

And no wonder, for the very next event is a progression to a strong tonic chord, in root position, setting up a possible return to, or re-establishment of, the tonic key, thwarting the modulation to the dominant key. Here there is no crippling B-natural to suggest the key of the dominant, but instead the B-flat of the tonic key (F) appears in the melody of both measures of the progression.

But the tonic’s apparent triumph is short-lived, indeed. Immediately the harmonic progression turns back away from the tonic to the dominant. In retrospect, it is not only the brevity of the focus on the tonic which undermines it this time. For the bass progression leading to this tonic chord from the previous, weaker tonic cadence also undermines the stronger tonic chord, since it outlines the C scale i.e., the scale of the dominant. (the nasty old B-natural merely hid back a ways in the bushes.)

With the arrival of a strong V7 chord in the dominant, there is a strong expectation set up that the next chord will be a good rousing I chord in the dominant. But what happens but the substitution of a I minor chord in the dominant instead. Good grief! Is the section now modulating to a minor key totally out of the blue?

The climax comes with another strong V7 chord in the dominant. There is a feeling of an unknown, but inexorable final outcome immediately to be decided: “Whatever comes next has got to be it!”

Happily, it is the major I chord in the dominant, after all. Our harmonic lust has been satisfied and, thus satiated, we can settle back for the final strong cadential progression which confirms the new key once and for all. In retrospect, we see that the brief sashay into the minor mode was merely a momentary delay to make us better appreciate the fulfillment of our musical desires.

Behind this facetiousness and exaggeration, there is an important point. In recalling my music form and analysis classes in college, I remember observing how large forms like the sonata-allegro are able to build expectations to a climax, set up obstacles and delays to achievement of musical goals, etc. It was thus a considerable pleasure for me to find that this particular, rather small-scale binary form at least possessed a surprising wealth of the elements found in more extended goal-directed movements.

To put it another way, I was pleasantly surprised to find musical dramatization in the smaller Baroque forms, after being led to believe that they were “pure form,” and that the kind of thing I look for in music does not exist until one reaches the Classical-Romantic literature. Even so, this much must be admitted: the smaller forms just do not permit so wide an excursion from “home base,” so to speak, as do the longer forms of the sonata-allegro, rondo, etc. The difference is thus a real one, but one of degree, not of kind. Baroque and Classical-Romantic music both possess musical plot and hence are both Romantic!

[i] Wallace Berry, Form in Music (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966), p. 367; and “Suite,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, XXI, pp. 385-386.

[ii] Berry, 344.

[iii] “Suite,” Britannica, p. 386.

[iv] Berry, p. 340.

[v] Ibid., p. 363; and Donald J. Grout, A History of Western Music (Shorter ed.,; New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1964), p. 239.

[vi] Berry, p. 343.

[vii] Ibid., p. 342.

[viii] “Suite,” Britannica, p. 386.

[ix] Berry, p. 341.

[x] Hugh M. Miller, Introduction to Music (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1958), p. 149.

[xi] Berry, p. 343; and Miller, p. 149.

[xii] Berry, p. 345.

[xiii] Ibid., p. 362.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 345; and Leon Dallin, Techniques of Twentieth Century Composition (Rev. ed.; Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Co., Pub., 1964), p. 220.

[xv] Berry, p. 345.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid., p. 344.

[xviii] Ibid., p. 344; Grout, p. 239; and Martin Bernstein and Martin Picker, An Introduction to Music (3d ed.; Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966), p. 141.

[xix] Bernstein and Picker, p. 141.

[xx] Berry, p. 82; Dallin, p. 213.

[xxi] Bernstein and Picker, p. 144.

[xxii] Berry, p. 1.

[xxiii] Ibid., p. 51.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid., p. 53.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Richard L. Crocker, A History of Musical Style (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1966), p. 330

[xxx] Grout, p. 267.