Instrumental Dance Suite

Hotterre, De la Barre.jpg

Michel de la Barre, Antoine Forqueray, and two Hotteterre brothers by André Bouys (1710)

The instrumental suite consists of a series of individual movements based around different dance forms written in the same key. Despite their connection to dances, suites in the 17th and 18th centuries were commonly intended to be performed in concerts rather than to accompany balls or staged productions.

Early formations of suites can be found in consort music, often for viols, from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Pairs of related dances written in the same key, such as the pavan and galliard, feature similar melodic material, where one dance is in a slow duple metre, and the other in a faster triple metre. By the 17th century, collections of short pieces opened with a freely composed movement, usually a fantasia or ricercar, followed by a series of contrasting dances.[1]

The widely recognised solo instrumental suite, formally established during 17th and 18th century France, opens with a free, highly ornamented, overture or prelude, characterised by many grand dotted rhythms, followed by a selection of dances in the same key, most commonly the allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, in this specific order. Many suites include other optional movements within this structure, such as the gavotte, menuet, bourrée, rigaudon, and passepied. Sometimes, two of the same movement is written in succession, known as a double, which contrasts one another, usually with a difference in mode (from major to minor). Da capo dances are also seen, where after a double the performer repeats the first of the pair. For example, a da capo menuet is structured menuet I, menuet II, menuet I. Whilst there is a general consensus that these dances function as part of a larger work, there is more focus on each dance as an individual composition.[2]

Suites written for keyboard were favoured by composers, along with viola da gamba, and transverse flute. Most suites for these instruments would not have been danced to, as these works contain complex, contrapuntal writing which is not suitable for dancing. Furthermore, many suites are designed to be highly embellished, thus exploiting the parameters of suitable dance tempi to account for such idiomatic and intricate writing.

[1] Tarling, J. (2000) Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners

[2] Tarling, J. (2000) Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners