Johann Sebastian Bach - English Suite No. 5 in E Minor, BWV 810 (ca. 1715 - 1720)
Bach’s ability to combine French, Italian, and German essences in one composition is beautifully demonstrated in his six English Suites. The title is misleading as these suites do not display any English qualities. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, claimed that they were known by the name of the English Suites simply because Bach composed them for an Englishman of rank.
Each of these virtuosic English Suites begins with a prelude. These preludes are expansive and they are one of the defining features of the English Suites. The inclusion of the preludes is believed to suit English tastes. In the preludes, Bach combines galant melodies in the refined French style, contrapuntal textures in the Germanic style, and virtuosic Italian concertante elements. To follow the German formal plan, the prelude is followed by a sequence of binary-form dance movements: an allemande in a moderate pace, a fairly lively courante, an expressive sarabande, and a vigorous concluding gigue. In between the sarabande and gigue Bach inserts a pair of “galanterien” in contrasting modes (major/minor or minor/major). In this E minor suite, two passepieds are added.
Bach takes us to an even higher level of inspiration and mastery in BWV 810. For the prelude, he chooses a fugal construction with a strong, arresting subject that is characteristic for him when writing in E minor. The allemande may seem severe at first glance, but it is the most poignant of the entire collection. The courante is also the most original and interesting of the set. Its main feature is the accentuation of certain downbeats by effectively shortening the preceding note, giving it a graceful “lift”, and then adding an appoggiatura, ornament or arpeggiated chord on the first beat of the bar.
We might have anticipated an ornate, harmonically complex sarabande in this suite. However, Bach writes a simple and homophonic one in galant style instead. It is nevertheless immensely touching. The two passepieds are dances full of charm that must be executed with nimble movements. Passepied I is written in rondo form with a returning refrain. This approach is highly preferred by Couperin, but not frequently adopted by Bach. The gigue is another fugal movement with a bold, almost severe chromatic subject and stark final cadences. It was among the movements singled out for praise by Forkel as “perfect masterpieces of harmony and melody”.