'French' Suite no. 1 in D minor

'French' Suite no. 1 in D minor

BWV 812 performed by Francesco Corti
at the Bartolotti House, Amsterdam

  • Menu
  • 1. Allemande
  • 2. Courante
  • 3. Sarabande
  • 4. Menuet I and II
  • 5. Gigue

Behind the music

Extra videos
Extra videos


The first of these 'French' suites combines a very pure French courante with a German sarabande

The Suite in D minor is the most classical of the six ‘French’ suites. Bach keeps strictly to the usual order of the dances: allemande, courante, sarabande, two minuets and a gigue. According to Francesco Corti, it is possibly even the most archaic of all Bach’s suites. In other words, it is an ideal piece for becoming familiar with the genre and the various dance forms in their purest style. Maybe this is why Bach opens the series with this piece. It is also the suite that Bach reworked the least afterwards.

The counterpoint is immaculate and even in the apparently simple little minuets there is complex polyphony. The same applies to the Allemande, which is very reminiscent of the repertoire for lute, with harmonically exciting broken chords that almost seem to be improvised.

The Courante in this suite is the most French of the whole series. In those days, the French courante was slower in character, giving great scope for expressive harmonic additions. And of course Bach grasped this opportunity eagerly. There are various manuscripts of the ‘French’ suites, which show different stages of the pieces. Francesco Corti plays from the manuscript of Heinrich Nicolaus Gerber, one of Bach’s pupils. Gerber notated a great many ornaments, and all this embellishment appears to confirm the fact that the tempo of this courante was steady, otherwise it would simply be impossible to play the ornaments.

The Sarabande in this suite, however, is German in character. The structure is determined by the harmonic development rather than the melody. Here, too, Gerber’s manuscript has some wonderful ornaments, which are played by Francesco Corti in the repeats.

The Gigue is written in an unusual and rather old-fashioned two-part time, which is only seen twice in Bach’s oeuvre. It is a reference to the German keyboard tradition of earlier generations (Froberger, Böhm and Buxtehude).

‘French’ suites, BWV 812-817
Bach composed his ‘French’ suites as a young man of thirty, when he was working at the court of Köthen. However, the suites have nothing to do with the court. Bach wrote them for teaching purposes in his own private circle. The first five appear in their original form in the little music book he compiled in 1722 for his second wife Anna Magdalena, possibly as a wedding present. But Bach continued to rework the pieces. The later versions, with the addition of a sixth suite, have survived thanks to the many copies made by his pupils. They are rewarding practice pieces that despite a certain compositional complexity (it is Bach, after all), do not make extreme demands on the player.

The epithet ‘French’ was not given by Bach himself and appears for the first time in a text from 1762, twelve years after Bach’s death. The pieces are no more French than his other keyboard suites, just as the previously composed ‘English’ suites are not particularly English either. Indeed, the ‘English’ suites, with their extensive preludes, actually follow the French model to a certain extent. But as usual, here Bach is using a cosmopolitan language; an ingenious synthesis of various European styles.

The ‘French’ suites do not have a prelude, but launch straight into the first dance: an allemande. This is followed by the classical sequence of courante, sarabande and gigue, with a somewhat freer selection of dances in between the sarabande and gigue, ranging from the minuet and the gavotte to the bourrée and the less common loure.

The Bartolotti House
We made this recording at The Bartolotti House, at Herengracht 170 and 172. The house at the back of no. 170 was occupied by harpsichordist, organist and conductor Gustav Leonhardt from 1974 to his death in 2012. Leonhardt was one of the pioneers of early music in the Netherlands. As a teacher and performer, he was a source of inspiration to many harpsichord players around the world.

It is one of the most impressive buildings in the old centre of Amsterdam. It was built around 1620 as a residence, on commission from the wealthy businessman Willem van den Heuvel, who had inherited a lot of money from a childless uncle by marriage, called Giovanni Battista Bartolotti, who came from Bologna. The Dutch Renaissance-style design was probably done by the Amsterdam city architect Hendrick de Keyser.

Over the centuries, the house has been split up and has undergone several modernisations. You can still see many wonderful historical decorative features from the various renovations. The two parts of the Bartolotti House came into the possession of Vereniging Hendrick de Keyser, which now has its office there. 

Suite in D minor
'French' Suite no. 1
harpsichord works
French Suites (clavier), Klavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach
ca. 1722

Extra videos

Harpsichordist Francesco Corti

“This Suite was perhaps a wedding present from Bach for his second wife.”

Pierre Hantaï on Gustav Leonhardt

“This recording was made in the Bartolotti House, where harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt used to live. Pierre Hantaï revives old memories.”

Vocal texts




  • Release date
    13 October 2017
  • Recording date
    28 January 2017
  • Location
    Bartolotti House, Amsterdam
  • Harpsichordist
    Francesco Corti
  • Harpsichord
    Bruce Kennedy, 1989 after Michael Mietke
  • Director and interview
    Gijs Besseling
  • Music recording
    Guido Tichelman, Pim van der Lee
  • Audiomontage- en mix
    Guido Tichelman
  • Camera and lights
    Gijs Besseling, Nina Badoux
  • Data handling
    Eline Eestermans
  • Interview
    Jan Van den Bossche
  • Producer
    Jessie Verbrugh
  • Acknowledgement
    Vereniging Hendrick de Keyser

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