'French' Suite no. 2 in C minor

'French' Suite no. 2 in C minor

BWV 813 performed by Pierre Hantaï
at the Doopsgezinde Kerk, Haarlem

  • Menu
  • 1. Allemande
  • 2. Courante
  • 3. Sarabande
  • 4. Gavotte
  • 5. Air
  • 6. Gigue

Behind the music


Every note in the right place?

Even Bach struggled to achieve perfection in his music

‘Every note in the right place’ – is what you sometimes hear about Bach’s music. That, of course, is the master’s trademark: the music sounds as if it’s just meant to be like that, and other notes are almost unthinkable. Yet we know that Bach’s music wasn’t written down perfectly all at once from his head. Bach, too, rewrote and changed things, and it was apparently sometimes a real struggle to find the ‘right place’ for all the notes.

This is seldom so clearly the case as in this second ‘French’ suite. The first two parts in particular – the Allemande and the Courante – exist in four or five successive versions. In both cases the earlier versions are shorter and more symmetrical, and they have other variants, like the occasional less complex bass line or simply different musical choices. Here and there, it is also apparent in the other parts of the suite how Bach changed his mind, albeit on a smaller scale.

Not just in the individual parts, but also in the form of the suite as a whole, Bach is torn between several ideas: one minuet, two minuets… or no minuet at all? The first version, notated by Bach in 1722 in the Klavierbüchlein for his new wife Anna Magdalena, initially had no Minuet. It was only later that he added a note that a minuet should be inserted at the end of the book. Some later sources have a second minuet as well, which is not unusual in Bach’s keyboard suites.

The earlier versions of this suite were already good, and if you heard them first, you would never think that some of the notes were not in the right place. Precisely because Bach wanted to make an improvement somewhere, the relationship of the whole shifted, so he felt the necessity to make adjustments elsewhere as well. Until all the notes – once again – were in the right place.

‘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.

Suite no. 2 in C minor
'French' Suite no. 2
harpsichord works
French Suites (clavier)

Extra videos

Vocal texts




  • Release date
    15 February 2024
  • Recording date
    29 June 2021
  • Location
    Doopsgezinde Kerk, Haarlem
  • Harpsichordist
    Pierre Hantaï
  • Harpsichord
    Bruce Kennedy, 1989 after Michael Mietke
  • Director, camera and lights
    Gijs Besseling
  • Music recording
    Guido Tichelman, Bastiaan Kuijt, Pim van der Lee
  • Music edit and mix
    Guido Tichelman
  • Camera, lights
    Danny Noordanus, David Koster
  • Data handling
    Stefan Ebels
  • Assistant music recording
    Marloes Biermans
  • Producer
    Jessie Verbrugh

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