'French' Suite no. 3 in B minor
BWV 814 performed by Pierre Hantaï
at the Bartolotti House, Amsterdam
Behind the music
The third 'French' suite alternates seductive melodies with brilliant virtuosity
In Baroque music, the key of B minor had a melancholy quality. Bach reserved it for a few of his most impressive works, such as the Kyrie in the Mass in B minor.
This third 'French’ suite opens with a delicate Allemande; possibly the most delicate Allemande of all six suites. It is a duet that could almost be played as a solo with accompaniment – on the flute, for example. The opening motif also appears throughout the piece in inversion and in imitation. The Courante is also based on a motif from the first bar, in the bass, which soon takes over the movement of this fast dance completely.
By tradition, this is followed by a stately Sarabande, to which Bach lends a more cantabile air than the French models by Couperin, for example, with which Bach was familiar from his youth. Then we hear two fast sections; in some sources first the very rhythmical Menuet with its contrasting Trio, followed by the Anglaise, and elsewhere in reverse order. Pierre Hantaï chose for the latter. The Anglaise, incidentally, had not come over from England, but from the court of Louis XIV, and is reminiscent of a Gavotte. And finally, the Gigue is all about imitation, whereby the two parts continually chase one another.
‘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 B minor
- 'French' Suite no. 3
- harpsichord works
- French Suites (clavier), Klavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach
- Release date
- 11 August 2017
- Recording date
- 10 December 2016
- Bartolotti House, Amsterdam
- Pierre Hantaï
- Bruce Kennedy, 1989 after Michael Mietke
- Director and editor
- Gijs Besseling
- Music recording, edit and mix
- Guido Tichelman
- Camera and gaffer
- Danny Noordanus
- Camera assistant
- Eline Eestermans
- Gijs Besseling, Jan Van den Bossche
- Jessie Verbrugh
- Vereniging Hendrick de Keyser
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