'French' Suite no. 4 in E-flat major

'French' Suite no. 4 in E-flat major

BWV 815 performed by Pierre Hantaï
at the Doopsgezinde Kerk, Haarlem

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

Behind the music


Simple and magnificent

How Bach creates something special through simple means

Bach frequently constructs melodies from small, simple elements, which he gradually expands. It often begins straightforwardly, with a little motif that could be devised by any composer, but soon becomes unmistakably Bach. French Suite no. 4 is a good example of this.

Bach deliberately starts the Allemande with a simple form: arpeggios that gradually shift in harmony. It is reminiscent of the first prelude in the Wohltemperirte Clavier. He does something similar in the Gavotte, where nearly the whole piece is constructed of groups of two pairs of notes that keep repeating the same movement.

Although this strategy is less evident in the other sections, on closer inspection you see that Bach does use it there as well. For instance, the Courante revolves around simple groups of three notes, but Bach occasionally adds a sudden big leap to them. And the end of the Gigue further emphasises the way he constructs a piece from simple elements: one leap, the same leap repeated, and then two lots of three stepped notes. It could hardly be simpler, yet the effect is magnificent.

‘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 in E-flat major
'French' Suite no. 4
harpsichord works
French Suites (clavier)

With support from

Howard Fee

Extra videos

Vocal texts




  • Release date
    16 June 2022
  • 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
  • With support from
    Howard Fee

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