On French Suite №4, in E♭ Major

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I gave this introduction before a performance of this suite at a recital.

This piece is a dance suite, or, rather, it is at least in its form. By Bach’s time, composers would often use the form of a dance suite without intending for the piece to be danced; to me, the presence of an aria seems to indicate so here (who would attempt to dance an aria?1).

Johann Mattheson described the key of E♭ major as “pathetic; concerned with serious and plaintive things; bitterly hostile to all lasciviousness.”2 (For those of you who think in twenty-first century language, “pathetic” here means “emotionally expressive.”3) Indeed, this seems to be the general ethos of this piece. While it expresses no volatile mirth, it is contemplative throughout. Even the joyous gigue (the most mirthful of the baroque dances) expresses a sort of restrained, pious jubilance. Perhaps, though, the most representative part of the suite is the aria in the middle, which coalesces the whole into a coherent unit. The allemande at the opening sets the tone for the suite, the courante expounds this dignified joy, the sarabande explores the various facets of the joy in its remoter harmonies, the gavotte anchors the aria, and the gigue demonstrates the glorious conclusion of this all.

In a way, then, this suite can serve as a meditation on Christian piety, by which we can have simple joy.


  1. Indeed, modern dancers will…alas!

  2. Johann Mattheson, Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre (1713), quoted in Mary Cyr and Reinhard G. Pauly, Performing Baroque Music (Portland, Or.: Amadeus Press, 1992), 32, www.worldcat.org/title/performing-baroque-music/oclc/47008922 or archive.org/details/performingbaroqu0000cyrm/page/32/.

  3. To paraphrase from “Producing an effect upon the emotions; moving, stirring, affecting. Obsolete.” (Why this meaning is obsolete perplexes me–whither went the understanding of pathos?) Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford: Oxford University, March 2022), s.v. “pathetic, adj. and adv.” www.oed.com/view/Entry/138777.