Johann Sebastian Bach

English Suite, for keyboard No. 1 in A major, BWV 806 (BC L13)

    Description by John Keillor

    The English Suite for keyboard No. 1 in A major, BWV 806 is the first of six English suites that Johann Sebastian Bach assembled in one package in 1725. It is not known when exactly this work was written or why. Nor has anyone discovered why the works are called "English." They are more French in English, containing hints of Gallic styles and dance rhythms. Many theories about the name of this set of works (perhaps an English patron commissioned them, or a patron named English commissioned them, etc.) seem to have been pulled randomly out of the air, based on nothing more than a guess. This generates the worst kind of speculative discussion, where uninformed, under-researched speculation is treated as fact. It will probably never be known for fact why these pieces are called "English," but a better guess is that Bach became acquainted with Handel's excellent first volume of keyboard suites. Handel worked in England, primarily in opera, and was regarded by Germanic musicians as someone who has become an authority on things English, naturally including music. The time line works with this theory; Handel's suites were published in 1720, which gave Bach much time to get around to generating works of the same form. A hole in this theory is that it assumes that the works were assembled in a timely manner. Bach could have written some of these pieces as early as 1714. The English Suites are his first of three sets of keyboard suites. He never published them, which suggests that he was not worried about time constrictions of any sort. Why Bach wrote what he did is a frequently asked and unanswerable question.

    Another theory, equally good if not better still, is that Bach had decided to emulate the set of six suites by Charles Dieupart from 1701. Dieupart was a harpsichordist of French birth working in England. Bach copied the work in his own hand, which was his personal method of absorbing the compositional strengths of other composers. Each of Dieupart's suites begins with an overture, similar to Bach's choice of beginning each English suite with a prelude. Both Handel and Dieupart's work may have cumulatively inspired Bach. This again is speculation: better speculation.

    The A major suite is in ten brief movements and is about 22 minutes in duration. Though the work is mostly written in French dance forms, there is a sober and polite poise to the movements that can be taken as an outsider's impression of the English manner. Ironically, the music is generally French in design, as was Handel's suites. The introspective quality of the A major prelude is not as bold a statement of the preludes for the rest of the suites, which are more closely associated with the brighter, Italian style. The subsequent dances are not particularly innovative in form, but Bach's use of the language itself is of course extraordinary. One of the restrictions he seems to impose upon himself is a lack of diminution. Rarely does the music blast off at any point, such as in his Italian Concerto. The music of the A major Suite, BWV 806 has a pondering quality that is expressed in an unhurried counterpoint. The tone of the music is sedate enough that many listeners will not immediately notice how fluent and clearly the separate melodic voices move in twining arabesques. It is not dramatic music, probably never intended for a public audience, but the sobriety of the tone amid remarkable fugal writing is a rare and valuable blend.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Prelude
    2. Allemande
    3. Courante 1
    4. Courante 2
    5. Double 1
    6. Double 2
    7. Sarabande
    8. Bourree 1
    9. Bourree 2
    10. Gigue

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Erato 557841
    2015 Mirare MIR 268
    2015 Sony Classical 88875032222
    2015 Sony Classical 88875049962
    2015 Naxos 8573473
    2014 Sony Classical 88843047122
    2014 Warner Classics 2564621939
    2013 AAO Music AAO 94072
    2013 Ramée RAM 1207
    2013 Simax Classics PSC 1329
    2012 Harmonia Mundi HMU 90759192
    2012 Nimbus Alliance NI 6176
    2012 Sony Classical 88725411892
    2012 Sony Classical 88691912562
    2011 Erato
    2011 Camerata Records CMCD151178
    2011 Zig Zag Territoires ZZT 111002
    2010 Hyperion 4442135
    2010 Brilliant Classics 94050
    2010 Naïve AM196
    2010 Caro Mitis 32007
    2010 Decca
    2009 Denon Records 00795041942661
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Lyrichord 8066
    2008 ZYX Music 10316
    2008 Corona Classic Collection 0002072CCC
    2008 Sony Music Distribution 714840
    2008 Brilliant Classics 93668
    2008 Stradivarius 33820
    2007 Metronome 1078
    2007 Apex
    2007 Scandinavian Classics 220570
    2007 Cascade Records 2100
    2007 Document 223547
    2006 Brilliant 93102
    2006 Brilliant 99697
    2006 Brilliant Classics 92285
    2006 Musica Omnia 254
    2005 Brilliant Classics 92217
    2005 Sony Classical Essential Classics 518509
    2004 Sony Classical 93083
    2004 Great Hall GH5601
    2004 Virgin Classics 62379
    2004 Naïve 9942
    2004 Brilliant 92391
    2004 Sony Classical 90401
    2004 Alba 166
    2003 Zig Zag Territoires 30401
    2003 Hyperion 67451/2SACD
    2003 Hyperion 67451/2
    2003 Virgin Classics 5621582
    2003 Sony Music Distribution 87890
    2002 Sony Classical Essential Classics 87765
    2002 Sony Classical 87765
    2001 Wildboar 9302
    2001 Teldec 81242
    2001 Labor Records 7025
    2000 Classico 308/9
    2000 Haenssler 92113
    2000 Sony Music Distribution 60278
    1999 Teldec 25705
    1999 Teldec 25704
    1999 Harmonia Mundi 2908078/83
    1999 Teldec 3984-25714-2
    1999 Titanic 254
    1998 Sony Music Distribution 60276
    1997 Point Classics 265029
    1997 Seon 62949
    1997 Arcobaleno 9407
    1996 Cedille Records 20
    1996 Naxos 553012
    1996 Decca 452279
    1995 Blue Saphir 830861
    1995 Sony Classical 52606
    1995 Stradivarius 33333
    1994 Virgin 561157-2
    1993 Music & Arts 777
    1988 London 421640
    Brilliant 93102-VOL2
    Brilliant 99702
    Digital Concerto 706
    Brilliant 92391/15
    Brilliant 99702/12
    Brilliant 93102/35
    Brilliant Classics 93668/15
    Cascade Records 2115
    Concord Concerto 42033
    CBS Records 42268
    DG Archiv 000303002