In 1979, John Rutter was commissioned to compose an instrumental piece for a musical festival in Berkshire. The festival was the Cookham, and the musicians were to include Duke Dobing and the London Baroque Soloists. In Rutter's own words, he was inspired by the presence of Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto on the concert program, and chose to pay homage to Bach's chosen musical forces in this piece, as well as the "forms and styles of Bach's day." In execution, the Suite antique does use solo flute with a string chamber orchestra (without the solo violin central to Bach's concept), and harpsichord (without the shocking and revolutionary solo voice Bach gives that instrument in his concerto); its forms and styles pay loose and perhaps winking homage to a variety of early dances and lyric styles.
As one would expect in a Baroque-era homage, a slow-tempo prelude opens the set. In Rutter's case, the harpsichord is strongly present in an accompanying role, with solo flute and chamber strings trading off iterations of a reflective melody; a highly ornamented flute solo leads to a recapitulation of the opening flute solo. Instead of a French Baroque-styled fugue or an Italianate dance movement, Rutter presents an ostinato; the repeated bass line is quite upbeat and syncopated, and the movement features a string pizzicato break before the final repeat. The following aria opens in a modally tinged minor key in the contrapuntal strings, followed by a solo flute verse and a wonderfully free and ornamented verse by the same instrument. There follows a curious waltz (not a Bachian dance at all); with its jazzy combination of harpsichord and basso progressions and virtuosic flute riffs it lies perhaps closer to a bossa nova than the Baroque. The fifth movement, a chanson, opens as if a harpsichord-laced Christmas carol, waiting for the regular melodic phrases of its flute solo melody; the strings take an internal verse in almost Muzak style, and the movement ends with similarly cliched flourishes. The final Rondeau pits an upbeat theme in syncopated, irregular meter against a number of contrasting textures: legato string-driven verse, some harpsichord solo (finally!), a cello-based countermelody, and so on. The homage is certainly present, though in a more playful and tongue-in-cheek style than the word sometimes implies.