The Baroque Dance Suite

Peasant Dance, 1630-1635. Found in the collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
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The suite is a type of fashionable instrumental dance music that emerged during the Renaissance and was further developed during the Baroque period. It consists of several movements or short pieces in the same key and functions as dance or dinner music during social gatherings.

King Louis XIV and Baroque Dance

Musical scholars contend that the baroque dance suite reached its height of expression and popularity at the court of Louis XIV, who cultivated these dances during elaborate balls and other functions for various reasons, not the least of which as a way to denote social rank.

The style of dance that became popular as a result is known as the French Noble Style, and it is considered by musical theorists to be a precursor of classical ballet. Furthermore, its practitioners are credited with the invention of a dance notation system, designed to educate courtiers in the various dances, which allowed the Noble Style to spread well beyond the borders of France.

The baroque suite remained popular at the French court until the Revolution.

The Primary Suite Movements

The baroque suite typically started with a French overture, as in ballet and opera, a musical form divided into two parts that is usually enclosed by double bars and repeat signs.

Suites were composed of four main movements: allemandecourantesarabande, and gigue. Each of the four main movements is based on a dance form from another country. Thus, each movement has a characteristic sound and varies in rhythm and meter.

Here are the main movements of the dance suite:

Dance Suite Movements

Type of Dance

Country / Meter / How to Play

Allemande

Germany, 4/4, Moderate

Courante

France, 3/4, Quick

Sarabande

Spain, 3/4, Slow

Gigue

England, 6/8, Fast

 

Optional movements included airbourree (lively dance), gavotte (moderately fast dance), minuet, polonaise, and prelude.

Additional French dances include the following movements:

  • Canarie
  • Chaconne
  • Entrée grave
  • Forlane
  • Loure
  • Musette
  • Passacaille
  • Passepied
  • Rigaudon
  • Tambourin

Suite Composers

Perhaps the greatest of the baroque suite composers was Johann Sebastian Bach. He is famous for his six cello suites, as well as for English, French, and German suites, the latter known as the Partitas, six of which for harpsichord are the last suites he ever composed.

Other notable suite composers include George Frideric Handel, François Couperin, and Johann Jakob Froberger.

Instruments Played in the Suite

Suites were performed on the cello, harpsichord, lute, and violin, either solo or as part of a group. Bach is famous for composing for the harpsichord, and the instrument was a favorite of Handel's as well. Later, as the guitar became more refined, composers like Robert de Visee wrote beautiful suites for that instrument.

Contemporary Dance Suites

Echoes of a form of baroque dance, English country dances that were known as contredanses in France, can be seen in the folk dancing of today, with its repetitive steps performed by couples in columns, squares, and circles. Additionally, some of today’s modern dance instructors teach a form of baroque dance by reconstructing its steps and mixing them into their contemporary choreography.