The Kennedy Center

Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068

About the Work

J.S. Bach Composer: J.S. Bach
© Thomas May

The prestigious position Bach held in Leipzig as a music director of the major churches was his longest: it lasted from the spring of 1723 until his death in 1750. These Leipzig years are often associated with the epic choral masterpieces (the St. Matthew Passion and B minor Mass) and with the bulk of Bach's church cantatas. Yet despite the extraordinary workload his liturgical responsibilities entailed-not only composing new music but rehearsing and supervising performers, teaching young students, administering programs, etc.-in 1729 Bach began directing a civic institution known as the Collegium Musicum.

    Founded by Georg Philipp Telemann early in the 18th century, the Collegium Musicum was an ensemble of local musicians (mostly university students, also amateurs and some pros with time on their hands) who gathered weekly on Fridays to give performances at Café Zimmermann, a coffee house near Leipzig's central marketplace: a "non-traditional" concert venue avant la lettre. (Bach immortalized Zimmermann's in his Coffee Cantata, BWV 211.) Taking on directorship of the Collegium Musicum provided the composer with ample opportunities to introduce and try out his secular instrumental pieces of the 1730s and 1740s. One of these may well have been the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068.

    All four of Bach's extant orchestral suites (BWV 1066-69) were long believed to date from his years in Cöthen (just north of Halle, where Handel was born in the same year as Bach). As usual with Bach's catalogue, their genesis is probably more complicated. Bach was stationed in Cöthen in the years preceding his move to Leipzig, serving as court music director for Prince Leopold, an amateur musician and Calvinist (meaning that the Prince's form of Protestantism favored focusing on secular instrumental activity, while music for worship should be kept as plain as possible). It was at Leopold's court in Anhalt-Cöthen that Bach had the freedom to focus on such secular instrumental works as the Brandenburg Concertos.

    Because there are no complete autograph scores for the four suites, dating comes down to scholarly detective work. There is no evidence that all four were conceived as a collection. Some musicologists believe the Suite No. 3 may stem from pre-Leipzig material, but the eminent Bach scholar Christoph Wolff dates the version that has survived to 1731, when Bach might have added parts to the score to make this part of the Collegium Musicum repertoire in Leipzig.

    In any case, all four orchestral suites stand out from Bach's normal orchestral output. Though from our perspective we think of the ensemble Bach uses here as a "chamber orchestra," the scoring for Suites No. 3 and 4 is especially sumptuous: he adds a complement of three trumpets and timpani to the usual string and basso continuo ensemble, as well as oboes (a pair for No. 3).

    The Suite No. 3 provides ample proof that Bach's encyclopedic genius-the "consolidation" of so many different sources singled out by Rilling-transcends mere erudition. This is music to entertain, rich in melodic beauty, rhythmic vigor, and festive spirit. Indeed, varied dance types of the era are integral to the suites, as to so many of Bach's other compositions, reminding us of the importance of earthy as well as intellectual and spiritual impulses for Bach's musical thinking. The Third Suite may represent a more entertaining, relaxed style than is usually found with Bach, but his standards of craftsmanship for the Zimmermann players remained as high as ever.

    Bach actually termed the orchestral suites "Overtures" after their first movements, using the part to stand for the whole. There are four additional movements in the Third Suite, allowing for contrasts in mood, though the overall demeanor is festive, as suits the home key of D major-a key associated with exuberance, power, and glory by Baroque composers. The first movement draws on an identifiably French stylistic model. Essentially bipartite in form (with a varied repetition of the opening to round it off), this Overture consists of a majestic slow introduction characterized by regal dotted rhythms, followed by a swift, spirited fugue, and then a recapitulation of the opening material in somewhat altered form.

    A typically Bachian use of contrast as a formal device can be seen in the juxtaposition of this grand French opening with the Italianate, seemingly infinite melody of the second movement "Air," scored for strings and continuo alone. It's not surprising that this has become one of the Baroque era's greatest hits-and in fact a classic rock hit, thanks to Procol Harum's riffing on the tune in "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Long before British rock, the German celebrity violinist August Wilhelmj made an arrangement of this movement for violin and piano, titling it "Air on the G String." Wilhelmj retooled the piece by transposing the key so as to play the melody entirely on the G string. We hear the music as Bach wrote it, however, in its original D major.

    The last three movements turn back to France, specifically, French dance models, each with a unique rhythmic profile. The gavotte, with its duple meter, was a favorite of Louis XIV the Sun King's court, as was the bourrée, while the animated step of the gigue makes for a toe-tapping conclusion to the Suite.