Bach and the Overture in Suite No.3 in D major

Includes background on Bach, the Baroqure era and the first movement Overture.

  • Created by: Sian
  • Created on: 10-04-10 13:56

Background Knowledge

Many composers like Bach on numerous occasions reused music, remodelling it to suit the availability and abilities of such performers. So it was common to see more than one version of a composition.

Bach's duties were involved in weekly composition, rehearsal and performance of large quantities of new music and its' not surprising being under a lot of pressure that he adapted earlier pieces.

Some musicologists suggest that this piece could've originally been intended for strings and continuo only, and then the oboes, trumpets and drums were later added for another performance, but no one knows for sure.

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Who was Bach?

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was born in a North-German family who had a history of producing musicians. During the 16th and 19th centuries more than 70 members were active as organists, choirmasters, and composers. Bach's own sons continued this tradition in this long line of musical ancestors.

In 1723 Bach left his job in Cöthen at the court where he came across many opportunities to compose instrumental music and become Director of Music at St Thomas's Church in Leipzig, considered an honourable position. He wasn't however everyone's first choice-other composers had been offered the job, but refused- and he experienced constant petty, political difficulties.

In 1729 Bach also took on responsibility for an orchestra, the Collegium Musicum, consisting of 40 players, mainly students and amateurs. The origins of the Orchestral Suite No.3 in D are not known with certainty, it may have been arranged from earlier music that Bach wrote in Cöthen, but it's likely that the first performance in its current form was by the Collegium Musicum in 1729, and then played again in 1731.

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The Suite

As a young man he showed a lively interest in most types of contemporary music especially the latest styles of France and Italy, along with the music of principal German composers in his time. Although he travelled when he could to hear different leading performers, he mostly studied new music by copying it out and making arrangements of them. His own style was a synthesis of French, Italian and German characteristics. This work includes mostly French techniques. 

Bach's suite consists of five movements: Overture, Air, Gavotte, Bourrée and Gigue, of which we will study the first, second and last movement. The gavotte, bourrée and gigue are all dance styles which the famous air (song) is a more reflective movement, although it uses the same structure as the dances.

Each movement is independent and each dance expresses a different idea. One of the most significant differences between the Baroque and Classical era is that Baroque music aims to develop a single mood (known as affekt in German) while Classical music generally exploits the dramatic tensions between contrasting ideas (shown in Schubert's Unfinished Symphony No.8).

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The Orchestra - Bass

There wasn't a standard format for an orchestra in the late Baroque period (approx. 1700-1750). They differed in each princely court, church and occasion. The two features constantly shown were a small body of strings (violins, violas, cellos and either double basses or the old violone) or one or more chordal instruments, such as a harpsichord, organ or lute.

The basso continuo was used as a basis for improvising harmonies to fill out the texture and it would sometimes included numbers and other symbols indicating the chords required, resulting in a figured bass. The process of realising the bass required skill so the performer was expected to play the harmonies as to reflect the rhythm and mood of the piece.

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The Orchestra - Other instruments

Baroque orchestras sometimes also included wind instruments usually oboes in which the bassoons would be used to playing the same bass part as the cellos and double basses. Trumpets and timpanis were often added for music of a ceremonial character. As little is known about the first performance, we can't be sure of the details in the orchestra Bach used, but it was probably large for its time. If there were only a few string players to each part the melodic line would've been in danger of being drowned out by the trumpets and timpani-so is this why two oboes double the first violin part in much of the suite.

The timpani tuned to D (tonic) and A (dominant) were limited to the tutti passages in the tonic or dominant keys-the usually drop out during modulations. The three trumpets are also in D and in Bach's day they would've been natural trumpets and were therefore limited to the available notes. Players tended to specialise in a particular part of the available range, it was only at the top that the pitches (clarino register) were close enough together to play melodies.

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The Orchestra - continued

In late-baroque orchestral music oboes doubled the violins, in this work they do just that in some passages, such as the opening to the Overture and throughout the Gigue. While at other times only oboe 1 doubles the first violins and oboe 2 doubles the second violins (bars 24b-42 of Overture). In the Air for example the oboes are silent, where as in bars 50-56 of the Overture they sustain harmonies in the background of the texture, while in bars 76-80 of this movement oboe 1 plays a simplified version of the 1st violin part and oboe 2 decorates the 2nd violin part.

During the last 100 years, research into instrument construction and 18th century performing techniques has made it possible to recreate the sounds of the period. Oboes had fingerholes (similar to recorder) and only three keys. String instruments were under less tension than those of a modern version and they were made of gut. Violins/violas were played without a chin or shoulder rest and cellos didn't have spikes. Bows were used differently and the overall string sound tended to be drier than today often detached with less use of singing legato and with vibrato mainly reserved for special effect.

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The Overture Introduction

The French word ouverture means and opening-serving as an introductory movement. It's in the style of a French overture, commonly used at the beginning of an opera in Baroque France, but also adopted by German composers such as Handel who was around at the same time as Bach. The two main elements of a French overture are a slow introduction featuring dotted rhythms, also repeated and a fast fugal section. Bach rounds off the fugue with a highly varied repeat of the opening and then directs the fast section (followed by slow ending) should be repeated, resulting in the structure shown below for the movement’s entirety:

1-24a dotted slow, dotted rhythms (repeated)

24b-106 fast, fugal

107-122 slow, dotted rhythms (repeated)

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The Overture - Opening

The home key is established using tonic pedals in bars 1-3² and 4-6¹, separated by a dominant 7th chord (bar 3 beats 3 and 4). The music then moves to the dominant, A major before passing through E minor (bars 9-10) and B minor (bars 11-13). In bar 13¹ Bach prepares for a perfect cadence in B minor but he replaces the brighter sounding chord of B major, with its major 3rd (D#) important in the bass. This isn't a modulation but a chromatic chord, and it leads back into a strong cadence in A major in bars 17³-18. Bach then passes through G major (subdominant key) in bars 19-20 before returning to the tonic marking the end of the slow introduction. It finishes with an imperfect cadence, preparing for either returning to the start or going into the fugue.

Bach was skilful at using a wide range of devices-auxiliary notes, suspensions, pedals and sequences to embellish the harmonic palette. He sets up tension with a tonic pedal which seems to stop the music moving forward, but the harmonies change over it, eventually becoming so dissonant that the piece seems almost forced to resolve onto dominant harmony in the second half of bar 3. Trumpets and drums are prominent in the fanfare-like section and they drop out at bar 6 when the music modulates and they don't return until bar 18. All of the 24 bars are dominated by dotted rhythms-characteristic feature.

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The Fugue

This is a contrapuntal, intensely imitative, texture. Each part is treated equally and referred to as a 'voice' even though the fugue is for instruments. This is for four voices-essentially the strings, since the oboes only double the violins and the trumpets mainly support the texture or shadow the violin parts.

The principal theme is known as the subject and is announced by the 1st violins and immediately after, the 2nd violins enter with the same theme, but now transposed down a 5th. This version is called the answer, while the 2nd violins paly this, the 1st violins continue with a new idea known as the counter-subject.

Bach creates a short link by repeating bar 26 in sequence to form bar 27, after which the viola enters with the subject in bar 28 followed by the bass part with the answer in bar 29. Meanwhile the upper parts continue with more counter-subjects that fit in counterpoint with the subject/answer and fit with each other too.

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The Exposition

This first section, until all the voices have entered is called the exposition. The following image represents the order of entries and how the opening material is extended throughout:

Bar 24 - violin plays subject

Bar 25 and 26 - Answer played by violin 2 whilst 1 plays counter subject 1

Bar 27 - sequence is played by both violins

Bar 28 - Counter subject 2 played by violin 1 and counter subject played by violin 2 and viola comes in with subject

Bar 29 and 30 - counter subject 3 played by violin 1, cs 2 played by violin 2 and cs 1 played by viola, bass finally comes in with subject

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The Fugue continued

It doesn't stop when all parts have entered with the subject, but the imitative texture continues and the ideas from the exposition can be extended and developed. As all parts enter in a different order, the relationships between subject, answer and countersubjects will change.

For example a part that started out at the bottom of the texture can be found later at the top or in the middle. Counterpoint that is composed so that themes can be placed anywhere in the texture without sounding strained is called invertible counterpoint.

The passages of strict imitation alternate with freer ones called episodes, in which the texture is lighter and a short motif from earlier is extended and varied in the process of 'continuous expansion'. An example is the development of countersubject 2 which starts in bar 42. At bar 50 the subject starts to enter agian initially played by 2nd violin in the relative minor key.

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Fugue continued and final section

Expositon - Bars 24-31¹, extended to bar 42¹

Episode 1 - Bars 42 ¹-58¹

Middle entries - Bars 58¹-71¹

Episode 2 - Bars 71¹-89¹(expanded)

Final entries - Bars 89¹-107¹( a repeat of the exposition's order of entries, but in a full texture from the start)

In bar 107 the final chord of the fugue seamlessly overlaps the start of a shortened version of the slow introduction. It begins in a similar way to bar 1 but the theme falls rather than having a rising outline. Bach restates bars 20-21 almost exactly in bars 119-120, but elsewhere he tends to explore ideas from the introduction rather than repeating them exactly.

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