A Baroque suite, simply put, is a collection of dances. Suites developed as a viable instrumental genre in the 17th and 18th centuries. They began as pairs of dances, and gradually grew to include five or more. In this context, listeners weren’t supposed to get up and dance, but instead to sit and appreciate the stylized pieces that follow the structure of particular dance forms. As the suite developed in 17th-century France, it evolved a standardized order including the allemande (a stately dance in a quadruple meter), courante (a slow triple-meter dance), sarabande (another slow dance in a triple meter) and gigue (a quick dance with a swinging lilt). The gigue became a part of this structure somewhere around 1650, although it’s difficult to tell where the idea originated. Later suites inserted other types of dances before the gigue. These optional movements were known as galanteries. A composer was free to add more than one galanterie in a suite. An optional movement could be a bourrée or a minuet.
When we think of George Frideric Handel, our first thought is perhaps not of keyboard music. Oratorios and opera spring to mind first, and other instrumental pieces like Water Music or Music for the Royal Fireworks. Keyboard music is more often associated with Handel’s contemporary JS Bach, so it’s easy to overlook Handel’s contribution to this genre. We might not immediately think of Handel as the great keyboard soloist that Bach was, but of course he was both an excellent player and an inventive improviser at the organ. Known and lauded for his ability to create enchanting melodies for his operas and oratorios, Handel also injected no small amount of melodic flair into his keyboard music.
All told, Handel composed about 22 keyboard suites, but eight of them—known as the Eight Great Suites—have received the most attention. The two keyboard suites on the program are in the “Great Eight.” Handel was a well-traveled composer, and he absorbed the influences of the places he visited and the musical languages he encountered along the way. Stylistically, his keyboard suites draw primarily upon the Italian style, which emphasized melody, but they also bear the hallmarks of German counterpoint.
The Suites Nos. 2 and 3 were composed for a collection that appeared in 1720. Suite No. 3 in D minor is widely considered to be one of the best in the genre. Handel opens the Suite with a Presto Prelude, followed by an Allegro, Allemande and a Courante. As the Suite continues, Handel eschews the established form by including some variations next and then another Presto movement. He finishes the Suite with another set of variations. No doubt Handel brought in the variations to highlight his gift for invention and pleasing variety.
Suite No. 2 in F major begins with a slow movement, and no particular dance model is indicated for any of the movements. The Adagio opening is incredibly graceful, and the subsequent Allegro brings welcome contrast. The centerpiece is another Adagio, followed by two Allegro movements that bring the Suite to a close with a dose of lively effervescence.
The single movement Minuet in G minor shares its musical material with part of Handel’s E-minor Flute Sonata, and is also the origin of the theme on which Brahms based his Handel Variations.
The program ends with a chaconne, a musical work featuring a repeated and unchanging pattern over which the composer might write variations. Handel’s Chaconne in G major features no fewer than 21 inspired variations.
While the keyboard works of composers like Bach and Scarlatti might seem flashier on the surface, Handel’s suites do not skimp on graceful phrasing, harmonic interest and a diversity of textures. His High Baroque contemporaries might seem to pack their suites with constant activity, but Handel shows unique sensitivity to the ears of the audience, choosing to strike a skillful balance between
learned counterpoint and agreeable melodiousness.