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Johann Sebastian Bach

The English Suite for keyboard No. 1 in A major, BWV 806 is the first of six English suites that Johann Sebastian Bach assembled in one package in 1725. It is not known when exactly this work was written or why. Nor has anyone discovered why the works are called "English." They are more French in English, containing hints of Gallic styles and dance rhythms. Many theories about the name of this set of works (perhaps an English patron commissioned them, or a patron named English commissioned them, etc.) seem to have been pulled randomly out of the air, based on nothing more than a guess. This generates the worst kind of speculative discussion, where uninformed, under-researched speculation is treated as fact. It will probably never be known for fact why these pieces are called "English," but a better guess is that Bach became acquainted with Handel's excellent first volume of keyboard suites. Handel worked in England, primarily in opera, and was regarded by Germanic musicians as someone who has become an authority on things English, naturally including music. The time line works with this theory; Handel's suites were published in 1720, which gave Bach much time to get around to generating works of the same form. A hole in this theory is that it assumes that the works were assembled in a timely manner. Bach could have written some of these pieces as early as 1714. The English Suites are his first of three sets of keyboard suites. He never published them, which suggests that he was not worried about time constrictions of any sort. Why Bach wrote what he did is a frequently asked and unanswerable question.

Another theory, equally good if not better still, is that Bach had decided to emulate the set of six suites by Charles Dieupart from 1701. Dieupart was a harpsichordist of French birth working in England. Bach copied the work in his own hand, which was his personal method of absorbing the compositional strengths of other composers. Each of Dieupart's suites begins with an overture, similar to Bach's choice of beginning each English suite with a prelude. Both Handel and Dieupart's work may have cumulatively inspired Bach. This again is speculation: better speculation.

The A major suite is in ten brief movements and is about 22 minutes in duration. Though the work is mostly written in French dance forms, there is a sober and polite poise to the movements that can be taken as an outsider's impression of the English manner. Ironically, the music is generally French in design, as was Handel's suites. The introspective quality of the A major prelude is not as bold a statement of the preludes for the rest of the suites, which are more closely associated with the brighter, Italian style. The subsequent dances are not particularly innovative in form, but Bach's use of the language itself is of course extraordinary. One of the restrictions he seems to impose upon himself is a lack of diminution. Rarely does the music blast off at any point, such as in his Italian Concerto. The music of the A major Suite, BWV 806 has a pondering quality that is expressed in an unhurried counterpoint. The tone of the music is sedate enough that many listeners will not immediately notice how fluent and clearly the separate melodic voices move in twining arabesques. It is not dramatic music, probably never intended for a public audience, but the sobriety of the tone amid remarkable fugal writing is a rare and valuable blend.