Over time, these suites and their components gradually lost their connection with the physical act of dancing. By the 1620s, dance suites were mostly written for solo or group instrumental performance rather than as an accompaniment for dancers. (However, just because they weren’t intended for dancing doesn’t mean they lost their connection with the traditional dance styles. In fact, the individual components of the suite typically kept their unique stylistic conventions. Put another way, the music usually still matched the old dance moves, even though the composers and musicians didn’t intend for any listeners to actually cut a rug.) The varying styles of the different “dances” allowed for great contrast between the individual movements of a suite, an attractive quality for both composers and performers. In this form dance suites were among the most popular types of composed instrumental music for over one hundred years and were among several inspirations for other instrumental genres like the concerto, sonata, and symphony.
Let’s recap a bit, shall we? Dance suites were an international craze that drew inspiration from multiple countries and traditions, that at one time involved dancing, then didn’t, but that kept its association with specific individual dance styles. Clear as mud? Good!
Bach’s six Cello Suites are a perfect example of this in action. The Bach Cello Suites all contain an allemande, courante, sarabande, minuet/bourée/gavotte (this movement varied), and gigue, in that order. These are all dance forms, although Bach would have written them as vehicles for instrumental performance, not dancing. But Bach’s suites, like those of many of his contemporaries, all begin with a prelude. Since preludes weren’t connected with a tradition of dancing, they were much more freely adaptable in terms of style. In fact, it wasn’t at all uncommon for a musician performing a suite to improvise a prelude on the spot. The prelude to Bach’s Suite No. 5 in C minor, which you’ll hear today, begins in the style of a French overture. While it isn’t of supreme importance for you to know what a French-style overture is, it is yet another example of the mixing of various musical types/genres across setting (stage music in a solo instrumental suite) and geographical boundaries (a north German composer drawing inspiration from French styles).