Roman Kosyakov – a masterly light shining brightly at St Mary’s
The French Suites, BWV 812–817, are six suites which Bach wrote for the harpsichord or clavichord between the years of 1722 and 1725. Although Suites Nos. 1 to 4 are typically dated to 1722, it is possible that the first was written somewhat earlier.
The suites were later given the name ‘French’ as were the English Suites. The name was popularised by Bach’s biographer Forkel Johann who wrote in his 1802 biography of Bach, “One usually calls them French Suites because they are written in the French manner.”This claim, however, is inaccurate: like Bach’s other suites, they follow a largely Italian convention. The courantes of the first (in D minor) and third (in B minor) suites are in the French style; the courantes of the other four suites are all in the Italian style. In any case, Bach also employed dance movements (such as the polonaise of the sixth suite) that are foreign to the French manner. Usually, the swift second movement after the allemande is named either courante (French style) or corrente (Italian style), but in all these suites the second movements are named courante, according to the Bach catalogue listing, which supports the suggestion that these suites are “French”. Some of the manuscripts that have come down to us are titled “Suites Pour Le Clavecin”, which is what probably led to the tradition of calling them “French” Suites.