What is a… Suite?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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A suite is an ordered set of individual pieces or movements, tied together by themes or tonalities.

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What do the following have in common: a collection of Baroque courtly dances, the must-have furnishing for a suburban living room, and the convenience attached to the more desirable kind of hotel bedroom?

Answer: the word ‘suite’. The French word ‘suite’ means ‘following on from’, ‘continuation’, or simply ‘attached to’. Around the middle of the 16th century, someone seems to have hit on the idea of using the word to signify dances designed to be performed together – though at this stage it was rarely more than a pair.

It was in the early 17th century that suites with four, five and later six dance movements became the norm, and the keyboard suites of Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-67), with their reliance on four staple dances – allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue – remained a basic pattern for well over a century.

But the suite proved remarkably adaptable, socially as well as musically. Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, designed to hold its own against loud explosions and further stimulate huge crowds already enthralled by brilliant pyrotechnics, is at one end of the scale.

Bach’s solo violin partitas (in effect suites), demanding intense concentration from a small group of connoisseurs, are at the other. Meanwhile in France, François Couperin was dispensing with dance forms and contriving sequences of imaginative character pieces in his keyboard suites. 

In the end, fashion simply changed. For composers and audiences of the later 18th century, the formality of Baroque dance forms, and the tendency of suites to have all the movements in the same key, reeked of the ‘old order’.

The age of revolutions, and of emerging Romanticism, demanded drama, volatility, contrast – the new dynamic thinking and feeling of the late 18th-century sonata, concerto and symphony was the way forward.

But as the 20th century turned its back on Romanticism, the suite began to have its day again: in Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, or Ravel’s homage to his Baroque ancestor in Le tombeau de Couperin. In some of these, the indebtedness to the old Froberger model is more-or-less clear.

But calling a large orchestral work a ‘suite’ could simply be a way of saying ‘It’s not a symphony’ – as in the case of Holst’s The Planets. Then Duke Ellington annexed the term for jazz and another new form was born – though one more mindful of the suite’s dance origins. As so often, the step forward is also a step back.

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This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine