The history of the suite

by Thomas Stiegler

I know of some people who do not understand why there should be a symphony by Haydn or Brahms in addition to “the symphony” by Beethoven. Not to mention the fact that Beethoven apparently wrote more than one work of the same name and that they were simply numbered in sequence.

But this is a gap in our knowledge that can easily be filled. One only needs to know that titles of pieces of music are not proper names, but rather genre names.

It is easiest to understand in comparison to literature. There, too, there are different genres such as novel, essay or poem, and here, too, they simply serve to describe the form that gives the book its outer framework.

Thus, for example, one could also call Thomas Mann’s “The Buddenbrooks” his “Novel No. 1” synonymous with Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 1”.


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In literature, one gives names to individual works because it is an art form based on the written word. In music this is not the case. Here the titles should not distract from the main thing and the music should speak for itself.

Therefore the names are only used as an indication of the form in which the music was written and to distinguish the individual works from each other.

Although there are, of course, exceptions to this rule, and a musical genre developed in the Romantic period, so-called program music, in which each piece has a meaningful title (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”, “Journey to Italy” etc.) and in which the composer tries to set a literary program to music.

But apart from this, the “titles” of musical works simply serve as a generic term.

In the last 500 years a large number of different forms have developed. We are hardly aware of them anymore, because the only ones we normally deal with are the accompanied stanzaic song or the music we know as background from television.

But it used to be different. There are innumerable musical genres, all more or less different from each other, depending on what the music was used for and what the composer wanted to express with it.

One of the earliest musical genres was the “suite”.

A suite is essentially a collection of dance movements, i.e. of music that has evolved over time for festivities and entertainment.

But before I go into more detail, I would like to talk briefly about dances and rhythms in general.


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There is an interesting experiment in musicology. Researchers investigated which parameters are more important for the recognition of a work: the melody or the rhythm.

For this purpose, simple, well-known songs were played to test subjects. In one case with the correct melody but a different rhythm, in the other case with a freely invented melody but with the correct rhythm.

The result was that the songs were only recognized reliably if they were played in the right rhythm. The correct pitches, on the other hand, were not decisive for the recognition of a piece of music.

We can easily check the whole thing ourselves, for example when we think of “Hänschen klein”. Because of its concise rhythm short-short-long, short-short-long, short-short-short… you would recognize it even with the most unusual melody.

This result only surprises at first sight and we have to remember that rhythm is something primordial. Already the child grows up in direct contact with the heartbeat of its mother and our life follows an individual rhythm, no matter if it is our breath, our speech melody or the way we walk.

Even in groups, a common rhythm usually develops, for example at rock concerts or folk festivals, where singing and dancing together is one of the most unifying elements.

People knew about this fact thousands of years ago and this method was used in cultic actions by creating a common trance through clapping and stamping. From these beginnings, through many intermediate steps and detached from any cultic meaning, the first dances developed.


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Let us now take a leap in history and look at the development in the Middle Ages.

At that time a rich tradition of dance music had already developed in our latitudes. Out of the desire for the greatest possible variety (and probably also symmetry) the sequence of dances was arranged in such a way that a straight screaming dance was followed by an odd jumping dance.

In Germany these dances were called Dantz and Hupfauf, at court Pavane and Gagliarde. In other countries these dances had other names (Pavane and Saltarello, Pavan and Galliard), but the principle of pairing remained the same everywhere.

The form of these dances was generally known and loved by the people. Either there was somebody in the village who played to dance, or musicians came, who went from village to village and improvised on the traditional melodies at festivals.

As you can imagine, these musicians did not have a high status in society and their kind of music was not very respected. It was simply passed on orally and, unlike church music, was neither written down nor preserved.

Only in the 16th century did this attitude begin to change, for which there are several interlocking causes.

Most importantly, in the most culturally significant countries of Europe, especially France, massive social changes took place, creating particularly favorable conditions for the creation and dissemination of polyphonic dance music.

It was the time when the royal central power had finally established itself and hand in hand with this came the rise of an urban bourgeoisie. As a result, on the one hand the royal court needed music for its glittering celebrations, and on the other hand the bourgeoisie increasingly used the performance of music as a means of representation and for its entertainment events.

At the same time, the Renaissance brought about significant improvements in instrument making, increasing interest in both instrumental playing and the skill of the players.

All this led not only to a higher value of music, but also to the musicians no longer standing on a low level of society, but becoming generally recognized.

In the interplay they themselves also began to attach more importance to their actions and to record their work for posterity.

They started with what they were most concerned with – the music for dancing.

The term “suite” soon became established as a collective term for the written record of the first dance movements and their collection in booklets.

In the beginning, the dances that had been handed down were simply collected and printed, but soon the musicians began to create and distribute independent compositions.

For a long time, there was no uniform standard in the sequence of movements, but until well into the middle of the 17th century, a suite remained simply any collection of dances. But from country to country, the first conventions slowly established which dances were used and in what form they were strung together.

Finally, in the Baroque era, the suite experienced its heyday, and from this point on the term “suite” denotes a collection of compositions consisting of several movements of the same key and predominantly dance-like character. Although its basis was still the dances that had been handed down, its development led to the fact that it was now pure art music.

But before we take a closer look at the baroque suite, we will take a look at the dances that formed the core of the suite in the following articles.

These were the Pavane, the Galliarde, Allemande and Courante, the Chaconne, the Bourrée, the Sarabande and Gavotte, the Siciliano, the Gigue, the Minuet and the Polonaise.

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