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The Dance Suite

What are the essential ingredients in a traditional Western dance suite?

Minuet dancers

Because dances are often relatively short in length, composers before the 1700s used to group dance pieces together in sets. Composers like Bach composed sets of dances in a much more formal way and called these sets of dances dance suites.

Dance suites were very popular in 1700s and were written for orchestras or solo instruments. The following clips are from Bach's French suite No. 5, for solo harpsichord, although they're played on a piano here.

For a dance suite to be called a suite, it had to contain the four most popular dances:

Allemande

The allemande -- a slow dance, originally from Germany.

Courante

The courante, which was a courtly dance from France.

Sarabande

The sarabande, which was a slow, lilting dance from Spain.

Gigue

The gigue (or jig) which was a fast dance from England.

Those are the main four dance types. Other dances could often be sandwiched in between the sarabande and the gigue, such as:

Gavotte

the Gavotte, traditionally a French folk dance

Bourrée

the Bourrée, also a French folk dance

and the Minuet.

Dance Suites were often preceded by a slow, stately piece of music called either a prelude, overture or sinfonia.

Overture to Water Music

Here’s the overture to Handel‘s Water Music Suite. King George I commissioned Handel to write a suite for orchestra to be played at his royal water party, which took place on board a barge on the River Thames in the Summer of 1717. Imagine listening to Handel’s Water Music as you float down the Thames on a hot summer’s day!

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