Baroque Suite: Definition & Dances

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  • 0:03 Background to Baroque Music
  • 0:40 What Is a Baroque Suite?
  • 2:02 Baroque Suite Characteristics
  • 3:27 Some Examples of…
  • 3:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

The Baroque Suite was a collection of popular dances usually performed by a soloist or a small chamber group. Let's look at the types of dances used and some of the most important examples.

Background to Baroque Music

It's 8:00 on a Friday night in the year 1720. You're in the sitting room of your home in the countryside of England, having just finished supper. It's too early for bed. What are you going to do? You could play cards, read a book, or perhaps discuss the day's events with your family and guests. But you've done all that many times, and it sounds a little dull. Suddenly a guest announces, 'I've got Handel's new dance suite!' Everyone jumps up, pushes the furniture to the walls while the guest seats himself at your harpsichord and an evening of enjoyment is guaranteed.

What Is a Baroque Suite?

As the Renaissance period came to a close there was a growing demand for more instrumental music. Composers recognized that existing popular dances were fertile ground. Street musicians had been improvising these dances for decades and musicians in homes had passed down their favorites for generations. Gradually, sets of dances in the same key were put together to form a suite, or collection of dances and Baroque dance suites were a result of this and a popular genre in the 17th and 18th centuries.

When the dance suite was in its infancy there was not yet uniform sections or titles. Different countries had different names for the suite, for example the Partita in Germany and the Sonata de Camera in Italy. There was also not yet consensus on which dances should be included. The French preferred their pavane and galliard while the English liked a good gigue.

Eventually a common arrangement of dances fell into place, which consisted of the allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. If the guests were intending to dance to the music, these four movements were all that was played. If the suite was intended to be a concert piece to which the guests would sit and listen, then the four dances were often preceded by a prelude in the same key.

Baroque Suite Characteristics

The allemande was a moderately slow, serious, stately dance from Germany. It was always in duple meter. The courante was in triple meter and could be one of two different tempi. If it were a French courante, it would be slower and solemn. If it were an Italian courante it was a fast dance. The sarabande was another triple meter dance. It originated in Spain, where it was a wild, rambunctious dance. However, it was transformed in Germany into a very slow and ponderous dance, which is how it appears in the dance suite. Lastly, the gigue was a lighthearted fast dance in duple meter. It hailed from England and Ireland where it was called a jig, while gigue was the French term.

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