Defining Terms: Suite
Four very different works in Tuesday's WFCR classical music will have the same word in their titles. One is a series of Renaissance dances, dressed up in the 20th century for cello and piano. One is a Baroque orchestral work staring with a pompous overture, then continuing with a bunch of dance and non-dance movements. One is a group of excerpts from a musical score composed to accompany a Molière comedy. And the last is a single-movement orchestral work blending together hit tunes from a popular opera. What is each called?
Remember my UConn music profs' admonition that the definition of any musical term is "different things at different times," as I blogged earlier? Well, that goes double, and then some, for suite, a term that has more uses than there are rooms in a — you guessed it, hotel suite. And it's a great example of how terms that once meant one specific thing morph and broaden over the centuries, to the point where the original meaning practically gets lost.
So let's go back to the beginning — to 1557, when Estienne Du Tertre, a composer and publisher, compiled different versions of a dance called the bransle into "suyttes," each set having one bransle follow another which followed another, etc., in dance-til-you-drop fashion. Hence the term "suyttes" or "suite," from the French verb suivre, meaning "follow." The morphing and broadening of "suite" began immediately, and by the beginning of the next century, the term was used for not just the same dance over and over, but different dances following each other in a musically unified set. This is what you may have heard on Tuesday with Francis Poulenc's Suite française based on music of the 16th century French composer Claude Gervaise, and including such dances as the bransle, the pavane and the sicilienne. There's a nice version for guitars of the suite here. And by the way, these dances were not meant for actual dancing. As the music geeks would put it, they're "stylized dances," i.e., music in the style of the dance. So please remain seated.
As also typically happens when a musical genre hangs around long enough, the suite in this later "bunch of different dances" sense became standardized. So, by the end of the 17th century, four dances were de rigueur in (almost) any good suite, especially in Germany and Austria: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue. You'll recognize them in the numerous suites for solo keyboard, violin, cello, lute or flute by J.S. Bach. His and others' suites, (sometimes known in German as "partitas" or "partias") also sprinkled in such other dances as the gavotte, the bourrée, the minuet, and the passepied, or (especially with such French composers as François Couperin) movements with colorful descriptive or dedicatory titles. But the "big four," known by scholars as "A-C-S-G," were the constants.
Also out of late 17th century Germany came a related orchestral genre: the "ouverture," now known most commonly as the "orchestral suite." The genre's name came from its appropriation of the French opera overture à la Lully , with its characteristic "dotted" ("ta-da!") rhythms. What usually followed the overture, much as in the keyboard suite, were our friends A-C-S-G, intermingled with the alternative dances, descriptive titles and other jazz. While Bach's four works in the genre are the best known, his contemporary and friend Georg Philipp Telemann weighs in as champion with over 150 surviving ouvertures (and yes, it's OK to anglicize the term as "overture"). As resourceful as he was prolific, Telemann was especially clever in his depiction of natural phenomena, literary figures, human characteristics and just about everything else under the sun. An excellent example of Telemann's ouvertüren/overtures/orchestral suites turned up at about 10:00 Tuesday morning, but there are lots and lots more where it came from. Stay tuned.
Well, as with the toccatas we defined in an earlier blog, along with other vestiges of the baroque, the suite as defined above fell out of favor by the mid-eighteenth century. But this archaic sense of suite has been revived many times by later composers writing in a neo-baroque "all'antica " vein, such as Edvard Grieg in his "Holberg Suite" or Claude Debussy in his "Suite bergamasque." Heck, even Mozart wrote a neo-baroque dance suite for solo keyboard, though it's rarely performed. You woudn't mistake these works for Bach, Telemann or Couperin, but they breathe something of the same atmosphere.
"Wait a second," you might ask. "Where do works like Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite fit into this definition of suite?" Well...they don't, really. Rather, they come from the world of ballet, where sometime in the 19th century, the ever-versatile term "suite" came to be applied to concert potpourris arranged out of complete evening-length ballet scores — sort of the "greatest hits" albums of the day. A little morphing here, a little broadening there, and this use of "suite" soon extended to potpourris drawn from operas, incidental music (i.e., music to accompany stage plays), films, television — there's probably a YouTube or Netflix suite out there that I don't know about. This is how we got the Suite from Richard Strauss's Incidental Music for Molière's comedy Le bourgeiois gentilhomme , coming up to mark the composer's 149th anniversary at about 11:25 Tuesday morning.
A little more morphing, a little more broadening, and this last sense of "suite" extended even further, from a sequence of "hits" taken from theater works, to major sections cut out of the whole — what the Brits, with subtle understatement, call "bleeding chunks." That's where we get the two Suites from Ravel's ballet Daphnis et Chloé , which are nothing fancier than the first (Suite No. 1) and second (Suite No. 2) parts of the ballet played complete. And taking it even one step further, it's where we get the Suite from Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier , the composer's own continuous medley of the opera's big tunes. It comes up at about 3:25 on Tuesday afternoon, to put a sweet end to a day filled with suites.
There you have it. Four suites, as different as could be. But that's musical terminology for you. And now, back to radio, tout de suite...