French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816

  • Allemande
  • Courante
  • Sarabande
  • Gavotte
  • Bourrée
  • Loure
  • Gigue

by Johann Sebastian Bach


For me, Bach’s Fifth French Suite is like a drive down memory lane. Not only is it one of the first works I learned as a pianist, but the suite itself transports its listeners, myself included, into a state of child-like innocence. Its musical twists and turns are as wondrous today as they were to me over twenty years ago. Bach must have been similary charmed; his love for the music is apparent in every note, so much so that he intended these works more for the enjoyment of music connoisseurs than for the dance floor. Each dance is a carefully crafted and amaranthine musical jewel, reminders of the inordinate beauty in the world around us.

Throughout the suite, melody and counterpoint take center stage, from the embroidery of the Allemande to the simple infectiousness of the Gavotte. The Courante and Loure both employ imitative figures, while the Gigue takes the counterpoint one step further with a boisterous three-voiced fugue presented twice, once right-side up, once upside down. The strange and stately Loure, a dance in 6/4 time with strong dotted rhythms, appears in only one other piece by Bach: his 3rd violin partita. Another of Bach’s works is also called to mind: the heartbreaking Sarabande heard here shares a striking resemblance to the theme of the Goldberg Variations, also a sarabande in G major. In fact, the entire G major suite shares the same key as several other of Bach's most notable compositions, a key known to have inspired Bach to write music reflecting the radiance of the human spirit.

Incidentally, the "French" in the title is a bit of a misnomer—the six French Suites are more Italian in structure and tone—but since no surviving manuscript exists, history has categorized them according to the errors of early biographers.

Bach's quietly euphoric Fifth French Suite is the perfect foil to Rachmaninoff's First Piano Sonata, a work doused liberally in moral quandaries and complexity, pacts with the Devil, and the fires of Hell.

— Greg Anderson