Bach wrote six French Suites between the years 1722 and 1725. This suite, no.4 BWV 815 in E flat major contains 6 movements: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte, Air, Menuet, Gigue.
Allemande – This is a baroque dance form, also dating back to the renaissance, and usually danced by a couple. In its original form, it was usually in duple or quadruple time (in two or four)and a moderate tempo.
Courante – The word ‘courante’ is derived from the French word for running, though the dance itself originated in Italy. As the title suggests, this dance form has more movement in its style. It is performed with small quick steps and more stately glides. In its musical form, it is often in triple time with a quick upbeat, more dotted rhythms (tum-ti) and a staccato(detached) style of playing.
Sarabande – In 17th Century French courts this was a slow, serious piece dance triple time. Its roots are somewhat different, though! It’s thought to have Mexican or Spanish origins with Arab influences – it was a lively dance, danced by a double line of couples each with castanets. Spanish Jesuit Priest Juan de Mariana(1536-1624) described it in those days as “a dance and song so loose in its words and so ugly in its motions that it is enough to excite bad emotions in even very decent people”. It ended up being banned there before eventually spreading to Italy and then France, where it became what it is here.
Gavotte – A gavotte is in quadruple time with a half-bar upbeat. In its dance form, people would dance in lines or circles and move in skipping steps alternately to the left or right.
Air – An ‘Air’ in Baroque music was often a more song-like movement of a suite that isn’t clearly based off any particular dance form.
Menuet – This was a French social dance for two people. It used small steps and over time became slower and more formal. Musically, it became a popular form of composition. This was usually a moderately fast movement of a larger work composed in triple time and paired with a trio with the overall performance being minuet-trio-minuet. This particular minuet is not paired with a trio but it is in a moderate tempo, and you can hear some imitation between the parts.
Gigue – This dance form is from Scotland and Ireland (no surprise!). It often appears at the end of Baroque suites. In its musical form, it is contrapuntal in texture and often in 6/8 time or similar (6/8 time can be counted either in two dotted crotchet beats – 1..2../1..2.. or in two groups of three quavers – 123123/123123).