I have dreamed about The French Suite Kit ever since I first heard Glenn Gould talk about the possibility of a “New Listener” who would take some measure of control over their participation in the listening process. As Geoffrey Payzant in his book, Glenn Gould: Music and Mind, stated 40 years ago (1978):
The technological developments predicted by Gould in the mid-1960s have for the most part materialized as he said they would, but the advertisements in the audio press do not suggest that there is a consumer market for them. Nobody is advertising “kits.”
No, nobody was. But my immediate thought was: why not?
Gould’s dissatisfaction sprung, in part, from the siloing of music post-Renaissance into zealously defined roles: composer, performer, listener. The model evolved from an activity available to the laity, to one of strict production and consumption, with the latter function elevating the former into innumerable heroic poses. Thus sprouted the performing-soloists who “conquered” and “triumphed” and were “a phenomenon without equal” etc etc; all of which fit into Gould’s essential distaste for the competitive bellicose spirit of mankind in general, and its misplacement in music specifically.
Fairly heady stuff for the simpatico teenage me. And it connected on a more fundamental level with a battle I fought during those student years that I couldn’t get shed of: the idea of an authoritative performance. That is, the ideal of a composer’s so-called “intentions” regarding a particular work. Example: Chopin marks his Nocturne at bar 24 forte so by golly there is not merely an ideal forte for that Nocturne to be hammered down, aspired to, prayed for, practiced endlessly, but this bar, this note, stands in relation to the other notes, bars, crescendi, accelerandi, ritardandi, and so forth just as Chopin heard them in his mind’s ear and wished them in this Nocturne to be played for all time. And it was our duty as performers to seek this ideal as the Crusaders sought the Holy Grail. Well, this struck me, even the teenage me, as utter nonsense. The notion that even composers themselves would want their music ambered and petrified in some kind of perpetual “perfection” seemed against the spirit and principle of a living, breathing art, an evanescent aural form that is, even in its most rehearsed embodiment, improvisatory.
Back then, in the 1960s and 70s when Gould made his comments, he was referring to the primitive ability of a listener to adjust basic EQ controls: boost the treble, pot up the bass a decibel or two. From the perspective of a concert-goer, this promoted his case for the superiority of listening in your living room over going into a concert hall. Though fascinating, this didn’t interest me so much. Instead, I thought immediately of the issues most recordings presented to my ear, at least recordings of so-called classical music: they were all the same. Not literally, of course, no. But a limited, stiff approach when taken en masse. One idea, set down in wax. In Gould’s case, as well as artists in other musical genres, there was the occasional practice of trying out different versions of a work or movement, and I couldn’t quite understand why classical players didn’t broadly follow suit. Or perhaps they did, but the exigencies of the music business being what they are, you pick your take, check it off the reference sheet, onto the master it goes. Fifty years later, sure, if the recording is a classic (Gould’s Goldberg Variations, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, The Beatles’s White Album), it gets the full session treatment, but who has time to wait? And why wait anyway? Why not make it a part of the process from the start?
Gould’s argument goes much further, much wider, but this is enough background to get to the point.
Mainstream classical musicians don’t see the situation this way, as best I can tell. They want their definitive take on a work: utterly at odds with the concept of multiple versions. There are myriad cases, of course, where a player re-records an entire piece ostensibly because they have something new to say about it (how many Brendel Beethoven sets are there?), but novelty is rare. Meanwhile, here’s what I was looking for: a “Pathetique” or a Chopin op. 10 or a Scarlatti set where I could pick and choose from two or three alternates of a work and mash them together into a preferred (novel, temporary) version of my own. Well, not “my own” exactly, but a variety of flavors from the player’s mind, rather than a single shot at some platonic target.
In today’s world, of course, “playlists” make it trivially simple to craft a Waldstein with a first movement from Schnabel, a 2nd movement from Gulda, and a 3rd from Pletnev, but that’s a Frankenstein of a different order. No, what I sought was the integrity of a single player’s vision, but broken into the kind of pieces where I could re-arrange them to realize different completions. A kit I could compile and re-compile based on my preference of the moment
The French Suite Kit
So there’s my motive and here’s my case: since no one else would do it, I’ve done it myself with this first volume of The French Suite Kit. (Um, 4th volume, actually. See more below.)
All movements of the Suite are offered in multiple versions for mixing and matching toward the ideal of the moment. These alternate versions are not intended to cover any particular gamut, neither a pastiche of styles nor a simulacrum of other piano players, dead or alive (exceptions are noted below), nor an exhaustive exploration of tempi or other musical parameters. These are rather, to one degree or another, versions that I believe in and am proud to play, that evince my own thoughts about the music. Obviously there are influences aplenty, but as authors love to write in their forwards: all remaining errors are mine alone.
Wait: it’s the first volume but it’s French Suite number four? Well, in fact it’s the fourth volume but the first to be released. The reasons are sentimental and practical. Sentimental because this is the first work of Bach’s I ever played (before Inventions or Notebooks or anything else). Practical because, of all the French Suites, this one has the most alternative textual material to draw from, so it makes the best case for a full length album. If George Lucas can do it, so can I.
What is a French Suite Anyway?
A French Suite, so called, is a baroque suite. Meaning an instrumental play composed during the Baroque period (17th to mid-18th centuries) with a consistent cast of characters (the individual movement forms) who introduce an additional few players on occasion to round out the story. As to the “French” part… well, it doesn’t mean much of anything, it turns out, at least in its impressions of nationalistic exclusivity. And it meant nothing whatsoever to Bach himself, who didn’t apply this name to his work. Though relevant variously in stylistic terms, the “French” part of the equation was a popular moniker inappropriately attached to what is, in fact, a hodgepodge of musical manners. (The same irrelevance and inauthenticity applies to the term “English” in Bach’s English Suites.) How this happened and why is of slim relevance here, if any, so for now let’s just describe the dramatis personae, or basic forms, alluded to above.
An Allemande, a stately processional already more than a hundred years old by Bach’s time, and bearing a Germanic heritage;
a Courante, a lively “jumping” piece that characteristically essays an up and down or “running” figure, and is broadly of Italian origin;
a Sarabande, a slower, pensive, triple meter, whose birthright is from Spain and, originally, Mexico;
and a Gigue, a fast, energetic closer notable for its daring leaps and dotted-rhythm ditties, with fugal themes and polyphonic development; its shrouded beginnings may lie in Germany.
Those are the common characters, the sine qua nons. Each individual suite fills in with optional movements of various types. In the case of our 4th suite, there is also:
a Minuet, a French court dance in three-time;
a Gavotte, a French dance in 4/4 popularized, as with the Minuet, by Lully;
and an Air, melodic and free-flowing accompaniment that is not particularly dance-like.
Yes, this is dance music! You’re supposed to groove to it.
However, this historical fact, as all historical facts in music, is not to be adhered to slavishly unless you’re exhibiting in a museum. Even in Bach’s time, these older forms had moved from their literal utility as dances into more idealized types: elaborations and extensions from their original inspirations. It’s worth knowing and heeding if it serves your musical purpose, but it’s not the only possible musical or artistic purpose.
I learned the fourth French Suite originally from the venerable Henle edition edited by Rudolf Steglich in 1972. It was some years later, I don’t recall exactly when, that I heard someone playing the Allemande and my ear did a double take: they just played…what? Whatever it was, it was very much like the Allemande I knew, but also different. I filed it away to investigate in future but didn’t think much about it until I discovered that, of all the French Suites, the fourth has more textual variation and additional material than any other. And I came to find that not only are there “earlier” and “later” versions of the fourth suite, but a Prelude, a second Gavotte, and even a non-Bach-authored Menuet by one G.H. Stölzel. (This latter piece is not intended as an authorized element of the suite. Judith Schneider — q.v. her comprehensive editorial edition referenced below — includes it “merely in order to provide the performer with all information of value or interest concerning the pieces.” Perfect for inclusion in a kit!)
So in the list that follows, unless otherwise noted, Henle’s text seems to follow primarily a manuscript coded as P418, once thought to be a second autograph but in fact the copy of an organ student of Bach’s named Johann Schneider (presumably no relation to our already-named editor), and accepted as a “later” version of the suite. The alternate text, what I’d call the non-canonical text, is coded as manuscript P289, written by C.P.E. Bach’s copyist, Michel. This is the source for the Praeludium and the 2nd Gavotte.
My source for these details of authorship is Judith Schneider in her edition of the French Suites, published by Alfred Music, 1994.
First of all, a reminder of the ordering of the basic suite:
In terms of the supplemental pieces, a Prelude comes first, so I’ve programmed it at the beginning. Richter puts it there, the only player I’ve heard (out of many dozens) perform it. The 2nd Gavotte I comment on below. And the Stölzel menuet is grouped with the menuets, obviously enough, though as mentioned it’s an outlier I’ve included as a lark for purposes of completion (and, if not obvious, because I think it’s beautiful). So you should be able to put it wherever you like when building your own kit.
About those Repeats…
A quick word about repeats:
The listener will immediately discover a great inconsistency around repeats in my performances. This inconsistency is purposeful. As in most baroque music, as well as classical, standard forms included repeats for nearly every segment of a work: in this case, the development to the dominant key in the first “half”, then dominant back to tonic by the end of the second half. Composers always (I say always, I don’t know of an exception off the top of my head but surely there are a few) included repeats in both parts. I always perform the first repeat, but not always the second. Why?
I do not have an answer that will satisfy the purist. My earliest instinct, even as a kid, in playing all works of the period was to not perform the repeat in the 2nd half. It simply didn’t make sense to my ear to go from the dominant to the tonic and then suddenly, BANG, you’re back in the dominant again. I have since learned, through repetition and understanding, to appreciate the strangeness of the alchemy at the end of the 2nd repeat, not always with love and full commitment, but with acceptance and, of course, appreciating the opportunity for ornamentation and improvisation. However, this is not the primary reason I sometimes do not perform repeats.
The primary reason is because I think their function is entirely different in the modern world versus their original purpose. And by “modern” world, I mean mostly the world of the mass market record player: so everything from the early-mid 20th century to now. It simply isn’t necessary, as it was two or three hundred years ago, to hear a theme multiple times. The earworm constituted by a great work is already over-exposed as it is, to put it mildly, and if there’s one thing that’s easy to do with a work that’s loved, it’s to play the track as many times as you like. And if you don’t love it so much, one time through the measures is plenty. So unless there is a compelling ornamental or improvisatory addition to justify the repeat, I have left it out. And happily.
Ideally, in the nature of a true kit, you’d be able to program when and if you want repeats, but that’s beyond the scope of the raw data provided here.