The Suite – a handy musical hold-all that can accommodate almost anything you choose put in it – is a form which appears in all styles of piano music, from Baroque to present day


Suite is a French word – the Grove Dictionary notes that it means ‘those that follow’ or ‘succession’ – and if it makes you think of an en-suite bathroom, that’s not an entirely far-flung association. Like the seamless flow from bedroom to bathroom in the estate agent’s fantasy world, in a musical suite, one thing really does follow another.


In its earliest incarnation, the suite was a term for a collection of dances or small pieces that all bore some relationship to a single key (pieces could be in related or contrasting keys). There were other terms for such collections of small works: partita, ordre and sonata (as in sonata da camera). 


Over time, as the suite evolved, it came to mean a collection of smaller pieces that was to be played as an entire unit, and in the sequence indicated by the composer. There was no dipping in and out of a suite or adding of a piece from another work, lest the overarching musical logic be destroyed. A suite would only make sense if performed as a single continuous work. A suite was, and to some extent remains, a package deal.


Händel Keyboard Suite HWV 427 - Daria van den Bercken


In the early Baroque era, the form began to solidify around a core sequence of four dances: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. Composers interspersed other dances within this sequence – a gavotte or a bourrée, say, might be a bracing addition –but the expectation developed that a suite would contain at least the first three of the four requisite dances. Performers understood the character of each dance, knew where the beat needed to be stressed, and their knowledge came because they themselves had danced these dances or at least seen them danced (knowledge that most modern musicians lack).


We arrive at last at the high Baroque, when the suite reached its first zenith in the music of J S Bach and his contemporaries such as Couperin, Handel and Telemann. Bach deployed the suite in landmark works for the solo instrument, works that highlighted not only the performer’s technical mastery but also the composer’s mastery of a unified form. And if there’s anything the genius who came up with the 48-part Well-Tempered Clavier could do spectacularly, it was create a unified form.


Bach English Suites - Sir András Schiff


Bach wrote six suites for the cello, a set of sonatas and partitas for the violin, and for the keyboard, six harpsichord partitas or suites along with the English and French suites (why they have these particular nationalities is a mystery; it apparently wasn’t Bach’s idea). He also wrote four suites for orchestra. In all these instances, what is so remarkable is the unity of the suite despite its many small components. Particularly in the string works, the exploration of key is paramount (the D minor Chaconne of the Second Violin Partita, which has also been arranged for keyboard, being just one example).


Bach arr. Busoni Chaconne - Marc-André Hamelin


Handel also knew his way around a suite, writing 22 suites for solo keyboard as well as the Water Music Suite and the Music for the Royal Fireworks, orchestral works made up of smaller pieces that were designed to be performed on a single occasion. Yet despite the glorious heights that the suite reached in Bach and Handel’s music, by the middle of the 18th century, it was seriously out of fashion and composers began to shun the form.


So why did the suite reach its sell-by date? It seems likely that more elaborate forms such as the sonata, concerto and symphony were piquing composers’ interest and providing them with challenges that the suite could not offer. The clock stopped on the suite in the middle of the high Baroque, so that when it came time for its revival by a later generation of composers, centuries later, the filigree style of the 18th century were part and parcel of its appeal.


Vital extracts

The suite began to re-emerge as a significant compositional form in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though it was not simply a matter of applying the older form to a modern era. The first notable change was the development of a new kind of suite: the ‘extract suite’. This suite was a sequence of selections from a larger work and was often arranged by the original composer to be played by an orchestra in a concert. Think of Tchaikovsky with his Nutcracker Suite, extracted from the larger ballet, or Leonard Bernstein with his West Side Story Suite, taken from his popular musical. Sure, the extract suite was (and remains) something of an exercise in bringing the greatest hits of one genre into another, but when it was done well (usually by the original composer), it can be highly effective.  


Tchaikovsky Nutcracker' Suite - Rotterdam Philharmonic


In the instrumental genre, modern composers held to the Baroque idea of suite as a unified collection of smaller pieces. Debussy certainly had an overarching idea in the four pieces of his Suite bergamasque – each piece is based on a poem by Paul Verlaine. Debussy found the suite meshed well with his interest in the dance and in past forms and styles, and he turned to the suite several times, including his Petite Suite for piano four hands.


Debussy Claire de Lune - Khatia Buniatishvili


Like Debussy with Verlaine in the Suite bergamasque, Grieg was honouring a writer, in his case the 18th-century Norwegian writer Ludvig Holberg, when wrote his five-movement Holberg Suite. Unlike Debussy, he was not inspired by a particular work, however. Instead, he drew upon the musical conventions of Holberg’s era, beginning with a Prelude, then continuing through Baroque dances:  Gavotte, Sarabande, Air and Rigaudon.


A latter generation of composers explicitly harkened back to the earlier dance styles, such as Stravinsky in the suite from his ballet Pulcinella. He was not alone, with Hindemith, Richard Strauss, Respighi and even Schoenberg looking back to Baroque masters in their suites. But the suite has also retained its function as a collection of related works that are to be performed in a single sitting. In this sense the suite more like a song cycle than anything else. The form has also been seized upon by jazz composers as a way of collecting shorter works with a common theme. The pioneer in this was Duke Ellington, with his New Orleans Suite, Latin American Suite, Deep South Suite and The Queen’s Suite, among several others.


It seems unlikely that the suite, one of the most obvious but perhaps also one of the most useful forms in the composer’s toolkit, will ever go completely out of fashion again.



Piano suites to explore


Bach: English Suites BWV 806–11; French Suites BWV 812–17; Partitas BWV 825–830

Bartók: Out of Doors Suite

Debussy: Suite bergamasque; Children’s Corner Suite; Petite Suite for piano four hands

Handel: Keyboard Suites

Rachmaninov: Fantaisie-tableaux (Suite No 1) for two pianos

Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin