The suite was a widely used genre in the Baroque era that grew out of Renaissance dance music. In the Renaissance and early Baroque, composers wrote collections of short dance pieces for actual dancing at court. But over time, the dances and their order became more standardized, and this became a handy framework for composers to create instrumental music for everything from solo instruments to full orchestra. Suites were especially favored by composers of keyboard music. By the late Baroque, the suite was used primarily as a concert piece and had little to do with the actual dances that it used as its organizing structure.

As you read this page, pay attention to the order of the pieces and the fact that each dance had its own tempo, meter, and character; however, you don’t have to memorize the specifics of each dance—in this class you won’t have to identify individual movements of a suite. As always, remember that while Baroque composers generally followed the pattern of dances listed here when they composed suites, they did not hesitate, especially by the late Baroque, to depart from the normal order or even insert movements that had nothing to do with dances. The movement from the Handel suite you’ll hear later is called “Alla Hornpipe” which essentially means “here come the horns!”

Dance Suite

A characteristic Baroque form was the dance suite. Some Dance suites by Bach are called partitas, although this term is also used for other collections of pieces. The dance suite often consists of the following movements:

  • Overture—The Baroque suite often began with a French overture (ouverture in French), which was followed by a succession of dances of different types, principally the following four.
  • Allemande—Often the first dance of an instrumental suite, the allemande was a very popular dance that had its origins in the German Renaissance era. The allemande was played at a moderate tempo and could start on any beat of the bar.
  • Courante—The second dance is the courante, a lively, French dance in triple meter. The Italian version is called the corrente.
  • Sarabande—The sarabande, a Spanish dance, is the third of the four basic dances, and is one of the slowest of the baroque dances. It is also in triple meter and can start on any beat of the bar, although there is an emphasis on the second beat, creating the characteristic halting, or iambic rhythm of the sarabande.
  • Gigue—The gigue is an upbeat and lively baroque dance in compound meter, typically the concluding movement of an instrumental suite, and the fourth of its basic dance types. The gigue can start on any beat of the bar and is easily recognized by its rhythmic feel. The gigue originated in the British Isles. Its counterpart in folk music is the jig.

These four dance types (allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue) make up the majority of seventeenth-century suites; later suites interpolate one or more additional dances between the sarabande and gigue:

  • Gavotte—The gavotte can be identified by a variety of features; it is in 4/4 time and always starts on the third beat of the bar, although this may sound like the first beat in some cases, as the first and third beats are the strong beats in quadruple time. The gavotte is played at a moderate tempo, although in some cases it may be played faster.
  • Bourrée—The bourrée is similar to the gavotte as it is in 2/2 time although it starts on the second half of the last beat of the bar, creating a different feel to the dance. The bourrée is commonly played at a moderate tempo, although for some composers, such as Handel, it can be taken at a much faster tempo.
  • Minuet—The minuet is perhaps the best-known of the baroque dances in triple meter. It can start on any beat of the bar. In some suites there may be a Minuet I and II, played in succession, with the Minuet I repeated.
  • Passepied—The passepied is a fast dance in binary form and triple meter that originated as a court dance in Brittany. Examples can be found in later suites such as those of Bach and Handel.
  • Rigaudon—The rigaudon is a lively French dance in duple meter, similar to the bourrée, but rhythmically simpler. It originated as a family of closely related southern-French folk dances, traditionally associated with the provinces of Vavarais, Languedoc, Dauphiné, and Provence.