Bach Orchestral Suites for Piano Duet

Bach Orchestral Suites for piano duet

Discover J.S. Bach's Orchestral Suites in new arrangements for piano by Eleonor Bindman.

Eleonor Bindman’s new arrangements of Bach’s Orchestral Suites for piano duet reimagine Bach’s writing using the modern piano.

Bindman draws upon the suite’s dance movements to suggest how Bach might have distributed the material, ordering them for maximum contrast, and succeeding in conveying the music’s vitality and beauty in a new medium.

For many the music of J.S. Bach represents the final flowering of late Baroque style. His vast output of church music uses traditional contrapuntal writing with its horizontal construction featuring independent musical lines. However, his secular works do adopt more modern Italian-style characteristics with simple melody and accompaniment. Even here though there is still a strong contrapuntal flavour. 

Bach’s final 27 years were spent as Thomaskantor, directing the music for four Leipzig churches. However, immediately prior, from 1717 to 1723, his appointment as Kapellmeister for the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen saw him produce a significant output of secular keyboard and orchestral music. It is unsurprising therefore that later writers attributed Bach’s four Orchestral Suites to the Köthen period. However, more recent scholarship has pointed towards at least revision work and probably also composition itself involving the Orchestral Suites taking place during Bach’s Leipzig years. 

Bach’s music, traditional in its day was viewed as rather old fashioned after his death and it was not until the historical movement of the early 19th century led by composers such as Mendelssohn that Bach’s large choral masterpieces including the Mass in B minor and the St Matthew Passion became more generally known, appreciated and even revered. 

Many of Bach’s autograph manuscripts were lost after his death in 1750. Opinions differ on why only four Orchestral Suites survive, for the form was immensely popular during his lifetime and it is likely he wrote more.

It seems the four Suites attained their final form during Bach’s Leipzig years although earlier versions may have existed. For example, there is stylistic evidence to suggest Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major, BWV 1066 may have been the first composed of the four, at Köthen, although its surviving set of parts are in the hand of Bach’s main copyist Christian Gottlob Meissner and date from later, 1724–25, during Bach’s early Leipzig years.

Distinguished Bach scholar Christoph Wolff places Suite No. 1 in C major before 1725, Suite No. 4 in D major around 1725, with a later version 1729–41, Suite 3 in D major around 1731 and Suite 2 in B minor between 1738–39.

Significantly, Bach directed Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum for some years after 1729. This was a performance society with many student members which often met at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house for performances of secular works. It would have provided Bach with a welcome alternative to his church music duties.

For today’s listener it is intriguing to conjure a scenario where the composer of rather serious church music in Leipzig takes opportunities to perform lighter dance pieces with his Collegium ensemble, some drawn from his earlier years as a court composer and others perhaps written or revised for the occasion. 

All four Orchestral Suites are scored for strings, together with a variety of wind instruments about which there is some doubt concerning Bach’s original intentions. For example, cogent arguments exist against the traditional use of brass and timpani in Suites Nos. 3 and 4.

It is clear Bach worked hard to merge the French and Italian styles of his time. The Suites feature a potpourri of different dances – only Ouverture and Bourée movements appear in all four – and they feature a creative use of solo sections throughout. Bach predominately employs the two-part (binary) form of his day in the dance movements with characteristic dotted rhythms and fugal writing as established by Lully in the Ouverture movements.

Current historically informed performance practice is felt to better reflect the original Baroque playing manner than was routine in the 19th century. In this spirit Eleonor Bindman’s piano duet arrangements of the four Orchestral Suites allow for a clearer, more balanced tonal result than can be obtained from Max Reger’s piano duet version of 1907, hitherto the only well-known duet arrangement in print. In particular Reger attempts to include as many notes from Bach’s orchestral scores as possible, generally giving the primo duet part the lion’s share and leaving the secondo player only the remaining relatively simple bass lines, often doubled for added sonority.

Bindman redistributes Bach’s notes more evenly between both players, sometimes relocating important counterpoint to allow the secondo player to take these notes without colliding with the higher primo part. In turn, this balances the overall piano sonorities more evenly across its whole range. Furthermore, the piano writing becomes simpler to perform, allowing for more stylish and elegant outcomes.