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Suite (music)

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Suite (music)

A suite, in music, is an ordered set of instrumental or orchestral/concert band pieces. It originated in the late 14th century as a pairing of dance tunes and grew in scope to comprise up to five dances, sometimes with a prelude, by the early 1600s. The separate movements were often thematically and tonally linked.[1]

In the Baroque era the suite was an important musical form, also known as Suite de danses, Ordre (the term favored by François Couperin), Partita or Ouverture (after the theatrical "overture" which often included a series of dances) as with the orchestral suites of J.S. Bach.

During the 18th century the suite fell out of favour as a cyclical form, giving way to the symphony, sonata and concerto. It was revived in the later 19th century, but in a different form,[2] often presenting extracts from a ballet (Nutcracker Suite), the incidental music to a play (L'Arlésienne Suites), opera, film (Lieutenant Kije Suite) or video game (Motoaki Takenouchi's 1994 suite to the Shining series[3]), or entirely original movements (Holberg Suite, The Planets).


Estienne du Tertre published suyttes de bransles in 1557, giving the first general use of the term "suite" 'suyttes' in music, although the usual form of the time was as pairs of dances. The first recognizable suite is Peuerl's Newe Padouan, Intrada, Dantz, and Galliarda of 1611, in which the four dances of the title appear repeatedly in ten suites. The Banchetto musicale by Johann Schein (1617) contains 20 sequences of five different dances. The first four-movement suite credited to a named composer, Sandley's Suite, was published in 1663.[4][5]

The "classical" suite consisted of allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, in that order, and developed during the 17th century in France, the gigue appearing later than the others. Johann Jakob Froberger is usually credited with establishing the classical suite through his compositions in this form, which were widely published and copied, although this was largely due to his publishers standardizing the order; Froberger's original manuscripts have many different orderings of the movements, e.g. the gigue preceding the sarabande. The publisher's standardized order was, however, highly influential especially on the works of Bach.

Many later suites included other movements placed between sarabande and gigue. These optional movements were known as galanteries: common examples are the minuet, gavotte, passepied, and bourrée. Often there would be two contrasting galanteries with the same name, e.g. Minuet I and II, to be played alternativement, meaning that the first dance is played again after the second, thus I, II, I.

The later addition of an overture to make up an "overture-suite" was extremely popular with German composers; Handel put his Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks in this form.

Handel wrote 22 keyboard suites; Bach produced multiple suites for lute, cello, violin, flute, and other instruments, as well as English suites, French suites and Partitas for keyboard. For Bach especially, the suite form was a base on which to spin more elaborate sequences. François Couperin's later suites often dispensed entirely with the standard dances and consisted entirely of character pieces with fanciful names.

By the 1750s, the suite had come to be seen as old-fashioned, superseded by the symphony and concerto, and few composers were still writing suites during that time. But since the 19th century, composers have frequently arranged ballets, operas and other works into suites for concert performance. Arrangement into a suite can make the music more accessible and available to a wider audience, and has greatly helped popularize the music itself, such as in Tchaikovsky's suite from The Nutcracker, or Aaron Copland's suite from Appalachian Spring. Suites for orchestra or concert band usually consist of one or more movements. An example of this could be Grieg's Peer Gynt Orchestral Suites I and II, both consisting of four movements. Such suites may consist of

  • an instrumental selection from a larger work such as an opera, ballet, film score, or musical;
  • a sequence of smaller pieces tied together by a common theme, such as the nationalistically inflected suites of Grieg, Sibelius, or Tchaikovsky and The Planets by Holst;
  • a work deliberately referential of Baroque themes, as in the mischievous Suite for Piano by Schoenberg.

Brought on by Impressionism, the piano suite was reintroduced by early 20th-century French composers such as Ravel and Debussy. Debussy's Suite bergamasque is most likely one of the most famous suites, especially the third movement, Clair de Lune. Ravel is particularly well known for his Miroirs suite for piano and lesser known for Le tombeau de Couperin, both requiring tremendous skill and dexterity from the pianist.

Other famous examples of early 20th-century suites are The Planets by Gustav Holst, a 'Suite for Orchestra' in which each piece represents the astrological significance of one of the seven uninhabited planets then known, as well as his First Suite in E-flat and Second Suite in F for Military Band.

There are as well several examples of suites being used in the jazz genre. (Perhaps most notable, Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn, who produced many suites, amongst them: Black, Brown and Beige, Such Sweet Thunder, The Far East Suite, New Orleans Suite, Latin American Suite and many more. But is as well used in free jazz (Max Roach: Freedom Now Suite, Don Cherry, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, etc.))

Suite de danses

The term suite de danses was the early 17th-century name given to a set of dances that became popular during the Baroque era.


A suite de danses would contain the following sections:

  • Prelude
  • Allemande – Literally translates from French as the word 'German'. It is a stately German dance with a meter of 4/4.
  • Courante or Corrente – A Courante is a slow French dance in 3/2 time, while the Corrente is an Italian dance in quick 3/4.
  • Sarabande – A slow, stately Spanish dance in 3/4 time.
  • Intermezzi – This section consists of two to four dances at the discretion of the composer that may include a Minuet, Bourrée, Polonaise, and/or a Gavotte.
  • Gigue (Giga) – The Gigue or 'Jig' originates in the United Kingdom, and is a fast dance, normally with a meter of 6/8. The Italian giga is rarer than the gigue, and is faster with running passages over a harmonic basis.
  • Minuet (Menuetto) – A 3/4 dance in a stately manner. It is often short and simple often with only clear theme and little variation. In many suites there are two Minuets, in such cases the First Minuet is played with repeats, then follows the second Minuet with repeats, then the First Minuet is repeated (da capo) usually without repeats. There may also be a third minuet, in which case it is played with repeats after the first da capo, afterwards the first minuet is played again (usually without repeats) as a second da capo.
  • Polonaise – A dance in 3/4 which comes in cycles of two bars. A heavy stress is placed on the first beat of the first bar and a lighter stress is placed on the second beat of the second bar giving a slight feeling of disorientation.
  • Siciliana (Sicilienne) – A dance in 6/8 or 12/8 in which most of the dance is fixed to one of three typical rhythms involving syncopation and inversion of the rhythm structure. It is often in a minor key and somewhat sombre.
  • Bourrée – A light dance in 4/4 time. A bourée begins with the last beat of a bar and continues with two or three bars until the 4th beat of one bar takes a light stress giving a sense of return to the beginning of the rhythm structure.
  • Gavotte – The gavotte is a dance in 4/4 or related time signature. It begins on the third beat of an incomplete bar. It continues for a few bars where the third beat takes a light stress giving a sense of returning to the beginning of the rhythm structure.
  • Passepied – A French dance movement in 3/8 or 9/8. The rhythm is almost always in quaver form. It begins on the last beat of an incomplete bar though the upbeat does not resolve until the end of each section (unlike the Bourée or Gavotte where there can be a resolution of the upbeat(s) every three or four bars. It is a light dance with a strong feeling of movement.


  1. ^ Alison Latham (ed.) The Oxford Dictionary of Music (2002 edition), article; "Suite"
  2. ^ Alison Latham (ed.) The Oxford Dictionary of Music (2002 edition), article; "Suite"
  3. ^ Symphonic Suite the Another Story of Shining Force
  4. ^ Caldwell, John (1 April 1985). English Keyboard Music Before the Nineteenth Century. Courier Dover Publications. p. 155.  
  5. ^ Cooper, Barry A. R. (1989). English Solo Keyboard Music of the Middle and Late Baroque. Garland. p. 40.  
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