What Is the Baroque Suite?

Liz Thomas

The Baroque suite refers to a set of musical dances combined together in a group during the Baroque period, between approximately 1600 and 1750 in Europe. Typically, four pieces were combined to create the suite, though any number of dances could be used. All pieces included were meant to be played in the same key. Collectively, the suites focused on creating instrumental music that was purely for listening entertainment and not dancing, and had a significant folk element.

Organs or other chordal instruments are often used in Baroque music for harmonies and solos.
Organs or other chordal instruments are often used in Baroque music for harmonies and solos.

The majority of Baroque suite music used four different dance pieces. The classical form originated in France and incorporated the allemande, the courante, the sarabande, and the gigue. Optional dances that could be used in the Baroque suite include the gavotte, the minuet and the passepied. Less frequently, the chaconne, the passacaglia and the bourree dances could also be used.

Handel's Water Music Suites are perhaps some of the most well known Baroque suites.
Handel's Water Music Suites are perhaps some of the most well known Baroque suites.

The dances often had an upbeat tempo, something well illustrated by their names. The translation of the courante dance, for example, literally means "running". The Baroque suite was purely instrumental music played by chamber groups. Many of the suites were written for the piano and other keyboard instruments, as the harpsichord became widely available during the Baroque period. The music was meant to be played with or without soloists.

Within the suite, the main unifying element was that all the music was written in the same key. The tempo, meter, and the type of dance could all be vary, as long as this rule was observed. The dances were usually composed in binary form. While the key signatures might change within the pieces, they all began and ended with the same key.

One significant feature of this type of suite was a focus away from creating and playing music for dancing. The dance music played in the suite was instead intended to be for listeners. Due to this shift in focus, the new dance music did retain the character of the original dances but composers considered the pieces to be more sophisticated and refined than earlier works.

One of the unique features of Baroque period music was the incorporation of folk or common elements into art and music. In this instance the Baroque suite is an excellent example. The music has roots in folk or dance music, though the suite style is more organized.

Some of the most well known Baroque suites include the Water Music Suites composed by George Frideric Handel, which are still played by modern musicians today. The suites he created had a variety of dances within them. Handel is said to have written the suites so that the dances could be played in any order.

Many baroque suites were written for the piano.
Many baroque suites were written for the piano.

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