Instrumental Suite

An ordered set of instrumental pieces meant to be performed at a single sitting; in the Baroque period, an instrumental genre consisting of several movements in the same key, some or all of them based on the forms and styles of dance music (other terms for the Baroque groups of dances include Partita, Overture, Ordre and Sonata da camera).

Early Forms

The practice of pairing dances goes back at least to the 14th century, but the earliest known groups called 'suite' are "suyttes de bransles" by Estienne du Tertre (1557). These, however, constitute the raw material for a dance sequence rather than a sequence that would actually be played. Most dance groups from the 1540s to the end of the century are pairs, a pavan or passamezzo with a galliard or saltarello.

17th Century

The impulse towards suite-like groupings seems to have emanated from England at the turn of the century, with William Brade and Giovanni Coprario, but the first publication of suite-like groupings as uniformly constituted composite works was Peuerl's "Newe Padouan, Intrada, Däntz und Galliarda" (1611), where the title's four dances recur in ten 'suites' united by key and thematic material. Schein's "Banchetto musicale" (1617) contains 20 sequences of "paduana," "gagliarda,"  "courente," "allemande" and "tripla," similarly unified.

The development of the 'classical' suite, consisting of allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue in that order (A-C-S-G), took place in two stages. The initiative for the A-C-S group probably lay with the Parisian lutenists or the dancing-masters of the French court; the first such groups that can be firmly dated occur in the "Tablature de mandore de la composition du Sieur Chancy" (1629). The gigue enjoyed only scattered acceptance when it began to appear in suite formations after 1650, and at first it rarely assumed its classical position at the end. Froberger (generally credited with the creation of the "classical" suite) left only one authentic A-C-S-G suite; his usual structure of A-G-C-S was altered by his first publishers in 1697-8, by which time the norm had been set for German composers by Buxtehude, Böhm and Kuhnau.

In England the suite with gigue was exceptional (the gigue does not appear in Purcell's suites, for example), and in France during Louis XIV's reign it was common in viol and harpsichord suites to follow the A-C-S-G group with other dances. Features of the French harpsichord suite of L. Couperin, D'Angelbert and others include the "Prélude non mesurée" and the tendency to bring together existing pieces (sometimes by a different composer). There are only five more or less classical suites among François Couperin's 27 "ordres" - in nos.1, 2, 3, 5 and 8, each consisting of five to ten pieces. The others include programmatically linked groups and miscellanies.

The French also used the ensemble and orchestral suite, the latter often composed of pieces from diverse sources (especially Lully's operas and ballets). Many began with an overture, and the 'overture-suite' was enthusiastically taken up by Germans, including J.S. Kusser, J.C.F. Fischer and Georg Muffat. Telemann claimed to have composed no fewer than 200, but Bach's four Orchestral Suites and Handel's "Water Music" and "Music for the Royal Fireworks" show the genre at its best.

In their other suites both Bach and Handel usually followed the pattern Prelude-A-C-S-X-G (where X is one or more extra dances or dance pairs). Handel's keyboard suites, numbering about 22, are mostly compiled from pieces which already existed. Bach showed more interest in the genre, with six Cello Suites, three Partitas for Solo Violin and sets of six English Suites, French Suites and Partitas for harpsichord. Bach uses the suite as a building block in a larger whole, arranging each one to do something different - or the same thing in a different way - so that the set is a kind of thesaurus of the suite for that particular medium.

(See also The Instrumental Suites of J. S. Bach and Handel's Water Music)

After 1750

After 1750 the sonata, symphony and concerto began to fill the suite's functions. To write a suite became an archaic exercise, as with Mozart's K399/385i and the much later suites "à l'antique" of Ravel, Debussy, Strauss, Hindemith and Schönberg. In the 19th century the title 'suite' was increasingly used either for an orchestral selection from a larger work (especially a ballet or opera) or for a sequence of pieces loosely connected by a descriptive programme (e.g. Holst's "The Planets") or by an exotic or nationalistic one (as in some of the suites of Grieg, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov). Independence from dance forms means that the genre can be said to encompass works to which the title 'suite' was not given, including Schumann's piano cycles, Schönberg's Five Orchestral Pieces and Stockhausen's "Momente."

The 20th-century suite was usually a selection of scenes or sections from a larger work, such as a ballet, incidental music to a drama or motion picture, or a series of pieces connected rather loosely by thematic relationship, mood, or extramusical idea.  Only in a few instances was the suite based on the tradition of the dance suite.  As a consequence, it was often the product of the more romantically inclined composers because of its connection with extramusical purpose.  The title "suite" was used for compositions of this character for various solo instruments and ensembles.