- Prelude, from French Suite No. 4 BWV 815a
J.S. Bach’s French Suites (BWV 812-817) are a curious case. Their history, their compositional intent, even the specifics of their original musical content are surrounded by all kinds of uncertainty. We’re not even sure why or when they began to be referred to as “The French Suites”; there’s nothing particularly “French” about them. (Their constituent movements are pretty much all French dance forms, sure, but that’s also true of the earlier English Suites (BWV 806-811), which are frankly even less English than the French Suites are French.)
Anyway, I thought I knew the French Suites reasonably well until one morning a few months ago when I was walking with my dog along the river (whose resident blackbirds you’ll hear right off the top of this song), listening to Angela Hewitt’s beautiful recording. Her performance of Suite No. 4 in E-flat opens with a Prelude whose grandeur and drama had me feeling both elated and confused: “Aaagh this is the best! I can’t possibly have heard this before and just forgotten about it, right?? Why doesn’t everyone play this??”
Turns out Hewitt’s recording is of a rarely-performed “alternative” version of the suite (hence “BWV 815a”), which contains this prelude, along with an additional Gavotte and a Menuet. Some research revealed that these extra movements are very possibly not by Bach at all, which makes their inclusion in any performance kind of controversial in some circles. (Hewitt’s defense of the practice amounts to “I love them, so I play them”, which is good enough for me!)
Finally, another interesting thing about the Prelude is the notation of its first 18 bars, which are laid out as a series of “unmeasured” block chords, with no precise indication of melody or rhythm, giving it more in common with, say, a Jazz lead sheet (“Here are the chords, get through them however you want”) than with the rest of Bach’s surviving work (although there was plenty of improvisation in Baroque musical performance in general).
I must have been feeling… spicy… that day, because this felt like an invitation. Some piano, some Rhodes, some acoustic guitar, some electric guitar, lots of synthesizers and lots of bowed double bass later, I had this loose take on a loosely-expressed 18 bars of music from the early 18th century. I present it humbly, with endless love and reverence for Mr. Bach and/or whoever actually wrote it.