J.S. Bach was a composer who wrote for the occasion more than for posterity. Often, this entailed an organ fugue or choral cantata for Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, where Bach was music director from 1723 until his death in 1750. Less often, Bach was called upon to produce festive, celebratory orchestral music. The four Orchestral Suites fall into this category.
The Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 was probably composed around 1730 and performed at Café Zimmermann, a coffee house near Leipzig’s central marketplace. (This was the same establishment that inspired Bach’s comic and satirical “Coffee Cantata”). The ensemble was Collegium Musicum, a group made up of university students and professionals established by Georg Philipp Telemann.
Composing for the occasion made adaptability essential. A single piece of music could evolve, depending on the instrumental forces available and the venue. The conductor and harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen believes that Orchestral Suite No. 3 was originally written only for strings. In 2017, Mortensen performed the music this way with the Netherlands Bach Society. The result (featured below) gives us a much different experience from the boisterous version we usually hear, which includes oboes, trumpets, and timpani.
Regardless, this utilitarian music built on what was at the time a popular and common model—a “French Overture” followed by a series of fun dance movements in contrasting tempos—has endured and come down to us through posterity. Written for an “occasion,” it is such mind-blowing music that it has become part of our musical “canon.” Listen to the way the opening bars, rising above a commanding pedal tone, demand our attention as the voices spring to life. Notice the way the fast section of the Overture begins suddenly with no warning, as if the music just turned a corner.
Orchestral Suite No. 3 contains one of Bach’s most famous and sublime pieces—the Air, with its walking bass line, long, lamenting melody, and haunting inner voice dissonances. As you listen to this movement, as well as the two Gavottes which follow, notice the sheer number of voices swirling around in this spirited counterpoint.
Here is Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s performance with the Netherlands Bach Society, featuring only strings:
Here is the later version which includes winds and timpani, performed by Ton Koopman and Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra: