Johann Sebastian Bach composed at least four Suites for Orchestra. The term suite should be familiar to today’s concertgoers of symphony orchestras. It frequently appears in programs of such musical establishments and usually indicates those orchestral compositions that have a number of loosely connected movements. Perhaps one of the best known such pieces is The Planets composed by Gustav Holst.
The baroque suite, however, is quite different from its modern counterpart. Suite in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries meant a type of composition consisting mostly of dance movements, all written in the same key. It was developed first in France during the reign of Louis XIV, who loved ballet.
In the first half of the eighteenth century in Germany, suites for orchestra became extremely popular. German composers placed emphasis on the opening movement of such compositions. They always began the piece with a French overture, which comprises a majestic introduction with sharp rhythms followed by a fugal section. As a result, orchestral suites were not usually called “suites” but “overtures.” Bach’s orchestral suites are no exception. Nearly all of the eighteenth-century sources for them indeed show “overture” as their title.
Not just making the opening movement substantially large, Bach also incorporated into his overtures Italian elements of solo concertos and concerto grossos by writing many solo passages for numerous combinations of instruments. In the case of Suite No. 4, a group of wind instruments ― three oboes and a bassoon ― and strings play a concertino role. Incidentally, solo voices were added to the concerto-like parts of the overture when Bach adopted the movement to compose Cantata Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, BWV 110.