Third Orchestral Suite

By Johann Sebastian Bach

This is one of Bach’s best-known works for large orchestral ensemble. It was probably composed in the 1720s originally as a suite for strings and oboes, to which trumpets and timpani were later added.

It is a work in 5 movements, made up of an Overture (prelude), Air, and three dance movements (Gavottes I & II, Bourée and Gigue). The opening movement is a “slow-fast-slow” Overture in highly formalized French baroque style, made more brilliant by the use of trumpets and timpani. This is followed by a sprightly section in fugal style, which includes chamber-music like interludes featuring single strings and winds, after which the movement reverts back to the slow opening style.

The heart of this suite is the second movement Air (popularly known as the “Air on the G string,” even though it is certainly not played all on that string!). The Air is both tender and atmospheric. It is grounded on a “walking” ‘cello-bass line, and features an interplay among the first violin melody line and motifs brought out by the second violins and violas.

While the dance movements which follow the Air are more typical of the traditional suite style, Bach uses trumpets and timpani for additional instrumental color and highlights. The two Gavottes are paired 4/4 dance movements, with Gavotte II featuring contrasting loud and soft sections. They are followed by a fast Bourée. The suite ends with the closing Gigue, with trumpet and string passages evoking hunting calls.