January 2012

Menuet from French Suite No. 3 in B minor, BWV 814

by Johann Sebastian Bach

We've been talking about Bach since the very beginning - January 2009. Have you guessed who my favorite composer is yet?

Sometime between 1722 and 1725, Bach wrote a six keyboard suites that would later be referred to as "French Suites". They were called "French" suites to distinguish them from another set of suites referred to as the "English" suites. An earlier biographer of Bach's made the "French Suite" name popular, and explained that they were called "French Suites" because they were "written in the French style". This is funny to modern musicians, as both the English and French Suites were actually written in the Italian style.

A suite (pronounced SWEET) is a collection of shorter musical pieces. It's really not unlike the term "album" from the later 20th century. Often, in Bach's time, these would be a collection of short dance numbers. This was true for Bach's French Suites as well. Each suite had between five and eight different dances, and all of them would be in the same key. The French Suites were written for the clavichord and harpsichord.

A menuet, or "minuet", (pronounced MEN-yoo-EHT) is a French dance from the early 1600s. The name means slender or small, and could refer to the small steps involved with the dance. A menuet is played in 3/4 time (a 3-beat).

The third French Suite is in B minor. You may also see it written as the key of H. Yep, that wasn't a typo. In older German music (and some other central and northern European countries), the key of B actually meant "B-flat". If you wanted B-natural (or just "B"), you specified the key of H.

There are seven dances in the third French Suite:

  1. Allemande
  2. Courante
  3. Sarabande
  4. Anglaise
  5. Menuet
  6. Trio
  7. Gigue

A menuet is often followed by a trio. In fact, in this suite, the menuet is played, the trio follows, and then there's a recap of the menuet.

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

I first heard this piece played by my sister Barb on our piano. In discussing this with Barb, she most likely learned the piece as part of her piano lessons in High School. She took piano from Ruth Christiansen (wife of Watertown High School's choir director Don Christiansen). As Barb graduated High School in 1986, this means I most likely heard the piece first while we lived at our house on 4th Street in Watertown (1984-1986).

I remember liking the piece and practicing it myself. I was never particularly good at it, but I still enjoyed it.

A few years later, I would come across this piece again, as Nintendo would release the Gameboy, and with it, their version of Tetris. This game allowed the player to listen to one of three different themes while playing. One of these was a slightly modified rendition of the Menuet from French Suite No. 3 in B minor.


Here is the Menuet. This is short, and it's played on a piano in this recording. Enjoy!

Menuet from French Suite No. 3 in B minor, BWV 814 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1:25)

For those interested, this recording was performed by Edward Aldwell, as part of a complete collection of Bach's works.

Jon's Interpretation:

This is a very simple piece, but it's another example of Bach's ability to express emotion using a very mechanical rhythm and keeping a constant volume. After the first six notes, the off-beat (a repeated F-sharp) can sound like a sustained note, while the on-beat sounds like a separate voice carrying on its own melody. Bach does this a lot, and it's particularly impressive when he does it for solo instruments like the violin or flute.

I think the thing that shouldn't be underestimated with this piece is that you can easily find yourself humming it shortly after having heard it. It has a very simple, but very catchy melody. It actually takes a great deal of skill as a composer to come up with a repetitive melody that doesn't become annoying. Here, he does it.

Extra Credit:

Here is the sheet music for the Menuet. Look at the bottom of the first page.

Score for Menuet from French Suite No. 3 in B minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

For fun, I also have a recording of the Menuet performed on a clavichord. This is actually the Menuet, followed by the Trio, followed by the Menuet again. The Menuet is played on a clavichord. The Trio is played on a harpsichord.

Menuet and Trio from French Suite No. 3 in B minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (2:48)

And, thanks to YouTube, here's "Theme C" from Tetris on the Nintendo Gameboy, 1989. Enjoy!