Set of instrumental dances or dancelike movements. The suite originated in the paired dances of the 14th–16th centuries (pavane-galliard, basse danse-saltarello, etc.). In the 16th–17th centuries German composers began to write sets of three or four dances, as in Johann Hermann Schein's Banchetto musicale (1617). In the late 17th century a basic ordering of four dances—allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue—became established as standard; other dances came to be interpolated between the sarabande and gigue. In the 19th century suite came to refer to sets of instrumental excerpts from operas and ballets.
Learn more about suite with a free trial on Britannica.com.
In music, a suite is an ordered set of instrumental or orchestral pieces normally performed in a concert setting rather than as accompaniment; they may be extracts from an opera, ballet, (Nutcracker Suite) or incidental music to a play (L'Arlésienne Suites) or film (Lieutenant Kije Suite), or they may be entirely original movements (Holberg Suite, The Planets).
In the Baroque era the suite was more precisely defined, with the pieces unified by key, and consisting of dances usually preceded by a prelude or overture. The suite was also known as Suite de danses, Ordre (the term favored by François Couperin) or Partita. In the eighteenth century, the term ouverture or overture may refer to the entire suite, as it does with the orchestral suites of Bach.
The "classical" suite consisted of allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, in that order, and developed during the 17th century in France, the gigue appearing later than the others. Johann Jakob Froberger is usually credited with establishing the classical suite through his compositions in this form, which were widely published and copied.
Many later suites included other movements placed between sarabande and gigue. These optional movements were known as galanteries: common examples are the minuet, gavotte, passepied, and bourree. Often there would be two contrasting galanteries with the same name, e.g. Minuet I and II, to be played alternativement, meaning that the first dance is played again after the second, thus I, II, I.
The later addition of an overture to make up an "overture-suite" was extremely popular with German composers; Telemann claimed to have written over 200 overture-suites, J.S. Bach had his four orchestral suites along with other suites, and George Frideric Handel put his Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks in this form.
Handel wrote 22 keyboard suites; Bach produced multiple suites for cello, violin, flute, and other instruments, as well as English suites, French suites and Partitas for keyboard. For Bach especially, the suite form was a base on which to spin more elaborate sequences. François Couperin's later suites often dispensed entirely with the standard dances and consisted entirely of character pieces with fanciful names.
In the 19th century, the term "suite" made a comeback, but now meaning either:
Brought on by Impressionism, the piano suite was reintroduced in early 20th century French composers such as Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. Debussy's Suite bergamasque is most likely one of the most famous suites, especially the third movement, Clair de Lune. Ravel is particularly well known for his Mirroirs suite for piano and lesser known for Le Tombeau de Couperin, both requiring tremendous skill and dexterity by the pianist.
Other famous examples of early 20th century suites are The Planets by Gustav Holst, a 'Suite for Orchestra' in which each piece represents the astrological significance of one of the seven uninhabited planets then known, as well as his First Suite in E-flat and Second Suite in F for Military Band.