Bach's early career was as an organist and as an expert on the construction of the instrument. In 1717, however, he moved to C�then as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-C�ethen and there was able to devote more time to the composition and performance of instrumental music, largely through the Pietist leanings of the court and a consequent diminution of church music. It seems probable that the first and fourth of the four orchestral suites or Ouvertures were written during this period. It has been suggested that the second and third were written during Bach's final period of 27 years in Leipzig. While his official responsibilities there were with church music, he was involved too with the secular repertoire of the University Collegium Musicum, founded by Telemann. The two suites may well have been written for that ensemble and it has been suggested that the flute part of the second suite was designed for the French flautist Buffardin, who had met Bach's younger brother in Constantinople and was, in any case, employed in Dresden at the court of Augustus II, overlord of Leipzig.
The first Ouverture or Suite, in the key of C major, is scored for two oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo. The opening Ouverture, in French style, follows the strongly marked rhythm of the introduction with the customary fugue, in which the solo woodwind instruments have their own moments of solitary prominence, in contrast to the strings and continuo. The first of the dances is a Courante, not paired, as it usually is, with an Allemande. Of the following dances, which include an example of the less usual Italian forlana, adopted into the French court tradition, four are played alternatively, with a second dance framed by a repetition of the first of the pair. The second Gavotte allows a fuller part to the solo woodwind instruments, while the second Menuet is for strings and continuo and the second Bourr�e for wind only. The Suite ends with two Passepieds, a faster version of the Minuet, with rhythmic features that had, by the eighteenth century, become characteristic.
Suite No. 2 in B minor is very much in the French style, as were many compositions of this kind in Germany in the first half of the eighteenth century, when French national taste predominated. The Ouverture is in the style developed under Lully in France, a solemn introduction in marked rhythm leading to a more rapid fugal section, ending with a return to the solemnity of the opening. A lively Rondeau follows and a stately Sarabande. The two Bourr�es are played in alternation, followed by a Polonaise and succeeding variation by the flute. The Suite ends with a Minuet and a Badinerie, a light-hearted and brilliant conclusion.
Suite No. 3 in D major is scored for three trumpets, timpani and oboes, with the usual strings and continuo. The opening French Ouverture, with its characteristic solemn introduction and following fugue is followed by an Air, played by strings and continuo, a movement later popularised in an arrangement by the nineteenth century violinist August Wilhelmj as Air on the G string which in its original form it is certainly not. The pair of Gavottes are played in alternation, followed by a Bourr�e and a lively Gigue, the most frequent conclusion to any set of dances.
The fourth of Bach's orchestral Suites, also in the key of D major, is scored for three trumpets and timpani, three oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo. After the compound rhythm of the fugal section of the Ouverture and a return to the slower music of the opening comes a pair of Bourr�es, played in alternation, a Gavotte, and a pair of Menuets, with the second played by strings and continuo alone. The Suite ends with a cheerful movement bearing the title R�jouissance, which proclaims both its character and the French provenance of the whole form, adopted and translated by Bach into suitable German musical terms.