Like many of my generation, I was introduced to the bourrée through my study of violin. I came across it as an exam piece, a simplified version for violin and piano of the Bourrée from George Frideric Handel’s Water Music Suite no. 1 in F major HWV 348.
In the early 1970s, the only access to recorded music was through the record-player (45s and LPs), and cumbersome spool tapes; the audio-cassette changed all that a few years later. But it was still difficult to get hold of classical music, especially to specific works. But fortunately for me, in my dad’s record collection that he brought back from Germany, there was an LP, containing Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Water Music Suites, Lorin Maazel conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, recorded on the Philips label, 1966.
So I recognised the Bourée melody, and it gave additional impetus to my wanting to learn to play it.
The bourrée appears in music for students today as well; one common example that comes to mind is the Bourrée, also by Handel, in the Suzuki Violin Book 2. It is a simplified arrangement of the bourrée from his Flute Sonata no. 5, opus 1 in G major, HWV 363b.
(The Bourrée commences at 6:21 in the above video)
And in Suzuki Violin Book 3, one encounters Bourrée I & II, arranged for the violin from the fifth movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s third Cello Suite in C major, BWV 1009.
And of course, there’s the famous Bourrée from Bach’s Partita no. 3 in E major, BWV 1006 for solo violin,
and also in his first Partita in B minor, BWV 1002. The bourrée appears also in his fourth cello suite (E flat major, BWV 1010).
The Bourrée is a lively dance of French origin, dating to at least the mid-sixteenth century.
It is in quadruple time, with a characteristic upbeat. In this sense, it is similar to the gavotte in that both are French in origin, and both have an upbeat. But the bourrée is quicker, and has a quarter-bar anacrusis (upbeat or ‘pick-up’), whereas the gavotte has a half-bar anacrusis.
Let us look more closely at Bourrées I & II from Bach’s third cello suite. A suite is a loosely structured collection of dance movements. Bach begins all his six cello suites with a dramatic, virtuosic prelude, followed in sequence by (as the name suggests, German in origin) allemande, and then two French dances the courante and the sarabande. The fifth movement varies from suite to suite, but they are either of the following three French dances: minuet, gavotte or bourrée. These are sometimes also called galanterie movements of a Baroque dance suite. They are considered “not vital” to the composition of the suite, but optional, and included to add variety. And all Bach’s cello suites end with a gigue. We shall examine all these dance movements in turn in future columns, but let us return to this galanterie movement, the bourrées in this suite.
The Bourrées I & II have asymmetry, in the sense that both have two unequal sections. The first section in both cases is an eight-bar phrase. The second section is twenty bars long in Bourrée I and sixteen in Bourrée II. Typically each section is played twice, except when returning at the end to Bourrée I, when each section is played just once. So the sequence is Ia (x2) Ib (x2) IIa (x2) IIb (x2) Ia Ib.
The contrast between the two Bourrées is well-established; Bourrée I is in a major key (C major in the original cello suite, G major in the transposition for violin), while Bourrée II is in the minor key (C minor in the cello suite, G minor in the violin transposition).
Bourrée I opens with an energetic 2-quaver upbeat figure, ascending up the scale to a crotchet G (D in the violin transposition) on the downbeat of the first bar and setting the rhythmic pattern that unifies the movement: the alternation between double quaver on the ‘weaker’ beats (second and fourth) and single crotchet on Bourrée the ‘stronger’beats (first and third), interspersed with flowing bars of ‘dancing’ quavers between these rhythmic figures. Bourrée I has brightness and verve, all the hallmarks of a dance tune.
Bourrée II, although it begins with the same rhythmic figure, has a completely different character, introspective and sombre. And the longer quaver passages are much more eloquent phrases. Together, Bourrées I & II complement each other perfectly.
The bourrée has entered popular culture as well. The British rock band Jethro Tull released its second studio album, ‘Stand Up’ (1969), containing a track titled ‘Bourée’, (with a single r) which is in fact a jazzy reworking of the Bourrée from J. S. Bach’s Suite no. 2 in E minor for Lute, BWV 996.
That same year, the English heavy blues-rock trio Bakerloo released their single, ‘Drivin’ Bachwards’,
an arrangement of the very same Bourrée. Coincidence? But for some reason, this particular melody is a particular favourite for jazz improvisations. And although you wouldn’t guess the origin from the finished version of the Beatles classic ‘Blackbird’, there is video footage of Paul McCartney demonstrating on his guitar how the first few bars of this Bach Bourrée morphed into the opening riff of the song as we know it today.
(An edited version of this article was published on 16 September 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)