A suite, in music, began life in the Baroque period as an ordered set of dance tunes, usually to be played at a sitting, and frequently used for teaching purposes. It is interchangeable in that period with the Partita and sonata da camera. Whilst the concept goes back into the early 16th century, in practice, the baroque instrumental suite as we know it today developed during the mid to late 17th century. During the next hundred years the suite grew in both popularity amongst composers and the size of the forces involved – so that J. S. Bach would write not only his famous suites for solo cello, and partitas for solo violin but also the four famous orchestral suites (from which the popular ”Air on the G string" comes). Handel’s ”Water Music” and ”Fireworks Music” for (much augmented) military band are also classified as suites. About this time the form began to be considered interchangeable with the 'overture.
During the classical period the form not only lost its reliance on dance forms, but gained more variety in use, as certain of its functions began being taken over by the sonata, symphony, and concerto. New names appeared: the divertimento and serenade are two. Then during the 19th century the term began including any multi-movement piece of music not covered by another term; and composers started taking “the best bits” of a work too long to be included in a concert program (usually a ballet, opera, or incidental music to a stage production) and organising them into a “concert suite”. Examples of this form include suites – sometimes termed symphonic suites- from the following works:
- The Nutcracker (Ballet) Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
- Peer Gynt (Incidental music for a play) Edvard Grieg.
- Carmen (Opera) Georges Bizet
- On the Waterfront (Motion Picture) Leonard Bernstein.
- Some original works have so much music to “play with” that more than one suite was published – such as the first three examples above, and others like Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, and Bizet’s L’ Arlesienne incidental music for the play. (Carmen has such riches that not only did Bizet arrange two suites, but the Russian, Rodion Shchedrin, wrote a ballet arrangement for timpani and orchestra he called The Carmen Suite.
Meanwhile the suite as a stand-alone form carried on as such major works as:
- The Planets (Gustav Holst)
- Pictures at an Exhibition (Modest Musorgsky) – originally a suite for piano but usually heard in Maurice Ravel’s orchestration.
- Florida Suite (Frederick Delius)
- Sheherazade (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov)
There are many others, including Choral suites. A suite of songs is referred to as a song cycle.
“Oxford Companion to Music”
“The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music”