We shouldn’t ring out the year without noting that 2018 marked the 350th anniversary of the birth of the French Baroque composer, François Couperin (1668-1733). He was known as le grand to distinguish him from an uncle of the same name, and emerged as the most accomplished member of a large family of musicians, officially succeeding his father as organist of the church of St Gervais in Paris when he was only eighteen.
We’ll dip into Couperin’s harpsichord works, chamber pieces and church music in the hope of giving newcomers to his music a snapshot of a fine composer who, for some reason, never managed to clinch a place in the pantheon of history’s greatest musicians. Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t interested in composing operas or orchestral works, which are rather more attention-grabbing fare.
Let’s take as our starting point his 1726 collection titled Les Nations: Sonades et suites de simphonies en trio, not least for the spot of fun Couperin injected into the production of the pieces. I’ll let him explain in his own words:
The first sonata in this collection is also the first that I composed, and the first of its kind to be composed in France. It has quite a singular story. Charmed by the sonatas of Signor Corelli and by the French works of M. de Lulli, both of whose compositions I shall love as long as I live, I ventured to compose a sonata myself which I arranged to have played by the same ensemble that I heard play Corelli. Knowing how keen the French are for all kinds of novelties, I did myself a favour through an innocuous stratagem. I pretended that a relative of mine, attached to the court of Sardinia, had sent me a sonata by a new Italian composer. I arranged the letters of my name to form an Italian name I used instead. The sonata was received with much acclaim, and I will say nothing further in its defence. I wrote others and my Italianised name brought me, wearing this mask, great applause. Fortunately my sonatas enjoyed sufficient favour for me not to blush at my subterfuge.
I don’t know what the anagram was. ‘Francesco Poruini’ was the best I could come up with. Whatever, Les Nations (8.573347-48) was a considerable undertaking. Each of the four ordres is a combination of an Italianate trio sonata and a large-scale French dance suite, so that each one lasts over half an hour. Which style is preeminent? Italian or French? This was the running debate in Couperin’s time, and the way in which Les Nations unites the two major musical styles of his day was part of his long-running efforts at aesthetic diplomacy. Let’s hear part of the Passacaille from the second suite, ‘L’Espagnole’. Does the abrupt change in style put you in mind of clicking Spanish castanets?
That was music from Couperin’s mature phase. We’ll skip now to music he wrote when he was only 22 years old; you’ll remember that he was occupied as an organist at that stage. In 1690 he was authorised by royal assent to publish copies of his Pièces d’orgue (8.557741-42) which consisted of two Masses: one for ordinary parish use; the other for convents of monks and nuns. Couperin had been a protegee of Michel-Richard de Lalande, who went on to become master of the Chapel Royal. Lalande proclaimed: “I certify that I have examined the present organ pieces of Sieur Couperin … which I have found very fine and worthy of being offered to the public.” This, then, marked the start of a successful career for the young musician who went on to be one of his country’s most famous teachers and composers. Here’s the Gloria: Dialogue sur les grands jeux from the Mass for the Parishes.
Couperin’s compositions for the harpsichord occupy a very important position in French music. His 27 suites, most of them published between 1713 and 1730, contain many pieces that are descriptive in one way or another. These richly varied collections, or ordres, represent the high point of Couperin’s achievement as a composer and arguably that of the French harpsichord oeuvre. Here’s the final movement of his eighth suite from Book 2 of his Pieces for Harpsichord – La Morinete (8.550962).
Couperin wrote four books of Concerts Royaux (ODE721-2) for the aged and ailing King Louis XIV. They were performed on Sundays in a melancholy palace atmosphere at Versailles by a distinguished set of musicians, including Couperin himself at the harpsichord. Do you think the sickly King might have been suitably uplifted by this Allemande from Book 3 of the Concerts Royaux?
We’ll end with two musical tributes to Couperin, both of them written at the time of the First World War. Ravel wrote his Tombeau de Couperin (8.553008) for solo piano between 1914 and 1917. Its dance suite form serves not only as a tribute to Couperin and French music of that period in general, but also to friends of Ravel who had fallen in the Great War: each movement bears the inscription of an individual’s name. The fourth movement, Forlane, seems to provide the clearest affinity to Couperin’s music.
Finally to a transcription by the Polish pianist, Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948). The work we’re going to hear was written in 1914 and demonstrates well his gifts as a superb transcriber; his masterclasses with Busoni in 1908 certainly seem to have left their mark. Friedman’s prodigious transcriptions not only show the predilection of the times for such varied repertoire, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but they also gave audiences the possibility of knowing works that might otherwise have sunk into obscurity. Bearing that in mind, here is his transcription of Couperin’s La tendre fanchon (The soft kerchief) from the fifth suite of Book 1 of his Pieces for Harpsichord (GP712).
La tendre fanchon