Com­poser of the Month

Kate Bolton-por­ci­atti on François Couperin

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents - IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MATT HER­RING

Few com­posers of­fer such a vi­brantly pictorial vi­sion of their world as François Couperin, whose mu­sic is a gallery of por­traits, land­scapes, cameos and minia­tures – as mys­te­ri­ous and lu­mi­nous as the paint­ings of Claude Lor­raine, as sen­su­ous and sub­tly coloured as Wat­teau’s fêtes galantes. Through flick­er­ing sounds, we glimpse the Sun

King and the Ver­sailles courtiers in their gilded sa­lons; we see street per­form­ers and parades, mil­i­tary marches, re­li­gious pro­ces­sions; we in­habit an Ar­ca­dian world pop­u­lated by satyrs and fauns, or a pas­toral idyll of sheep and nightin­gales and peas­ants danc­ing to dron­ing musettes. We meet Couperin’s mu­si­cal col­leagues, his aris­to­cratic pupils, and the co­terie of friends and fam­ily who in­spired his end­lessly af­fec­tion­ate por­traits.

Along with the Bach fam­ily, the Couperins were one of the most dis­tin­guished of the Baroque mu­si­cal dy­nas­ties who passed on the skills of a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian from fa­ther to son, and – as we’ll see in the case of François Couperin – to daugh­ter. Couperin’s great­grand­fa­ther, Mathurin, was recorded in the 1580s as a ‘joueur d’in­stru­ments’ in the town of Beau­voir, while his grand­fa­ther, Charles ‘the El­der’, was a peas­ant gar­ment-maker and ‘mas­ter in­stru­men­tal­ist’ who set­tled in the ru­ral vil­lage of Chaumes-en-brie. The few bits of fur­ni­ture listed in Charles’s will were far out­num­bered by the mu­si­cal in­stru­ments which his eight chil­dren would have played: six vi­ols, so­prano, tenor and bass oboes, pairs of flutes, man­dolins and ‘pocket vi­o­lins’ used to teach danc­ing. Among those chil­dren were Couperin’s fa­ther, Charles (known as ‘Couperin-cadet’, 1639–79), and his un­cle, Louis (1626–61), whose pre­co­cious tal­ent led him out of pro­vin­cial Chaumes to Paris, where he be­came the cel­e­brated or­gan­ist at one of the most im­por­tant churches in the cap­i­tal: Saint-ger­vais in the fashionable Marais dis­trict.

In 17th-cen­tury France, a pro­fes­sional po­si­tion could be handed down from fa­ther to next-of-kin, just as prop­erty was in­her­ited. So, when Louis Couperin died at the age of 35, his brother Charles in­her­ited the role of or­gan­ist at Saint-ger­vais. Charles, in turn, was suc­ceeded by his son François when he came of age in 1685, and the line con­tin­ued down the cen­turies un­til 1826. The or­gan­ist’s du­ties were to play at some 400 ser­vices a year, as well as mar­riages, fu­ner­als and feast days when the church was lit and dec­o­rated. It was for Saint-ger­vais that the young François Couperin pro­duced his first com­po­si­tions: colour­ful or­gan masses writ­ten for the mag­nif­i­cent or­gan still in the church to­day.

Couperin was 25 when Louis XIV chose him as or­gan­ist of the Chapelle du Roi at Ver­sailles. Within a year, he was ap­pointed Teacher and Mas­ter of ★arp­si­chord

Play­ing to the royal chil­dren. Yet even in this ex­alted po­si­tion, which earned him the ti­tle of Couperin le Grand to dis­tin­guish him from other mem­bers of his fam­ily,

he of­ten paid trib­ute to ‘the work of my an­ces­tors’.

The young Couperin de­vel­oped a taste for Ital­ian mu­sic at the gath­er­ings the Abbé Mathieu, where he prob­a­bly first heard the sonatas of Corelli, ‘whose mu­sic I shall love un­til the day I die’. In­deed, his ear­li­est cham­ber works im­i­tate the Ital­ianate style so con­vinc­ingly that (us­ing a pseu­do­nym) he passed them off as gen­uine Ital­ian works. Small won­der his con­tem­po­rary Le Cerf de la Viéville called him ‘an im­pas­sioned ser­vant of Italy’.

Through­out his later ca­reer, Couperin aimed for a ‘bi-lin­gual’ mu­si­cal id­iom, meld­ing his na­tive French style with the fashionable Ital­ian. In his pro­gram­matic Apothéose de Lully of 1725, Apollo on Mount Par­nas­sus per­suades Corelli and Lully that ‘the union of French and Ital­ian mu­si­cal styles will re­sult in the per­fec­tion of mu­sic.’ Couperin’s search for this ‘per­fec­tion’ man­i­fests it­self in dif­fer­ent ways. In Les Na­tions (1726), he draws to­gether four of his early trio sonatas in the Ital­ian style and pairs each one with a French suite. The two mu­si­cal lan­guages are more sub­tly fused in the aptly ti­tled Les goûts-réü­nis (‘The Union of Styles’). In its ten con­certs – dance suites, prob­a­bly in­tended for the Sun­day af­ter­noon cham­ber-mu­sic gath­er­ings at Ver­sailles and ‘played on all types of mu­si­cal in­stru­ments’ – the lan­guorous and em­bel­lished French id­iom is im­preg­nated with Ital­ian lyri­cism and vi­vac­ity.

In 1713, the pub­lisher Du Plessis an­nounced the first of four books of

‘Pièces de clavecin com­posed by Mon­sieur Couperin, or­gan­ist to ★is Majesty’s Chapel’. Un­like other col­lec­tions by the great French Baroque harp­si­chordists (Cléram­bault, Marc­hand, Rameau) whose pièces are dance-based, Couperin penned over 200 char­ac­ter pieces, grouped by key and mood into ‘or­dres’, which evoke peo­ple, places and the ev­ery­day. ★e harks back to a French tra­di­tion of cre­at­ing por­traits in words and mu­sic, to which the Mer­cure galant gazette of De­cem­ber 1704 at­tests: ‘About 40 years ago, a fash­ion sprang up in France which was taken up by all who could think and re­flect about them­selves. Ev­ery­one stud­ied him­self … in or­der to de­pict him­self in works called por­traits, writ­ten in prose or verse or a mix­ture.’

One might imag­ine a kind of par­lour game in which Couperin’s cir­cle would try to guess the iden­tity of the awk­ward ‘L’ado­les­cente’, the ‘dif­fi­cult and haughty’ ‘La Prude’, the ma­jes­tic ‘L’an­to­nine’, or the frail ‘Con­va­les­cente’ (one of Couperin’s most Bachian in­spi­ra­tions). To­day, we might won­der who in­spired the ten­der ‘Fan­chon’ or the volup­tuous ‘Babiche’… Easier to pin­point are his fel­low mu­si­cians: the great viol player An­toine For­queray in ‘La Su­perbe ou La For­queray’ and the melan­cholic ‘La Mor­inéte’ which pays trib­ute to the com­poser Jean-bap­tiste Morin. Then there are the pieces named af­ter the royal cir­cle. We en­counter the

Sun King him­self in the gal­lant ‘L’au­guste’ and the grand ‘La Ma­jestueuse’, and we meet his noble pupils: the pre­co­ciously gifted Princess of Chabeuil, who played Couperin’s pièces ‘like a kit­ten who toys with the or­na­ments that bother her’, while the daugh­ters of the Duke of Bourbon take grace­ful curt­sies in ‘La Charoloise’, ‘La Princesse de Sens’ and ‘La Bour­bon­noise’.

Also scat­tered through the pièces are evo­ca­tions of ru­ral life: there are or­chards in bloom (‘Les Verg­ers fleüris’), where lit­tle wind­mills turn (‘Les pe­tits moulins à vent’) and, in the 14th or­dre, nightin­gales, lin­nets and war­blers sing, pre­fig­ur­ing Mes­si­aen. One can hear the swish of scythes in ‘Les Mois­son­neurs’ (The Reapers) – as vivid a de­scrip­tion of reap­ing as Tol­stoy’s in Anna Karen­ina. Else­where, Couperin paints a vi­sion of pas­toral Ar­ca­dia pop­u­lated by wood­land fauns (‘Les Sil­vains’), a place where satyrs dance (‘Les Satires-chèvrespiéds’) and fe­males en­chant and se­duce (‘L’en­chanter­esse’; ‘La Sé­duisante’). These are the mu­si­cal equiv­a­lents of Wat­teau’s ex­quis­ite fêtes galantes – el­e­gant gath­er­ings in an ide­alised, bu­colic set­ting.

Ital­ian com­me­dia dell’arte had long been pop­u­lar in France, and its clowns and ser­vants find their way into the comédies of Molière, the can­vases of Wat­teau and Couperin’s pieces ‘in bur­lesque style’. In L’ar­lequine, he sketches the clown­ish ★ar­lequin with clod­dish rhythms and clash­ing in­ter­vals of sev­enths and ninths. In La Pan­tomime, gui­tar-like strum­mings, dis­so­nances and gri­mac­ing rhythms con­jure up the an­tics of the pop­u­lar

Couperin harks back to a French tra­di­tion of cre­at­ing por­traits in words and mu­sic

gui­tar-play­ing com­me­dia ac­tor Tiberio Fio­r­illi, or ‘Scaramouche’. Else­where, Couperin lets us join the whirligig of Parisian fair­grounds, street theatre and strolling play­ers. The 11th or­dre, Les Fastes de la grande et an­ci­enne Mxnxstrxndxsx, is a mu­si­cal satire in which the com­poser par­o­dies the an­cient Parisian Guild of Min­strels (the An­ci­enne Ménes­tran­dise – Couperin re­places each vowel with an x, as if to avoid li­bel!). ★ere march min­strels, beg­gars and hur­dygurdy play­ers; there limp the lame on crutches; jug­glers, tum­blers and dancers ca­vort with bears and mon­keys, and the troupe falls into a drunken revel at the end.

Be­neath its dec­o­ra­tive ve­neer, Couperin’s mu­sic was meant to touch the depths of hu­man emo­tion. ★is cel­e­brated 1716 trea­tise on harp­si­chord play­ing cre­ates a dou­ble en­ten­dre in its ti­tle: L’art de toucher le clavecin – the art of touch­ing, phys­i­cally (the harp­si­chord) and emo­tion­ally (the soul). Among his more pro­found ut­ter­ances are the elegiac Pièces de vi­o­les of 1728 – one of his last pub­li­ca­tions. ★ere, he ex­plores a ‘grave, dense world’, with plan­gent Sara­ban­des and the ‘Pompe Funèbre’, a med­i­ta­tion on death.

Per­haps the most sub­lime of his re­flec­tive works are the Leçons des ténèbres. Named af­ter the ★oly Week ser­vice of Tene­brae and per­formed in som­bre can­dle­light to sym­bol­ise the dark­ness of Christ’s Pas­sion, Couperin’s set­tings of the Lamen­ta­tions of Jeremiah are among the most in­ti­mate and ex­pres­sive of all French Baroque sa­cred mu­sic.

With their flick­er­ing vo­cal lines and yearn­ing con­tinuo, they epit­o­mise what the 20th-cen­tury critic Wil­fred Mellers de­scribes as the ‘sen­su­ous ten­der­ness and wist­ful­ness’ of Couperin’s late mu­sic that springs from an aware­ness of the tran­sience of all things.

Af­ter the com­poser’s death in 1733, his el­der daugh­ter Marie-madeleine played out her life as or­gan­ist and nun at the Cis­ter­cian abbey of Maubuis­son, while his se­cond daugh­ter Mar­guerite-an­toinette took over his role as court harp­si­chordist. The church of Saint-ger­vais and the Couperin’s fam­ily home in the old Rue Neuve des Bons En­fants both still stand, and the mu­sic that em­anated from them will surely stand even longer.

Royal seal: Couperin’s em­ployer, Louis XIV (cen­tre of main picture); (right) the inspirational Ar­can­gelo Corelli

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