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Francois Couperin: Overview


Francois Couperin: Francois Couperin (b. Paris, 10 Nov 1668; d. Paris, 12 Sept 1733).



Francois Couperin was born into a family in which three brothers in the previous generation - his father and two uncles - had made names for themselves in the musical world. His father died when he was eleven, and although Francois inherited his father's post as organist of Saint Gervais, Lalande acted as deputy until the boy reached the age of eighteen. In the meantime his musical education, begun by his father, was continued by his uncle Francois and by Jacques Thomelin, organist of the Chapel Royal. Thomelin was a composer of the old school and it was to him that the young Francois Couperin owed his skill in counter-point. In 1693 Francois Couperin was chosen by Louis XIV to succeed Thomelin at the Chapel Royal, for although only twenty-five he had already made his name in the musical world. His first organ Masses had not been printed despite the granting of a royal privilege, but Francois Couperin had manuscript copies made with an engraved title-page bearing a 'certificate of merit' from Lalande. This was music in the traditional style, but in 1692 he launched out on a venture which bore witness to his lively, enquiring turn of mind as well as his skill. Fired by the example of Corelli, he wrote a number of trio sonatas 'in the Italian style' and even (as he afterwards revealed) under an assumed Italian name. These were not published until 1726, when he revealed his authorship and his original ruse.



In the meantime Francois Couperin had married, in 1689, Marie-Anne Ansault, who bore him a child in the following year. His duties at Versailles were shared with three other organists, each working for a three-monthly period, so that Francois Couperin was able to retain his family post at Saint Gervais, which he did not in fact relinquish until 1723. His position at court was confirmed when he was appointed Maitre de Clavecin des Enfant s de France (1694), and this office coincided with Fenelon's period of royal tutorship. Although Francois Couperin's prefaces and titles, and indeed his music, reveal a nice vein of sardonic humour, his ennoblement by the King gave him such pleasure that he designed a coat of arms for himself and a Lateran Order decoration enabled him to sign himself officially 'Le Chevalier Francois Couperin'.



Although he was originally an organist by profession, the fact that the great organ at Versailles was not started until 1702 and not finished in his lifetime explains the virtual absence of organ music from Francois Couperin's output. Officially Jean-Baptiste-Henri d'Anglebert was Ordinaire de la Musique at Versailles, having inherited the post from his more famous father in 1674 and retaining it until 1717. After 1700, however, when d'Anglebert's sight began to fail, Francois Couperin was almost certainly in effective charge of the music, and the chamber and harpsichord music composed during the years 1690-1730 were probably all designed initially for the Versailles Concerts du Dimanche and incidental musical occasions at Court. The first to be published were the harpsichord pieces. These eventually took the form of four Livres de clavecin, containing between them twenty-seven ordres, or sets, each ordre containing anything from half a dozen to a dozen pieces. The first book was published in 1713 and the rest followed in 1717, 1722 and 1730. Some of these ordres show a certain unity of character, but each piece is given a title of some kind. Many are character-portraits, either general ('L'Evaporee', 'La Galante' or 'L'Enjouee) or particular ('La Princesse de Sens', 'La Montflambert'). There is a portrait-gallery of the virtues in 'Les Folies francoises' of Book 3, which also contains a number of bird-pieces. Some have general dance-titles; and a great many, perhaps the majority, have fantastic names whose allusions may have been topical and are certainly lost today ('Les Culbutes Jxcxbxnxs), 'La Divine Babiche', 'Le Petitrien'). Probably the great part of these are deliberately fantastic and correspond to the scenes depicted by Francois Couperin's younger contemporary Watteau, demanding no knowledge of contemporary society for their appreciation. Francois Couperin's theoretical work, L'Art de toucher le clavecin, published in 1717, is an invaluable source of information on contemporary keyboard practice. The composer himself insisted that his harpsichord music must be played exactly as it is written.



It is by no means permissible to add whatever embellishments one pleases [he wrote]. I declare that my pieces must be played as they are marked and that they will never make their impression on people of true taste unless all that I have noted is observed to the letter, with nothing added and nothing omitted.



Taken as a whole Francois Couperin's harpsichord pieces present an extraordinarily rich and varied musical picture of French character and life, not only at Court but in both town and countryside. The chamber music includes two sets of 'concerts' published in 1722 and 1724. Here the instrumentation is not specified, but the Apotheose de Lulli, Le Parnasse, ou l'Apotheose de Corelli and Les Nations, published in 1725-6, are specifically for two violins and harpsichord continuo.



Louis XIV's dislike of long ecclesiastical ceremonies explains the absence from Francois Couperin's work of large-scale settings of the Mass; but his Lecons des Tenebres, written for the Holy Week ceremonies of the church, shows him as master of both the Italian and French vocal styles and furnishes an unmistakable proof that his powers were not confined to the witty, decorative or simply evocative delicacy of the miniature harpsichord-pieces. In his church motets his style contains elements of the solo cantata, as developed by Carissimi, and of the sonata da chiesa.



In 1715 Louis XIV died and two years later Francois Couperin became official Ordinaire de la Musique. He still held his original post as Maitre de clavecin to the royal family, and publication of his music continued steadily until 1730, when the last book of harpsichord pieces was published. In the preface to this the composer speaks of his daily diminishing health and his willingness to take the advice of his friends and retire from active life.



I hope [he adds touchingly] that my family will find among my papers matter which will cause them to regret my death, if indeed such regrets are of any avail to us after death. We must at least cherish this notion if we are to attempt to deserve that fancied immortality for which almost every man longs.



In 1723 Francois Couperin relinquished his post at Saint Gervais and seven years later gave up all his other offices. He died in 1733 at his handsome new house in the Rue Neuve des Bons Enfants; but although one of his three children, a daughter named Marguerite-Antoinette, was a musician able to take over her father's duties at Versailles until d'Anglebert died two years later, none concerned himself with the publication of the music referred to by the composer in the passage quoted above. Two suites for viols were not discovered until the present century, when they were published by Charles Bouvet.



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