Couperin, François 'Le Grand'

Paris 1688 - Paris 1733




The Couperin family occupies the same dominant position in French musical life of the Baroque Era as does the Bach family in Germany. As Johann Sebastian Bach, there was never any doubt who was the most commanding figure in the family: even in his lifetime, François Couperin was known as Couperin le Grand. Born on 10 December 1668 in Paris, Francois was the son of Charles Couperin, first of the family dynasty of organists at St. Gervais. His father died when he was only eleven, but such was the young boy's precocity that the parish council appointed him to succeed his father when he reached the age of eighteen. In 1693 Francois Couperin became organist at the Royal Chapel in Versailles, and in 1717 he secured the post of harpsichordist in the musique de chambre, a position which Couperin passed on to his daughter Marguerite-Antoinette (only one of his three children that became a professional musician) in 1730. In the latter part of his life, Couperin suffered from poor health and he died in 12 September 1733; he was buried in the church of Saint Joseph.


Sacred Music
Even if the name of Francois Couperin is not immediately associated with sacred music, this genre represents the major concentration of his activities as a composer in his youth and early maturity. His two organ masses, the Messe pour le paroisses and the Messe pur le convents, are both contained in Couperin's first publication, the Pieces d'orgue (1690; hand-written by one of the copyists employed by the Parisian publisher Ballard); conceived in terms of the classical French organ, this music achieves a haunting beauty when played on an instrument that possesses a close approximation to the tonal resources of the period. In 1714, Couperin composed for Church use the Lecon de ténèbres: although written for the office of matins during Holy Week, thay can be fully appreciated away from their liturgical contest. Couperin's sacred works also include a total number of thirty-four Motets.


Chamber Music
Although it was not until the last eleven years of his life that Couperin actually began publishing any instrumental ensemble music, his interest in this genre stemmed from his earliest years as a composer, when he was fired with enthusiasm for the newly-discovered Italian instrumental style: this we learn from his own account of the genesis of Les Nations, a collection of four extended Trio Sonatas published in 1726, but composed as early as 1692, in emulation of the example of Corelli. In 1724, Couperin wrote a group of trio sonatas in tribute to the same composer, Le Parnasse ou l'Apothéose de Corelli, and the following year he published his omage to the composer Lully with L'Apothéose composé à la memoire de l'Incomparable Monsieur Lully (in which he also paid further tribute to Corelli by placing both musicians together on the heights of Parnassus). Couperin's Chamber music also include the Concerts Royaux and Nouveaux Concerts (written for king Louis XIV), Pièces de Violes (published at the age of sixty-one in 1728), and vocal chamber music (the interest for amorous and convivial songs soon developed in France during the seventeenth century).


Harpsichord Music
Couperin is best known as a harpsichordist composer, for both his method L'Art de toucher le clavecin (published in 1716 and dedicated to king Louis XV, written to save a tradition of touch-inspired harpsichord playing which seems to already been dying out) and his 234 pieces, almost all of which are contained in his twenty-seven Ordres (or Suites), spread over four books. These books were published in Paris under his own name as publisher: the first appeared in 1713, the second in 1716-1717, the third in 1722 and the fourth in 1730. The edition, in large folio, was engraved on copper, and formed the most beautiful specimen of printed music of that period; the press was corrected with great care by Couperin himself. In these collections we can find examples of descriptive instrumental music (Les bergeries, Les vendangeuses, Les mois-sonneurs), imitative (Le Dodo, Le Carillon, Le Réville-matin), psichological (Soeur Monique, La diligente, La dangereuse), brilliant genre (Les papillons, Les petits Moulins à vent) and dancing Arias (Courantes, Menuets, Gavottes). Couperin's mode of writing harpsichord music is very peculiar: it was in constant aim to set down the music with the greatest possible fulness exactly as he played it on his instrument. For this reason, an edition which did not reproduce the original signs exactly in all detail wolud be worthless for the knowledge of Couperin's art.


The Kunst der Fuge Biographies of Composers: Couperin by Fabrizio MarchesaNo.
Tunley, David - Couperin (BBC Music Guides - BBC Publications)
Finizio, Luigi - Quello che ogni pianista deve sapere (Ed. Curci, Milano)
Chrysander, Friedrich - Preface on Francois Couperin Complete Keyboard Works, Book 1 (Ed. Dover)
Sempé, Skip - Booklet of CD Francois Couperin - Pièces de Clavecin (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)., © 2003. All rights reserved.