Personalities | François Couperin | Late Baroque | Classical

(Fran-swa’ Koo-per-an’) 1668–1733
French composer

Couperin, known as le grand, was the most gifted member of an illustrious French musical family. He lived and worked in Paris where, at the age of 18, he inherited the post of organist at St Gervais, which had previously been held by his father and uncle.

In 1693 he was appointed one of the king’s organists at Versailles and in 1717 he replaced Jean-Henri d’Anglebert (1635–91) as Ordinaire de la musique de la Chambre du Roi pour le clavecin (‘member of the king’s chamber for keyboard’). He held both posts until 1730.

Couperin’s earliest known music is for solo organ. His pièces d’orgue were issued in manuscript with engraved title pages in 1690. An interest in uniting the characteristics of Italian and French styles became apparent soon after this when he wrote trios and quartets in the manner of Corelli and small-scale sacred vocal pieces (petits motets) modelled on those of Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643–1704), who had studied in Rome. Two extended trios, L’apothéose de Corelli (1724), and L’apothéose de Lully (1725), bear witness to his fascination with national styles and their unification.

Couperin is recognized, above all, for his solo harpsichord music, issued in four collections of pièces de clavecin between 1713 and 1730. The works are assembled into 27 ordres, a term that Couperin used to denote groups of pieces in related keys, falling somewhere between a suite and an anthology. Their meticulous craftsmanship and delicately expressive inflexions, which depend upon adherence to the composer’s precisely notated ornamentation, represent his most sustained achievement.

The Ordres

Each of Couperin’s four major books of harpsichord pieces contained between five and eight ordres. The first collection includes miscellaneous pieces which had been in circulation for some years; the ordres in the later books, on the other hand, are carefully designed as entities in themselves.

All of the ordres in Books 3 and 4 are made up of pieces with descriptive titles. Book 4 was published in 1730. The writing throughout the ordre is generally in two parts, one for each hand. Most of the pieces are in binary form, with two unequal parts, each played twice, but the first in the 20th ordre is in three sections. Named after Marie Leszczynska, who married Louis XV and was one of Couperin’s pupils, it reflects her gentle nature and acknowledges her origins with an ‘Air in the Polish style’.

Recommended Recording:
Quatrième livre de clavecin, Kenneth Gilbert (harpsichord) (Harmonia Mundi)

Introduction | Late Baroque | Classical
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