François Couperin (1668 – 1733)

François Couperin was born in Paris in 1668, the son of Charles Couperin (1638-79), the organist St Gervais in Paris. On his father’s premature death the organist position was held by Lalande. François, an early musical genius, was already deputizing for Lalande at the age of ten, and on his 18th birthday he officially inherited his father’s previous position. As his teacher, Lalande praised the young man’s innovative 1690 collection of Pièces d’orgue as ‘worthy of being given to the public’ and no doubt helped to establish him as a Court organist in 1693.

In 1700-17 Couperin acquired the younger D’Anglebert’s position as harpsichordist at Versailles. Couperin divided his time between Paris and Versailles. He soon acquired heavy commitments to teach the harpsichord and organ which made it difficult to find time for the publication of his vocal and instrumental chamber music. After the appearance in 1690 of his Pièces d’orgue (in manuscript copies with engraved title pages), he wrote no further works for organ. Instead he turned his attention to the import of the Italian sonatas and cantatas being performed in private concerts during the 1690s; his own trio and quartet sonades in the Corellian style – some of which were absorbed into his 1726 collection Les nations – were initially circulated in manuscripts under an anagram of his name. The discerning collector Sébastien de Brossard acquired copies and later described them in the catalog of his collection as ‘good and most excellent music which requires only a good performance’.

Couperin’s interest in the Italian style, as represented by Carissimi and distilled by Charpentier, influenced his sacred vocal music, particularly his motets, versets and leçons de ténèbres. Meanwhile he was amassing a quantity of superlative harpsichord pieces, which began appearing in elegantly engraved editions only in 1713, well after those of his colleagues Clérambault, Dandrieu, Marchand and Rameau. Ever the individualist, Couperin chose to group his pièces into ordres rather than suites, and relied much less on dance movements than his contemporaries, preferring the freer and more evocative pièces de caractère. Concerned that, in spite of the careful annotations made in the editions, his pièces might not be properly performed, Couperin published L’art de toucher le clavecin (1716) to elucidate the fingering, his use of ornaments (whose notation he standardized) and dotted rhythms or notes inégales, he also included eight preludes that could serve as introductions to the eight ordres of the first and second books. A manuscript treatise, Règle pour l’accompagnement, offered rules for realizing figured bass and the treatment of dissonance. In his publications of the early 1720s he offered a wide variety of ways in which the French and Italian styles might be united.

In 1722 the Concerts royaux (for one to three players) were appended to the third book of harpsichord ordres. Two years later he issued the brilliantly assimilated Apothéose de Corelli within a second collection of concerts, aptly entitled Les goûts-réünis, in which the French and Italian elements are so subtly blended as to be barely extricable. The Concert instrumental à la mémoire de Monsieur de Lully (1725) allegorized the synthesis: Lully and Corelli are received by Apollo on Mount Parnassus, where together they conceive ‘La paix du Parnasse’ in the form of an integrated sonade en trio. A more direct juxtaposition of French classical and Italian styles occurs in Les nations (1726) and in the exquisitely crafted suites for bass viols (1728), of which the first is a French ordre and the second an Italian sonata da chiesa. In his prefaces to these editions he further elaborated on his quest for a united style. Early in the century Le Cerf described Couperin as a ‘dedicated servant of Italy’; but Couperin also epitomized – by his playing, his pièces de clavecin, and his place in French society – all that was admirable in the French classical tradition. Couperin died in Paris in 1733..