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8.550462 - COUPERIN, F. : Suites for Harpsichord Nos. 22, 23, 25 and 26
Francois Couperin (1668 - 1733)
Francois married in 1689, and the following year obtained his first royal privilege - to print and sell his own music. The book of organ pieces produced in 1690 shows an astonishing maturity of composition. His wife's family had influential business connections from which subsequently Couperin was able to profit. His first two books of harpsichord suites are dedicated to important government administrators.
Almost up to the time of his death, Couperin continued as an organist. He became 'organiste du roi' to Louis XIV in 1693. This appointment opened up possibilities for advancing his career, with opportunities to teach the harpsichord to royalty. He began to participate in concerts at Fontainebleau and Versailles, becoming active as a court composer. He produced chamber music, and sacred music for use in the royal chapel.
Couperin's writing for the solo harpsichord is known in manuscript copies from the 1690s, though the first printed collection did not appear until 1713. He blamed its belated appearance on his all-consuming teaching commitments in Paris and at court. From 1717 Couperin replaced D'Anglebert whose failing eyesight had made him long unable properly to fulfil his duties as the king's harpsichordist.
The appearance of the First Book of Harpsichord Pieces was the first product of a twenty-year printing licence which was to cover his music publications, as it turned out, up to his death. In addition to the four harpsichord bocks and a volume of sacred vocal music there were issued some half dozen collections of chamber works. In the latter he aimed to achieve some synthesis of the French with the ltalian musical style. Most specifically was such a union affirmed in the 1720's in a collection entitled Les Gouts-Reunis, and in a celebration of the reception on Parnassus of the Frenchified Lully and the ltalian Corelli.
In the Preface to his Fourth Harpsichord Bock Couperin wrote that his health was failing 'day by day'. Seven years earlier he had arranged for his cousin Nicolas to assist with his duties at St. Gervais. He gave up his court appointments in 1730, arranging for one of his daughters to take over as harpsichordist. Couperin died in Paris on September 11th 1733 in high standing among his contemporaries, his music well-known abroad, and the epithet 'le grand' attached to his name.
The four harpsichord books contain some 230 pieces in which the personality of the composer is most happily wedded to the medium of the French harpsichord. They contain a remarkable combination of qualities of wit, urbanity, sombre passion, easy charm, melancholy and high spirits. As Edward Higginbottom observes: 'in its wealth of ideas, range of expression and relationship to the culture from which it sprang, Couperin's harpsichord music stands unequalled in 18th century France.'
Couperin published his fourth and last book of harpsichord pieces in 1730, disclosing in its preface that, owing to the decline in his health he had been unable to compose any new music during the pervious five years.
The 22nd Suite is in the bright and optimistic key of D, and its opening pieces celebrate a Victory with its Trophy (La Trophee), and a pair of Airs (both Minuets) in contrasting major/minor tonalities. It is possible that it is the fountain in the park at Versailles called 'Le point du jour' rather than Daybreak itself which is depicted in the following Allemande. A slippery Eel (L'Anguille) appears next, its physical motion graphically conveyed in wriggling chromatics.
'Faire un croc-en-jambe' is .to trip someone up'. Couperin wittily captures this image by means of the unexpected leaping melodic intervals which intrude into the gaily strutting rhythms.
A pair of Menuets croises should ideally be played on an instrument with two keyboards, best to convey the complex intertwinings of the two treble parts. Similarly, the left hand constantly "passes" over the right in Les Tours de Passe-passe (Conjuring tricks), though only one manual is necessary. (A little later the great Scarlatti was to feature this technique quite spectacularly in his Sonatas.)
The 23rd Suite takes the key of F and opens with an Allemande in dotted rhythm, L'Audacieuse. The audaciousness of its character may perhaps be attributable to the exciting cross-syncopations exchanged between the hands, and the bold and saucy seventh chords, flouted so openly. Featured next are the knitters (Les Tricoteuses), the harpsichordist's fingers moving in a similar parallel congruity, some stitches being dropped near the end. Harlequin appears in a marked and stylized triple rhythm, Couperins refined linear sense producing some deliciously dissonant consequences. The performance direction here is 'Grotesquement'!.
The Venetian Republic had presented Couperin's king with both gondolas and gondoliers, and they were to be found at the Grand Canal in the Park at Versailles. The classical port of Delos had been dedicated to Apollo. The French monarch and his water parties could disport themselves from the bassin of Apollo, and in former times they would have been accompanied by the music of Lully, whose musicians followed on a kind of floating platform. Couperin's music here consists of an elaborate sequence of rondeaux, subtitled Badinage tendre. The melodies are sweet, the rhythms gently flowing, the textures often simple, with parallel motion and much of the layout , in the treble. Goat-footed Satyrs conclude the proceedings. At first their sounds are gruff, in the harpsichord's nether regions, the brief phrase-units conveyed in a precisely pointed articulation. A second part leaps about in wantonly lubricious burlesque style.
The basic tonality of the 25th Suite is C in minor and major, though La Visionnaire opens in the relative major of E flat. The piece is in the form of a French Overture, with pompous double-dotted flourishes in the opening, and bustling two-part writing to follow. The title has been linked to a comedy by Desmaret which features a castful of visionaries or cranks. La Misterieuse was a lady's perfume, here gently wafted in euphonious and fluent measure. La Monflambert is dedicated to the esteemed purveyor of wines to His Majesty, surely a sweet and gentle character.
In La Muse Victorieuse Couperin celebrates perhaps the triumphs of his own art, and its inspiration, in bold and audacious style. Finally, a wonderfully atmospheric depiction of the shades which wander in Hades ends the Suite - perhaps we think here particularly of Orpheus and his mythical musical powers.
In the old mean-tone temperament the key of F sharp minor was unbearably harsh. The 17th century lutenist Denis Gaultier christened it .the key of the goat'. By Couperin's time the tonality had become rather more accessible as a result of the availability of other tuning schemes, though its appearances were still to be very limited. It is the key of Couperin's 26th Suite.
Its first movement, an allemande, may represent the composer himself in convalescence after the illness of which his preface spoke. The following Gavotte takes on a somewhat melancholy cast in this particular minor mode. In the comedies of the period Sophi or Sofi was the old name for a dervish and she here appears in a whirling two part texture. The thorny challenge for the players of Couperin's own day (epine = thorn) is graphically represented by the key signature of six sharps required for the major key of F sharp, found in the 4th couplet of L'Epineuse. This last is a separate rondeau, complete in itself.
A collection of Italian comedies, put together as Le Theatre Italien, was enjoying a great vogue in the 1720s. They were collected by one Evaristo Gherardi, dit L'Arlequin. He may possibly be the subject of Couperin's >Harlequin in the 23rd Suite. There was a Spinette character in the ltalian comedy, and she may indeed be L'Epineuse. If the surmise is correct, then the final piece of the 26th Suite, La Pantomime, refers also to the theatres at the ancient fairs of St. Laurent and St. Germain, where Gherardi's troupe performed. Couperin's Pantomime, however, possesses an undeniable grandeur of manner and musical presentation, its rhythms to be projected with 'une grande precision'. The F sharp minor tonality lends the piece a sombre, almost tragic quality. It is the pantomime of Pagliacco.
For the past twenty years he has been a freelance player, with some specialization in early keyboard instruments - harpsichord, organ and fortepiano. He has given concerts in many parts of Europe and North America and has toured as harpsichordist with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and as organist with Pro Cantione Antique.
Alan Cuckston has made recordings of an extensive repertoire of music, ranging from the middle ages to the present day. Most recently he has released harpsichord music by Handel, Rameau and Couperin on Naxos and the complete piano music of Alan Rawsthorne on Swinsty Records.
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