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8.557741-42 - COUPERIN, F.: Organ Masses
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François Couperin (1668-1733)
Organ Masses

Born in Paris on 10th November 1668, François Couperin was the son of Charles Couperin, organist at the Church of St Gervais since 1661. Charles naturally introduced his son to the organ and the harpsichord, before his premature death in 1679, leaving his son an orphan at the age of eleven. Nevertheless the administrators of St Gervais were so eager to retain the services of the third Couperin in succession that they managed to secure the support of Michel-Richard de Lalande, future master of the Chapel Royal, who agreed to hold the position provisionally until François Couperin came of age. During this time the latter completed his training with the royal organist Jacques Thomelin. With him he studied polyphony based on plainchant themes, the ricercari of Frescobaldi, chaconnes and secular works such as dances and songs.

In 1685 François Couperin was installed as organist at St Gervais where he received his full title in 1689. Benefiting from the splendour of the many ceremonies there, he came across Bossuet and his art of funeral oration, Madame de Sévigné, doubtless Racine and other famous writers and artists.

On 2nd September 1690, at the age of 22, François Couperin was authorised by royal privilege to publish copies of his Pièces d’orgue, consisting of two Masses, one for ordinary parish use for solemn feasts, the other proper for convents of monks and nuns. Lalande praised his protégé’s work as follows: ‘I certify that I have examined the present organ pieces of Sieur Couperin ... which I have found very fine and worthy of being offered to the public’. This work marked the beginning of the successful career of a composer who was to become one of the most famous teachers and composers in the country.

The two Masses by Couperin do not deviate from the style and form elaborated by his contemporaries. At this period the organist followed the Parisian Ceremonial of 1662 that lays down some rules for the performance of religious offices and the place of the organ in each of them. The organ, the choir and the celebrant alternate or combine their contributions to the liturgy. Each organ piece is short and functional: it can serve to illustrate a verse or fill a space in the service. When the organ replaces a verse, this verse is not spoken and the text of the Mass is incomplete. It was the tradition then for the text to be spoken in a low voice by the choir, or in an intelligible voice by a single speaker. The music then illustrates the meaning and character of the text, while it is recited. This practice of musical illustration, sometimes treated metaphorically and with symbols, is common to other European countries: with Bach, for example, the text of the chorale is played by the organ, verse by verse, through the language of musical rhetoric. Thus Couperin uses a clearly rising theme (chromatic in parishes and diatonic in convents) to represent in music the texts of the two Elevations. There is a similar example in the Dialogue en trio of cornet and tierce for parishes, where the idea of ‘very high’ is suggested by a c´´´´´ with the highest organ stop.

Without forgetting the importance of the sense of each part of the office, we have here chosen to offer the organ pieces independently from the alternating plainchant. As is happily done for the chorale preludes of a Buxtehude or Bach, also influenced by religious texts, we have preferred to highlight the purely musical content rather than attempt a liturgical reconstruction, hazardous in the case of the Mass for convents, where no known plainchant is given.

The two Masses include 21 pieces that follow the same order: Kyrie (5), Gloria (9), Offertory (1), Sanctus and Benedictus (3), Agnus Dei (2) and Deo gratias (1).

Written for a large instrument of three manuals and pedals, the Parish Mass follows the order of tones of the Mass Cunctipotens Genitor Deus, namely: D minor (Tone I), A minor (Tone IV), C major (Tone V) and F major (Tone VI). The plainchant there is clearly identifiable as is shown in the passages for full organ, where, on a bass or tenor on the reeds, the cantus firmus is given in long notes, interspersed with skilful polyphonic and harmonic textures.

Less solemn and more intimate, the Convent Mass is relatively more concise and easy to perform. It is intended for a modest instrument with two manuals, perhaps with a simple pedal coupler. The clear sound of G major (Tone VIII) offers music that is concise and has a remarkable freshness of inspiration. In all these pieces the ease of modulation, the ornamentation, the imitative writing, canons, fugues and dissonant effects reveal great mastery.

The composer, however, does not content himself with traditional practice and writing for four voices: he makes way for the new practices of ballet and opera in the tradition of Lully. There are da capo arias, tender airs, duets, trios and dialogues notably inspired by the motets. Furthermore, like his contemporaries François Couperin considered the organ as an instrument that offered a synthesis, representing a ‘society of heaven and earth’, rather like the theatre. Thus the majority of the mixture of stops is mimetic, evoking nature or the feelings of the human soul. For example the crumhorn imitates the singer’s voice, the tierce en taille suggests the viol, and ‘characters’ can be distinguished, lively (the cornet or basse de trompette), or calm and nostalgic (the voix humaine). The composer also introduces into the church dance rhythms: there are minuets (the cornet in the Messe des Couvents), sarabandes (dialogue on the voix humaine), gavottes (duo on the tierces) or Italian gigues (duo on the tierces in the Messe des paroisses).

With the offertories in these two Masses Couperin took the opportunity to create larger musical structures in the form of triptychs. The offertory in the Messe des paroisses begins with a French overture in C major, followed by a combination of trios and dialogues. The second movement is slow, chromatic, and the harmonic encounters are sometimes very dissonant. A final section follows in the form of a gigue on the three manuals. As in the case of the Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, BWV 552, of J.S. Bach, it is usual today to see in this offertory a tribute to the Trinity: the majesty of the Father, the suffering of the Son, the speaking of the Spirit. The offertory in the Messe des couvents, more Italian in character, at first offers a series of free variations on a melody accented in the manner of a passepied. The second part, in G minor, offers a fugato meditation in duple rhythm, and the last panel of the triptych is built on a popular song, Louez le Dieu puissant (Praise powerful God). The rhythm tightens gradually and gives way to a serious and majestic peroration.

Jean-Baptiste Robin
English version by Keith Anderson


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