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8.550961 - COUPERIN, F.: Music for Harpsichord, Vol. 1

Francois Couperin (1668 -1733)

Francois Couperin (1668 -1733)

Music for Harpsichord Vol. 1


Book I of Francois Couperin's Pieces de Clavecin was a compilation of pieces written over a number of years and published in 1713. His first book of Concerts Royaux were performed, as the composer reveals in his Preface, at the court of Louis XIV in 1714 and 1715 but were not published unti11722. In his Preface to the harpsichord pieces Couperin says that he would have liked to have been able to devote time to preparing them for publication sooner because of public demand, but that this had been impossible owing to pressure of other work. He goes some way towards explaining what his duties were. He takes care to say that 'some of these occupations have been too glorious for me to complain of them; for twenty years I have had the honour of being in the King's service, and of teaching for most of this time Monseigneur the Dauphin, Duke of Burgundy, and six Princes and Princesses of the royal household'. He also mentions duties in Paris.


Couperin was organist of the church of Saint Gervais in Paris and of the royal chapel at Versailies for three months of each year. He had many private pupils in Paris and he took part in concerts in the great hotels, some decorated by Watteau, which were the pride of the aristocracy and the rich civil servants. He worked for the future Regent, the Duke of Orleans and for the exiled Stuart Court at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The titles of his harpsichord pieces reveal that he was closely involved with the eccentric world of the Duke and Duchess of Maine, which clearly inspired many of the pieces in his first Ordre.


Couperin said in the Preface to Book I; 'I have always had a subject when composing all these pieces; different occurred to me'. He went on to say that many of the pieces; 'are portraits of a kind, which under my fingers have, on occasion, been found to be tolerable likenesses'. In some cases it is difficult to be certain what the 'ideas' and who the 'portraits' were but a cumulative picture does emerge when the background to Couperin's 'subjects' is explored. For most French composers the titles they gave their pieces were a mere convention. For Couperin they were the raison d'etre of the piece. Unlike his predecessor Lully and his contemporary Rameau, Couperin was not interested in the classical world, the world of the Cyclops hurling his thunderbolts at the whole universe, he was acutely sensitive to human feelings and human foibles, our own feelings and foibles in fact, perennial human conditions, which is what lifts his miniatures onto a universal plane.


Pride of place amongst Couperin's portraits is accorded, not to the King, but to Louis Auguste, Duke of Maine. The King's favourite and illegitimate son by Madame de Montespan is described by Mademoiselle de Launay; 'Monsieur du Maine had an enlightened understanding, subtle and cultivated; savoir monde in perfection; a noble and pious character. Religion rather than nature made him virtuous and kept him so. He loved order, justice, decorum. His natural inclination was for solitude and study. Gifted with all the qualities necessary for success in society, he mixed in it with reluctance' .The fine allemande L'Auguste is a sympathetic portrait of this sober and serious man. It is followed by a pair of courantes the first of which is vocal in character with an ornamented repeat. These decorated versions often had amorous connotations, one being portrayed in Watteau's painting, La Gamme d'Amour. Louis XIV himself makes a suitably grand appearance in the magnificent sarabande La Majestueuse. (The titles are often feminine because they refer to la piece).


Couperin's remarkable sense of balance never lets him down and the somewhat impersonal majesty of the sarabande is followed by a Gavotte of the vaudeville type described by D' Anglebert as; 'little airs that have an extraordinary finesse and a noble simplicity that has always pleased everyone'. La Milordine, a gigue of the type the French considered to be English presumably describes an English milord from the exiled Stuart Court. A Menuet with an ornamented repeat ends the conventional set of dances which are characteristic of most instrumental suites in both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


In his Preface the composer speaks of pieces in a 'new and diversified character'. Once the dances are left behind this aspect of Couperin's harpsichord music becomes increasingly apparent. It comes as a complete bolt from the blue, nothing like it having appeared before. His models, if any, were vocal and several of the pieces in Book I are in fact arrangements of previously published songs. To judge by the titles of many of them it seems probable that he composed incidental music for some of the divertissements written for the Duchess of Maine. This unconventional pupil of Couperin's could not bear the Court as it was under Mme de Maintenon. People complained that it was a monastery in court dress which was becoming duller every day. Since Mme de Maintenon had brought up her husband, and since in her eyes he could do no wrong, the Duchess must have had more reason than most, given her tastes, to escape. This she did, initially to the country chateau of the Maines' great friend and the Duke's tutor, the poet Malezieu. He made his chateau of Chatenay a fairyland that filled the Duchess with envy and delight. This make-believe world was peopled with nymphs and shepherds. The Duchess suffered from insomnia so fireworks and divertissements filled the long days and short nights. The 'elite' of the King's Music took part beside bands of real peasants who danced and sang. In 1702 The King's Musicians appeared as Sylvains in a divertissement at Chatenay and sang the praises of the Duke of Maine. Les Sylvains, clearly popular as it also appeared in a lute version, is marked majestueusement. Much of it appears to be the accompaniment to a missing vocal line so it is likely that both the keyboard and lute versions are arrangements, perhaps of a chorus singing the praises of L' Auguste. It is a rondo, a form often used by Couperin in his harpsichord pieces.


Couperin's sense of balance, and humour on this occasion, is felt once more in his choice of the next piece. Les Abeilles was originally published in 1707 when the title was in, the singular. It is a reference to the Duchess of Maine's own Order of Chivalry, the Order of the Honey Bee, the motto of which was taken from Tasso; 'The bee is small but she makes big wounds'. The Duchess was also very small, she and her two sisters were known not as the Princesses of the Blood, but as The Dolls of the Blood. Les Abeilles is one of the shortest pieces. The Duchess's Order was one of the many Lodges of Adoption of Freemasonry, which had female members, the bee being a common masonic symbol. A choir and orchestra provided music at the initiation ceremonies.


La Nanete possibly portrays Anne Bulkeley, Duchess of Berwick, known as 'la belle Nanette' .The Duke was an illegitimate son of James n and resident in France. Like La Milordine this piece is probably an 'English' dance. It is followed by the sarabande Les Sentimens, one of Couperin's most gently expressive pieces which is in complete contrast to the grandeur of La Majestueuse. La Pastorelle was originally published as a vocal piece.


With Les Nonetes, the young nuns, one a blond and one a brunette, we have the first of Couperin's many portraits of the dubious morals of his time. This title also demonstrates his addiction to play on words. Furetiere, in his Dictionnaire Universel of 1701, says that the word Nonnette, which is a marsh-tit as well as a nun, when used in the burlesque style (a style often indicated by Couperin) means that these young ladies are; 'up to all the finest tricks of love. A young man who frequented a convent of these birds did not find one who greeted his designs with coldness, whether nun, whether nonette'. He also says that 'blond beauties wear less well than brunettes, they are less lively and less fun'.


The gavotte La Bourbonnoise, refers to the Duchess of Bourbon, a pupil of Couperin. This mischievous and popular sister of the Duke of Maine smoked a pipe and could drink any woman and most men under the table. La Manon is presumably the famous actress daughter of the playwright Florent Dancourt, since he and the rest of his family are represented later in the Ordres. L' Enchanteresse is also the title of a painting by Watteau, in which a young man plays the guitar to two girls on the banks of a river. In the lute/ guitar register, with its classic portrayal of musical water in the final couplet, this piece could well be based on the painting. La Fleurie ou la tendre Nanette is probably an illegitimate, the daughter of the Dauphin whose mother was the actress La Raisin. She was said to be 'lovely as an angel' and her father called her Mademoiselle de Fleury. This Nanette could not be the Duchess of Berwick since Couperin would never have referred to an aristocrat as 'tendre'. More knowledge of the characters of these two Nanettes would help to confirm the subjects of Couperin's two portraits. Les Plaisirs de Saint-Germain-en-Laye must have been familiar to Couperin because he had a house there from 1710-1716, presumably to be near his pupils at the exiled Stuart Court.


The Concerts Royaux were written for the aged and ailing King and performed on Sundays in the melancholy atmosphere of Versailles by a distinguished set of musicians, Duval (violin), Philidor (oboe), Alarius (bass viol), Dubois (bassoon) and the composer himself on the harpsichord. They were written for the most part on two staves and can be played on the harpsichord except in the movements that have a third part, played in this recording on the treble viol or viola da gamba. In the Preface Couperin says that they are suitable not only for the harpsichord but also for violin, flute, oboe, viol or bassoon. He also says that he has kept the title by which they were known at the Court and that he has arranged them by key which is a circle of fifths; G, D, A, and E minor. Though we have to wait for the second set of Concerts Royaux before the composer calls them Les Gouts-

reunis, which refers to the union of French and Italian styles, Couperin's debt to Corelli and the other Italian composers represented in the collections of music made for the Stuart Court at Saint-Germain is apparent in the first four. It has only recently been realised, because of the work on the exiled court (where James II's Queen was Mary of Modena) undertaken by Edward Corp, that it must have been here that Couperin discovered Italian music. It is easy to be deceived by the very French ornamentation into thinking the movements of the first set of concerts are more French in style than they in fact are. Corelli's allergy to ornamentation was well-known so it is unlikely that the manuscripts of his music at Saint-Germain contained any ornaments.


In the first Concert we have to wait until the Gigue for a movement that does not owe its style to Couperin's great hero Corelli. The Prelude, the Allemande (marked 'legerement'), the Sarabande and the Gavotte (marked notes egales et coules) are all Italian in style. The Menuet en Trio has a part for the viol. The second Concert is more French in style, the Allemande Fuguee and the Air Contrefugue being the only Italianate movements. This concert closes with one of the most charming movements in these Concerts, Echos, which is reminiscent of the composer's other great hero, Lully.


@ 1996 Jane Clark




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