About this Recording
8.570944 - COUPERIN, F.: Pieces de violes avec la basse chifree: Suites Nos. 1 and 2 / Pieces de Clavecin: 27th Ordre (Perkola, Hakkinen)

François Couperin (1668–1733)
Suites for Viola da gamba and Basso continuo • 27e Ordre de clavecin


Comparisons have been drawn between the Bach musical dynasty and the Couperin family in France. Both families boasted a long and fruitful involvement with music, starting in the later years of the sixteenth century, reaching a climax in the eighteenth and dwindling to extinction in the nineteenth. François Couperin, the second musician to bear the name, to be distinguished by the epithet Le Grand, was born in 1668 in Paris. His father, Charles Couperin, named after his father and grandfather, had been born in the small town of Chaumes. According to Titon du Tillet, who included in his 1732 Parnasse Francois an account of the Couperins, François Couperin le Grand’s father and two uncles, Louis and another François, had come to the attention of a distinguished and well-to-do member of the royal musical establishment, Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, by playing an aubade to him at his château, a performance that impressed Chambonnières enough so that he insisted that the composer of the music played, Louis Couperin, should leave the provinces and go to Paris. There Louis Couperin established himself as a keyboard-player and composer, holding the position of organist at Saint-Gervais for some ten years, until his early death in 1661, and followed to Paris, after short intervals, by his two brothers. Louis Couperin was succeeded as organist at Saint-Gervais by his brother Charles, and after the latter’s early death in 1679, the position of organist at Saint-Gervais fell to his ten-year-old son François, to be held for him by the young organist Michel Richard de Lalande until the boy, after proper training, should reach the age of eighteen. With distinguished teachers including Jacques-Denis Thomelin, organist of the Chapelle Royale, Couperin took up his duties a year early, arranging, in 1723, for the succession finally to revert to his cousin, Nicolas, son of his bibulous uncle, the first François Couperin, who seems to have enjoyed much better health than his two brothers.

Couperin’s career in Paris brought him considerable distinction. In 1693 he succeeded his teacher Thomelin as one of the organists of the Chapelle Royale, a position shared with three colleagues, who divided the year between them, and the following year was appointed Maìtre de Clavecin des Enfants de France, with pupils including the Dauphin, the Duke of Burgundy, and other children of the royal family. With the court of the exiled King James I at Saint-Germain-en-Laye he was able to pursue his lasting enthusiasm for Italian music and particularly for the work of Corelli. This interest and the approval of the Papal Nuncio at the exiled court led to the award of a Lateran knighthood. That Couperin was widely respected is clear from the works dedicated to him by contemporaries and the popularity of his compositions. These included motets and other liturgical works for the Chapelle Royale, music for instrumental ensembles and, above all, a considerable number of short character-pieces for the harpsichord.

The Pieces de violes avec la basse chiffree (Pieces for Viols with figured bass) were published in 1728, the use of the plural ‘violes’ contradicted by the descriptive ‘Suite de viole’, perhaps suggesting alternative methods of performance. The two suites have a melodic part for a viola da gamba, to be accompanied either by another bass viol or, as here, by a harpsichord, as the figured bass would imply. The first of the two Suites, in E minor, opens with a stately Prelude, marked Gravement, the first and second sections both repeated, as in the other movements of the Suite, apart from the final Passacaille. The Allemande legere and Courante are followed by a Sarabande grave. The Gavotte, with the direction Gracieusement, sans lenteur, offers a contrast and is succeeded by a Gigue, marked Gayement. The most demanding movement of the Suite is the final Passacaille ou Chaconne, starting in E major, but including an E minor variation, followed by a return to the major, marked Gay.

The first Suite follows the normal order of a French suite in its sequence of dances. The second, in A major, avoids this, but offers four movements in the slow-fast-slow-fast order of the Italian sonata da chiesa. The opening Prelude, marked Gravement, opens with the imitation of the viol sujet by the accompanying bass-line. The varied Fuguete leads to a solemn Pompe funebre, a funeral procession, but still in A major. The Suite ends with La Chemise-blanche, marked Tres viste, with a first part in A minor, leading to a second in A major. The title might suggest a popular song—perhaps Prete-moi chemise blanche / A la messe je veux aller. At all events it provides a suitably rapid ending to the work.

Couperin’s pieces for harpsichord were published in a series of 27 ordres or suites, ending with the 27th, a set of four character pieces. This ordre, in B minor, is included in the last of the four books of keyboard pieces, published in 1730. The first piece, L’Exquise, is an Allemande. It is followed by Les Pavots (The Poppies), with the direction nonchalamment. The third piece, Les Chinois (The Chinese) makes no musical reference to China. Much was known and still more was conjectured about China, and a few years later this interest was to be further stimulated by the publication in France of Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s Description geographique, historique, chronologique, politique et physique de l’empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise, with its inclusion of the text, but not the music, of a Chinese Yuan Dynasty opera, a work much criticised for its failure to observe the Aristotelian dramatic unities. Du Halde’s work was based on Jesuit letters from China and it was the Jesuit Amiot, who published the first authoritative work abroad on Chinese music. It was Amiot who, a decade or so later, tried to introduce a Chinese court audience to the delights of the French school of harpsichord composition, performing, among other pieces, Rameau’s Les Sauvages. This was not well received, leading Amiot to conclude that the Chinese ear was differently formed. Les Chinois has a faster second part, marked Viste, before the concluding Lentement. The suite ends with Saillie (Sally), with the direction Vivement, a title that suggests the ‘leap’ of French dance, an effectively spirited conclusion.

Keith Anderson

Close the window