About this Recording
8.573347-48 - COUPERIN, F.: Nations (Les) (Juilliard Baroque)
English  French 

François Couperin (1668–1733)
Les Nations


The first sonata in this collection is also the first that I composed, and the first of its kind to be composed in France. It has quite a singular story. Charmed by the sonatas of Signor Corelli and by the French works of M. de Lulli, both of whose compositions I shall love as long as I live, I ventured to compose a sonata myself which I arranged to have played by the same ensemble that I heard play Corelli. Knowing how keen the French are for all kinds of novelties, I did myself a favour through an innocuous stratagem. I pretended that a relative of mine [his cousin Marc Roger Norman] attached to the court of Sardinia, had sent me a sonata by a new Italian composer. I arranged the letters of my name to form an Italian name I used instead. The sonata was received with much acclaim, and I will say nothing further in its defence. I wrote others and my Italianized name brought me, wearing this mask, great applause. Fortunately my sonatas enjoyed sufficient favour for me not to blush at my subterfuge.

So begins the preface to Couperin’s extraordinary late set of chamber music, the 1726 collection of Les Nations: Sonades et suites de simphonies en trio. Couperin is best known today as a composer of harpsichord music, but he remained deeply involved in chamber music throughout his career (nothing larger than that; he was never interested in composing operas or orchestral works). Couperin’s Les Nations combines some of his very earliest efforts at Italian sonata-form with his last great summation of the French classical dance tradition to create a true goûts-réunis or reunited aesthetic, where the virtues of both French and Italian style are set next to each other.

Les Nations is a vast project. Each of the four ordres celebrates a Catholic power of Europe: France, of course, leads the way, then Spain, then the Holy Roman Empire (L’Impériale) and finally the Savoy dynasty of Piedmont, which was a French ally at this point. (Oddly, one would expect Italy to feature here: it does, in a way, since the Duchy of Savoy had become the Kingdom of Sardinia after 1717. Couperin had a personal connection here as well, since this was the court where his cousin Marc Roger Norman worked.) Each ordre is a combination of an Italianate trio sonata and a large-scale French dance suite, so that each one lasts over half an hour.

Couperin’s project of reuniting the two major musical styles of his day was part of his long-running efforts at aesthetic diplomacy. The virtuosic Italian sonata-form first reached Paris in the late seventeenth century, and its possibilities thrilled many younger composers like Couperin. By then, the formal style of Louis XIV was increasingly glacial and conservative; Paris was becoming the centre of progressive thought and cosmopolitan tastes. The Italian style found a home at the parish of Saint André-des-Arts on the Left Bank, whose curé, Nicolas Mathieu, had received a large library of Italian music from the Italophile François Raguenet, author of several works comparing French and Italian music. Here you could find works by Rossi, Cavalli, Cazzati, Carissimi, Legrenzi, Melani, Stradella, Bassani, and many others. According to Corrette, it was at Saint Andrédes-Arts that the first Corelli sonata was heard in France.

Couperin contributed a series of trios to this scene; three of them are works he later re-used in Les Nations. The sonade which begins La Françoise was originally called La Pucelle, referring possibly to Joan of Arc. This seems to have been the piece Couperin describes as “the first of its kind to be composed in France”. La Pucelle echoes many phrases of Corelli’s Op.1 trio sonatas, including what must be a deliberate quotation of the fugue of Op.1, No. 3. Several of Couperin’s other early Italianate trio sonatas also get worked into Les Nations. La Visionnaire gets incorporated into L’Espagnole, and L’Astrée (an homage to Honoré d’Urfée’s hugely popular and unreadably endless pastoral poem) becomes the sonade for La Piémontoise. One trio sonata which did not make the cut is a rather banal warpiece (Couperin’s version of Wellington’s Victory) called La Steinquerque. This is replaced with a newly-composed and extremely beautiful sonata for L’Impériale.

Couperin’s trios were part of a wave of Italianate efforts; others who were writing similar trios at the time include Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Jean-Féry Rebel, Sébastien de Brossard, and Louis-Nicolas Clérambault. All their attempts at sonatas are experiments in creating a kind of new abstract art. The whole point of a sonata was that it was simply a piece to be sounded, a discourse in pure music. It had no organizing structure like dance-forms provided, and it did not illustrate a text, like songs did. The idea of a free form was puzzling to many French theorists of the time: one philosopher famously remarked “Sonade, que me veux-tu?” — Sonata, what do you want from me? What am I supposed to feel, since I have no non-musical cues?

When seventeenth-century music theoreticians talk about the sonata, the metaphor that is constantly invoked is that of conversation or discourse. Some even tried to apply the rhetorical models of Quintilian and Cicero to this new art, finding the structures of a classical oration in a sonata, with the standard sequence of opening statement, presentation of facts, considering opposing points of view, and a convincing conclusion. But in fact the sonata was just as often celebrated for its fantasy, for the fact that it could follow whatever form the composer’s imagination suggested. It was simply a conversation, an art which does not have to follow any particular rules.

You could say that the opposite of this “most free of forms” was provided by the great French dance forms that were codified by the end of the seventeenth century. French music was always fascinated by elaborate musical structures; in the late Middle Ages, secular music was entirely dominated by the great formes fixes of the ballade, virelai, and rondeau. These were poetic forms, of course, but they were also connected to dance as well. What they offered were highly organized metrical and formal structures. We see this again with the great dance-forms of seventeenth-century French music. As the Italian sonata is in many ways a kind of prose discourse without words, so the French dances are poetry without a text; they follow a highly formalized musical rhyme-scheme of phrases and poetic feet, and the virtuosity of the composer is displayed by working within these conventions.

So Couperin’s great Nations brings together these two musical languages into the same frame. As you listen to these, you can imagine their sonades as a quick-witted discourse among the players, and enjoy the elegant play of forms in the dances which follow. Just as the sonade is an entirely free form, the French dance-forms follow certain conventions, which might be good to review for those who may be a little rusty on their court dances.

Allemande at this point is no longer a danced form; instead, it offers an opportunity for a searching kind of poetry, often quite serious. (The form is closely related to that of the tombeau, or funeral tribute.) The Allemande of La Françoise is marked “sans lenteur” or without excessive slowness; its intertwining lines and unexpected harmonies remind us that Couperin comes very close to Bach in these dances, while working within his own particular language.

The Courante is an elegantly dotted dance, with a characteristic ambiguity of rhythm: is it three in the time of two, or two in the time of three? This balancing between the two metres produces a wonderful sense of suspension. Couperin likes to pair his courantes, one contrasting and reflecting the other. With the Sarabande we come to the heart of the dance suite, a space of extraordinary poetry and subtlety. Couperin emphasizes their seriousness by marking these movements “gravement” or “tendrement;” a highly intimate and inward moment of musical reflection.

Then follows various galanteries or non-standard dances. Sometimes these are courtly versions of country dances like the boisterous Bourée or Gavotte, or the elegant simplicity of the Menuet. And Couperin provides wonderfully inventive takes on the usually straightforward Gigue, especially in La Françoise. The Rondeau of L’Impériale is another highly stylized version of a country dance, perhaps intended to evoke Germanness in the straightforwardness of its theme.

The most expansive form, of course, is the Chaconne or Passacaille, terms which seem to be used interchangeably by Couperin to describe a large-scale movement set over a repeated bass pattern. Here, perhaps more than in any of the other dances, the national characteristics of the countries depicted come to the fore. The Chaconne ou Passacaille of La Françoise seems to be a kind of tribute to Lully’s grand episodic opera chaconnes, and in L’Espagnole, we hear a moment of castanets in the middle of the Passacaille. For the great Chaconne of L’Impériale, Couperin is perhaps looking towards his German colleague and (according to some accounts) correspondent J.S. Bach. Bach seems to have known L’Impériale himself, to judge by an organ arrangement of one movement from its wonderful sonade. It is pleasant to think that these two masters might have known and appreciated each other’s work.

Robert Mealy

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