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 in1713. His first book of Concerts Royaux were performed, as the composerreveals in his Preface, at the court of Louis XIV in 1714 and 1715 but were notpublished unti11722. In his Preface to the harpsichord pieces Couperin saysthat he would have liked to have been able to devote time to preparing them forpublication sooner because of public demand, but that this had been impossibleowing to pressure of other work. He goes some way towards explaining what hisduties were. He takes care to say that 'some of these occupations have been tooglorious for me to complain of them; for twenty years I have had the honour ofbeing in the King's service, and of teaching for most of this time Monseigneurthe Dauphin, Duke of Burgundy, and six Princes and Princesses of the royalhousehold'. He also mentions duties in Paris.
Couperin was organist of the church of Saint Gervais in Parisand of the royal chapel at Versailies for three months of each year. He hadmany 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 richcivil servants. He worked for the future Regent, the Duke of Orleans and forthe exiled Stuart Court at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The titles of his harpsichordpieces reveal that he was closely involved with the eccentric world of the Dukeand Duchess of Maine, which clearly inspired many of the pieces in his first Ordre.
Couperin said in the Preface to Book I; 'I have alwayshad a subject when composing all these pieces; different occurred to me'. Hewent on to say that many of the pieces; 'are portraits of a kind, which undermy fingers have, on occasion, been found to be tolerable likenesses'. In some casesit is difficult to be certain what the 'ideas' and who the 'portraits' were buta cumulative picture does emerge when the background to Couperin's 'subjects'is explored. For most French composers the titles they gave their pieces were amere convention. For Couperin they were the raison d'etre of the piece.
Unlike his predecessor Lully and his contemporary Rameau, Couperin was notinterested in the classical world, the world of the Cyclops hurling histhunderbolts at the whole universe, he was acutely sensitive to human feelingsand human foibles, our own feelings and foibles in fact, perennial humanconditions, 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 andillegitimate 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 thannature made him virtuous and kept him so. He loved order, justice, decorum. Hisnatural inclination was for solitude and study. Gifted with all the qualitiesnecessary for success in society, he mixed in it with reluctance' .The fineallemande L'Auguste is a sympathetic portrait of this sober and seriousman. It is followed by a pair of courantes the first of which is vocal incharacter with an ornamented repeat. These decorated versions often had amorousconnotations, one being portrayed in Watteau's painting, La Gamme d'Amour.
Louis XIV himself makes a suitably grand appearance in the magnificent sarabandeLa Majestueuse. (The titles are often feminine because they refer to lapiece).
Couperin's remarkable sense of balance never lets himdown 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 extraordinaryfinesse and a noble simplicity that has always pleased everyone'. LaMilordine, a gigue of the type the French considered to be English presumably describes an English milord from the exiled Stuart Court. A Menuet with anornamented repeat ends the conventional set of dances which are characteristicof most instrumental suites in both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In his Preface the composer speaks ofpieces in a 'new and diversified character'. Once the dances are left behindthis aspect of Couperin's harpsichord music becomes increasingly apparent. Itcomes 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 factarrangements of previously published songs. To judge by the titles of many ofthem it seems probable that he composed incidental music for some of thedivertissements written for the Duchess of Maine. This unconventional pupil of Couperin'scould not bear the Court as it was under Mme de Maintenon. People complainedthat 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 hecould do no wrong, the Duchess must have had more reason than most, given hertastes, 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 theDuchess with envy and delight. This make-believe world was peopled with nymphsand shepherds. The Duchess suffered from insomnia so fireworks anddivertissements filled the long days and short nights. The 'elite' of theKing's Music took part beside bands of real peasants who danced and sang. In1702 The King's Musicians appeared as Sylvains in a divertissement at Chatenayand sang the praises of the Duke of Maine. Les Sylvains, clearly popularas it also appeared in a lute version, is marked majestueusement. Muchof it appears to be the accompaniment to a missing vocal line so it is likelythat both the keyboard and lute versions are arrangements, perhaps of a chorussinging the praises of L' Auguste. It is a rondo, a form often used byCouperin 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 wasoriginally published in 1707 when the title was in, the singular. It is areference to the Duchess of Maine's own Order of Chivalry, the Order of theHoney Bee, the motto of which was taken from Tasso; 'The bee is small but shemakes big wounds'. The Duchess was also very small, she and her two sisterswere known not as the Princesses of the Blood, but as The Dolls of the Blood. LesAbeilles is one of the shortest pieces. The Duchess's Order was one of themany Lodges of Adoption of Freemasonry, which had female members, the bee beinga common masonic symbol. A choir and orchestra provided music at the initiationceremonies.
La Nanete possibly portrays Anne Bulkeley, Duchessof Berwick, known as 'la belle Nanette' .The Duke was an illegitimate son ofJames n and resident in France. Like La Milordine this piece is probablyan 'English' dance. It is followed by the sarabande Les Sentimens, oneof Couperin's most gently expressive pieces which is in complete contras