COUPERIN, L.: Harpsichord Suites / Tombeau de M. de Blancocher
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Louis Couperin (c. 1626 - 1661)
Works for Harpsichord
Little is known of Louis Couperin's first twenty-five years. Even the exact date of his birth is unclear, as the registers for Chaumes, the Couperin family home, are missing. Although Chaumes was in the very provincial region of Brie in North East France, there was at that time a large community of wealthy aristocrats who patronised the arts and no doubt Louis Couperin and his two brothers benefited from the talents of the court musicians, as well as the lessons they received from their musical father.
Other indications of Louis Couperin's burgeoning talent are anecdotal, though charming. The story goes that, together with his brothers, he marched the fifteen kilometres to the chateau of Monsieur Chambonnières and there performed one of his own compositions. The grand old harpsichordist was so impressed that he persuaded Louis Couperin's father that the young composer should accompany him to Paris and be presented at the Royal Court. This he duly did and the young man was received there to great acclaim.
Louis Couperin became a full-time musician at court and as a result travelled widely outside Paris. He refused the post of resident harpsichordist, 'joueur d'espinette', in deference to his mentor Chambonnieres, who still held the position. Instead, he took a post as a treble-viol player, showing what a remarkably versatile musician he was. In fact Chambonnières soon retired, as he was unable to play the ever more complicated figured bass (improvised harmonic patterns above a given bass line) so Louis Couperin became 'joueur d'espinette' in all but name.
More recently Louis Couperin has been overshadowed by his nephew, François le Grand. Though François Couperin was indeed to bring a new elegance, he owed so much to his uncle, who had revived old genres and breathed new life into French harpsichord music. One of the principle reasons for Louis Couperin's neglect is the loss of a large proportion of his music. What we have consists mostly of harpsichord music, though there is also music for organ, viol consort and shawm choir. 215 pieces survive and these are found in two manuscripts, neither in Louis Couperin's own hand. The 'Parville' manuscript mixes movements by Louis Couperin with music of other composers. In the more comprehensive 'Bayn' manuscript the Préludes appear together at the beginning, followed by groups of pieces based around the thirteen respective tonal centres represented. In neither manuscript are these Suites arranged in the order in which they would have been performed.
The Préludes non mésurés represent Louis Couperin's most profound and influential addition to the repertoire. They replaced the hitherto improvised preludes that players were expected to perform before a suite. Although these new preludes are notated, they at first appear to be a confusing yet beautiful succession of random notes. Further investigation reveals, however, that although the form is exceedingly free, the writing is very intricate, with interesting melodic material and rich harmonic patterns. Two of the Préludes, the A minor and the F major, have central fugal sections which interrupt the otherwise seamless flow. Of these two, the A minor acknowledges in its title the composer's indebtedness to Johann Jacob Froberger, a German composer greatly influenced by both Italian and French styles. Louis Couperin probably met Froberger in Paris in 1649 or 1652 and later paid hommage by imitating directly the most famous of Froberger's Italianate Toccatas in this piece. The unmeasured prelude continued to flourish for another seventy years or so. Its demise was largely thanks to François le Grand, who refused to compose free preludes, as he did not trust the good taste of the executant.
The dance movements of Louis Couperin are in the conventional forms of the day, though they exploit a more exotic harmonic language and show greater rhythmic interest than the models of Chambonnières. The Allemande is a stately dance in four time, those in D major and F major to be played especially slowly. The Courante is a lighter dance: basically in three time, it skips coquettishly into two time and then back out again. The Sarabande and Menuet are both in three time, the former being noble and bold with a second beat emphasis and the Menuet more spritely, in this case with eccentric phrase lengths. The Gaillarde is another courtly dance in three time and the Branle de Basque a snappy show-piece. La Piémontoise is a slight oddity, resembling an entrée which formed part of an orchestral overture. The Chaconne and Passacaille, almost interchangeable as titles, are the crowning glory of the dance movements, being repetitions of a Grand couplet interspersed with variations. It is here that Louis Couperin really shows his control over long-term musical form.
The Tombeau de Mr Blancrocher is a musical tribute to the great lutenist, who died in 1652. Blancrocher died falling downstairs and this is reflected in the large downward leaps in the bass voice, while the passages in the high registers of the harpsichord represent his ascent to heaven. This very special piece is in F major and when performed in a mean-tone temperament, as it is here, produces a lamenting melodic figure heard no less than six times.
The Mackinnon and Waitzman harpsichord used in this recording was supplied and tuned by Claire Hammett. It is based on the Colmar Ruckers, a double manual harpsichord with the range GG-d3. This instrument was made by Joannes Ruckers in 1624 and later modified by 'petit ravalement', a technique of the late 17th and 18th centuries in which the original case is maintained and the keyboards and action are replaced by those of a larger compass and of a more contemporary taste. The original is in Le Musée des Unterlinden, Colmar, France. It has been kept in the de Sade family for many generations since the eighteenth century.
114 comma meantone and an 18th century French temperament
The 114 comma meantone and its related temperaments were probably the most common in use throughout Europe for a period of two hundred years. Undoubtedly, most keyboard music from the 16th into the 18th century was written with this temperament in mind. Eleven out of twelve fifths are reduced by 114 of the syntonic comma, causing the major thirds, made up of any four such fifths, to be pure. The remaining fifth as a consequence is very wide and too out of tune to be musically useful. It is known as a 'wolf' fifth.
The French temperament is described by several musicians and theorists of the time, most notably J. La R. d' Alembert in Elemens de Musique, Paris 1752 and less accurately by Jean-Phillippe Rameau in 1726 and Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1765. This temperament has fifths of varying sizes, creating a hierarchy of thirds, ranging from pure and sweet to wide and pungent. Wolf intervals have been avoided. As this temperament favours the thirds in sharp keys, it has been chosen for several of these Suites.
1994 Programme notes by Laurence Cummings, Claire Hammett and Mimi Waitzman.
Laurence Cummings was born in Birmingham, England, in 1968. He studied at Oxford University as Organ Scholar in Christ Church Cathedral, graduating with a First Class Honours degree in Music. He went on to study with Robert Woolley at the Royal College of Music where he won the prestigious inter-collegiate Raymond Russell Prize. More recently he has been stu