COUPERIN, L.: Tombeau de M. de Blancrocher / Preludes
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Louis Couperin (c.1626-1661)
Louis Couperin was born in Chaumes about the year 1626, the son of Charles Couperin, a versatile musician, tailor and merchant, who probably served as organist at the Benedictine Abbey in Chaumes. The sixth of eight children, Louis Couperin seems to have served as a notarys clerk in Chaumes-en-Brie between 1641 and 1645 and from 1646 in Beauvoir, and had his musical instruction from his father. In the early 1650s he and his two musician brothers, Charles and François, played an aubade at the château of the kings harpsichordist, Chambonnières, and it was through the latter that Louis Couperin was able to move to Paris. There he made an immediate impression on those who heard him and his meetings with the lutenist Charles Fleury, Sieur de Blancrocher, and the organist and composer Johann Jacob Froberger, whose music exercised a strong influence over his own work, proved fruitful. In April 1653 Louis Couperin was appointed organist at Saint-Gervais, a position that brought with it a residence in Paris. He rejected the offered position of royal harpsichordist out of deference to his patron Chambonnières, whose services at court were allegedly relinquished through his inability to accompany from a figured bass. Chambonnières was later able to sell the reversion of this position to dAnglebert. Couperin was instead granted by the King the title of treble viol player in the royal musical establishment. He enjoyed the patronage of Abel Servien, Surintendant des finances, and spent time at the latters château in Meudon. He died in Paris on 29th August 1661, leaving his property to his brothers, who lived with him in the Saint-Gervais organists house. An agreement between the two surviving brothers allowed them to share the principal property, the compositions of Louis Couperin, to which they both now had equal access. Charles Couperin, the youngest of the brothers and father of the most famous musician in the family, the younger François, later known as le grand, succeeded Louis as organist at Saint-Gervais. The older François seems to have earned a living as a teacher, the length of his lessons corresponding to the amount of wine supplied, and as an occasional deputy to his brother and nephew.
Selected Harpsichord Works
The French equivalent to Bach in its connotation as "musical dynasty" is Couperin. For over two hundred years the family played major rôles in musical life in the Île-de-France, and a branch even reached the court of Turin. Most music-lovers know something about François Couperin "Le grand", but there are those who think the accolade ought to go to his uncle Louis. The corpus of his surviving works is minuscule, compared to that of his nephew, and consists almost exclusively of brief movements for keyboard, but in a few short bars, he often achieves a synthesis between boldness and balance, between grace and grandeur, and between emotional depth and economy of means, which puts him firmly in the first rank of seventeenth-century composers.
It is the last-named quality, his compositional thrift, which has placed him outside the purview of listeners looking for a sensuous wallow in kaleidoscopic sound. Louis Couperin demands an initiates complete submission to the mysterious laws of pure musical utterance. Georges de la Tour, born about the same time as Couperins father Charles, is a visual parallel, but the painter profits from our ages intensely visual orientation, whereas mans ability to "unconsciously count" (Hume) in the language of music seems to be rushing towards extinction.
Couperins supposed difficulty as a composer culminates in the sixteen "unmeasured" preludes, notated in whole notes only, without barlines. These pieces have their roots in improvisation, but are highly crafted. There is clear rhythm here, and even metre, if the player can find them. That task is complicated by the poor quality of the two manuscript copies, made at an unknown number of removes from the lost autograph, in which they are preserved. The printing of keyboard music was prohibitively expensive in Louis Couperins day, and that, and his early death, help to account for his relative anonymity. Such preludes common in France for about seventy years were compared at the time to musical prose, as opposed to the metered dance movements that make up the majority of his extant harpsichord works. Puzzled listeners are gently advised not to worry too much about understanding the Préludes non mesurés. If you hear them repeatedly, you will begin to sense a kind of subterranean tempo, and the series of gestures will begin to cohere like an oration. You will soon find yourself profoundly moved.
The two sources mentioned above are large anthologies, loosely organised by key, with no trace of larger cyclical groupings. This recording is also grouped by key, with each key announced by a prelude. Three of the groups might be called suites, although the word is an anachronism, and no fixed order of dance movements existed in Couperins day. Two of the longest preludes stand alone, and I have borrowed a title for them, Toccade, from a similar piece by a composer of the next generation, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. They show the influence of Toccatas by Couperins friend Froberger not only in the hommage of the A minor preludes title, but also in the presence of a central fugue, their range of passionate declamation, and their expansive figuration.
The death of another friend is memorialised in the Tombeau de M. de Blancrocher. This famous lutenist fell down some stairs while inebriated and is said to have died in Frobergers arms. There may be another Tombeau on this disc, although it is not designated as such in the source. The F sharp minor Pavane is Couperins only example of this obsolete form, often used for Tombeaux, Lamentations and the like, as well as his only piece in this bizarre key. The sense of inconsolable personal grief it so searingly conveys makes me wonder whether it was composed on the death of Charles Couperin père (1653), who had given Louis Couperin and two of his brothers such a thorough grounding in music, back at home in Chaumes-en-Brie.