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François Couperin

François Couperin

François Couperin (1668-1733), called Couperin leGrand, was a French composer, organist, and harpsichordist. His harpsichord and organ works are the touchstones of the 18th-century elegant style.

François Couperin was born on Nov. 10, 1668, in Paris. The Couperin dynasty was the most famous musical family in France during the 17th and 18th centuries. The first Couperin came to Paris from the region of Brie and became organist for the church of St-Gervais; his brothers soon followed. Couperin's father, Charles, succeeded his brother Louis on the latter's death in 1661. Charles died in 1679, and although François was only 11 years old he was named as Charles's successor at St-Gervais. The post was held open for François both on legal grounds and in the light of his extraordinary talent until he reached the age of 18.

In 1692 Couperin produced his first publications, pieces composed in the Italian manner. While retaining his post at St-Gervais, he entered the service of King Louis XIV in 1693 as one of the organists of the King's chapel at Versailles. Couperin prospered at court, being appointed master of music for the royal children in 1694 and ennobled in 1696.

Couperin composed much church music for use at Versailles. His keyboard and chamber music circulated in aristocratic circles. In 1713 the King granted Couperin the privilege of publishing his own music. He first issued a series of harpsichord suites (which he called ordres) written over the preceding 2 decades. In 1714 he published the three surviving sets from a projected group of nine Leçons des Ténèbres. L'Art de toucher le clavecin, his major theoretical work, appeared in 1716. The second order of harpsichord pieces came out in 1717, and the following year Couperin succeeded to the post of ordinaire de la musique to the King. Encouraged by the success of his publications, Couperin brought out sets and suites of earlier compositions in rapid order, and in 1730 his fourth ordre of harpsichord pieces was put together with the assistance of his family. He died on Sept. 12, 1733.

The bulk of Couperin's published work disappeared shortly after his death. Since his only son is presumed to have died in infancy, the post of organist at St-Gervais passed to a nephew. The position remained in the family until the French Revolution, and the dynasty itself died out in the 19th century.

Harpsichord and Church Compositions

Couperin's harpsichord music is marked by a very elegant style and reflects the urbane, sophisticated quality of courtly and intellectual life as it was experienced in the last years of the reign of Louis XIV. Couperin arranged his harpsichord music into dance suites, with faintly suggestive or arcanely humorous titles; these character pieces represent the height of the cultured taste of the 18th-century connoisseur.

The music is not programmatic in the common sense of the term. Instead, Couperin only suggests or hints at the conditions of civilized life in the manner of a memoir. Such titles as La Diane and La Charolaise from Ordre I or La Baccaneles and Le Réveil-matin from Ordre II are but intimate suggestions or reminiscences; the titles are not descriptive any more than the music itself pretends to describe the actualities implied in the title.

Couperin's church music is marked by a solemn stateliness. Although not at all pompous it is entirely in keeping with the demands of the court, and in his old age Louis XIV preferred order, serenity, and restraint above all else.

Manual of Performance Practice

L'Art de toucher le clavecin is the most important theoretical work with regard to performance practice surviving from 18th-century France. Here Couperin describes precise articulations for the very complicated style of ornamentation which dominated his harpsichord music. For Couperin ornamentation is not an additive process but one absolutely integral to the construction of the music itself; hence, accuracy is mandatory. This keyboard manual is also very illuminating with regard to such topics as fingering, phrasing, and notes inégales (the practice of performing evenly written notes unequally).

The accomplishments of Couperin le Grand are still among the least comprehended and appreciated of major 18th-century composers. Only with careful, scrupulously accurate re-creations in the proper style by the harpsichord can one begin to understand Couperin's supreme compositional gifts.

Further Reading

The standard work in English on Couperin's music is Wilfred H. Mellers, François Couperin and the French Classical Tradition (1950).

Additional Sources

Beaussant, Philippe, François Couperin, Paris: Fayard, 1980. □

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Couperin, François

Couperin, François (b Paris, 1668; d Paris, 1733). Fr. composer, harpsichordist, and organist, the most distinguished of his family, known as ‘Couperin le Grand’ because of his prowess as an organist. Taught by his father Charles and by Jacques Thomelin. Became org. of St Gervais, Paris, in 1685, holding post until his death. In 1693 succeeded Thomelin as org. of Royal chapel, with the title ‘organiste du Roi’ ( Louis XIV). In 1717 became ‘ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du Roi’, acknowledgement of his special position in the court. On almost every Sunday Couperin and colleagues gave chamber concerts for the king, for which he comp. what he called ‘Concerts’. These are in the form of suites and may have been intended for the hpd., of which he was a virtuoso, but were probably perf. on vn., viol, ob., bn., and hpd. (clavecin). Couperin was greatly influenced by Corelli and introduced into Fr. the Italian's trio-sonata form, himself publishing in 1726 Les Nations, a set of 4 Suites (Ordres) for 2 vn. and hpd. Also comp. ‘grand trio sonata’ sub-titled Le Parnasse, ou l'Apothéose de Corelli. In 1716 pubd. famous book L'Art de toucher le clavecin, containing instructions for fingering, methods of touch, and execution of agréments (ornamentation) in performing his hpd. pieces. This had strong influence on Bach. His 4 pubd. vols. of hpd. works contain over 230 pieces which proclaim him a supreme master of the kbd. Most have picturesque or descriptive titles and are like miniature tone-poems. This perhaps is a clue to their appeal to Richard Strauss, who orchestrated several Couperin pieces. First complete edn. of Couperin's hpd. mus. was prepared by Brahms and Chrysander, 1871–88. Ravel comp. a 20th-cent. tribute to him in Le tombeau de Couperin (1914–17). Prin. works: CHAMBER MUSIC: Quatre Concerts Royaux (1722); Les Goûts-Réunis ou Nouveaux Concerts (10 Concerts incl. the ‘Corelli’ Grand Trio, 1724); Les Nations (4 Ordres for 2 str. and hpd. 1726); Concert instrumental (‘in memory of the immortal Lully’, 1725). HARPSICHORD: Pièces de Clavecin, Book 1 (5 Ordres, 1713), Book 2 (7 Ordres, 1717), Book 3 (7 Ordres, 1722), Book 4 (8 Ordres, 1730). ORGAN: 42 Pièces d'orgue consistantes en deux Messes (1690). Also songs and religious works.

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Couperin, François

François Couperin (fräNswä´ kōōpərăN´), 1668–1733, French harpsichordist and composer, called "le Grand" to distinguish him from the other musicians in his family. His harpsichord music, in its charm, delicacy, and graceful ornamentation, represents the culmination of French rococo. He published four books of harpsichord suites (1713–30), which generally consisted of short, highly ornamental pieces, with descriptive titles such as Les Abeilles, Les Papillons, La Voluptueuse, and Le Rossignol en amour. His style of harpsichord playing, formulated in L'Art de toucher de clavecin (1716), influenced the keyboard technique of Bach. Couperin also composed much religious and chamber music and works for the organ. He was organist (1685–1733) at St. Gervais, Paris, a position held by members of the Couperin family from c.1650 until 1826. In 1693, Couperin was chosen by Louis XIV as one of the organists of the royal chapel, and later he was made music master of the royal family and harpsichordist at the royal court. The Couperin line of musicians had begun with three brothers—Louis (c.1626–1661), an organist, violinist, and composer of harpsichord suites, which are characterized by a vigorous, frequently dissonant style; François (c.1631–c.1710), a harpsichordist and violinist; and Charles (1638–79), an organist, the father of Couperin le Grand. The line extended to the great-grandsons of François, the second brother Pierre Louis (1755–89) and François Gervais (1759–1826), who were organists at St. Gervais.

See biography by P. Brunold (1949).

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Couperin, François

Couperin, François (1668–1733) French composer. He was organist and harpsichordist at the court of Louis XIV. ‘Le Grand’, as he was known, is now principally remembered for his many harpsichord pieces.

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