Couperin, François , (surnamed le Grand), the most illustrious member of the distinguished family and one of the greatest of French composers, son of Charles Couperin; b. Paris, Nov. 10, 1668; d. there, Sept. 11, 1733. He studied with his father, and later was a pupil of Jacques-Denis Thomelin, organist of the King’s chapel. In 1685 he became organist of St.-Gervais, which post he held until his death. On Dec. 26, 1693, after a successful competition, he succeeded Thomelin as organist of the Chapelle Royale, receiving the title of “organiste du roi”. In 1701 he was appointed “claveciniste de la chambre du roi, et organiste de sa chapelle,” and in 1717 he received the title “Ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du roi”. He also was made a chevalier of the Order of Latran. He was music master to the Dauphin and other members of the royal family, and ranked high in the favor of King Louis XIV, for whom he composed the Concerts royaux, which, during 1714–15, were played in Sunday concerts in the royal apartments. He married Marie-Anne Ansault (April 26, 1689), by whom he had two daughters: Marie-Madeleine (b. Paris, March 9, 1690; d. Montbuisson, April 16, 1742), who became organist of the Abbey of Montbuisson, and Marguerite-Antoinette (b. Paris, Sept. 19, 1705; d. there, 1778), who was a talented harpsichordist; from 1731 to 1733, she substituted for her father as harpsichordist to the King, being the first woman to hold this position. There were also 2 sons, Nicolas-Louis (b. July 24, 1707), who died young, and François-Laurent (b. c. 1708). Famed as an organist, Couperin also acquired a high reputation for his remarkable ability as a performer on the harpsichord.
Couperin’s compositions may be conveniently divided into 3 categories: those written for the church, those for the King, and those for the general public. More than half of his creative life was taken up with the religious compositions of the first 2 periods. These include Pieces d’orgue consistantes en deux Messes (1690; 42 pieces), formerly attributed to his uncle François, and, indeed, publ. under the latter’s name in Vol. five of Archives des maitres de I’orgue, ed. by Guilmant, but now established, through the researches of A. Tessier and P. Brunold, as the early work of Couperin le Grand; motets; Elevations’, Lemons de tenebres; etc. Couperin’s last and most prolific period was concerned exclusively with instrumental works, and in this field he achieved his greatest and most enduring distinction. In 1713, 1716, 1722, and 1730, he publ. the 4 vols. of his Pieces de clavecin, consisting of about 230 pieces or 27 “Ordres” or Suites, each suite being a series of dance forms, programmatic in title and content (La Majes tueuse, La Nanette, Les Petits Moulins a vent, Le Carillon de Cythere, Les Barricades mysterieuses, Les Tic-Toc-Choc ou Les Maillotins, et al.). In 1716 he publ. an expository work pertaining to the execution of his harpsichord pieces, L’Art de toucher le clavecin, which attained wide celebrity, and which influenced the keyboard style of Couperin’s great contemporary, J.S. Bach. Couperin also introduced the trio sonata to France, his first works in this form being an imitation of Corelli. Later, in 1726, he publ. 4 sonatas, Les Nations, described as “Sonades” or “Suites de symphonies en trio,” three of which are partial reworkings of earlier pieces. They are composed alternately in the strict form, sonata de chiesa, and the more flexible composite of dance forms, sonata de camera. The 3rd of the series, L’Imperiale, perhaps represents his most mature and inspired style. Living at a time during which the rivalry between French and Italian music reached its climax, Couperin sought to adapt the new Italian forms to his own personal, and essentially French, style. In his Les Gouts reunis (1724), a series of concerted pieces with strings very similar in form and spirit to the Pieces de clavecin, one finds titles such as Sicilienne and Ritratto dell’ amove. In the following year he publ. an Apotheose de Lully, in which the rivals Lully and Corelli are made to unite for the furtherance of art. Couperin’s style of composition was based on the basso continue, the most important voices usually being the uppermost, carrying the melody, and the bass. Nevertheless, his music sometimes attains considerable complexity (on occasion requiring as many as three harpsichordists for its proper execution). His melodic invention, particularly in his use of the rondeau, was virtually inexhaustible, his themes swift and expressive. An outstanding feature was his inventive mode of ornamentation, in the “gallant style” of the period. In 1933 the Lyrebird Press in Paris publ. a “complete” ed. of Couperin’s works, in 12 vols., under the chief editorship of Maurice Cauchie, assisted by P. Brunold, A. Gastoue, A. Tessier, and A. Schaeffner. The contents are as follows: Vol. I, Didactic works: Regie pour I’accompagnement and L’Art de toucher le clavecin-, Vols. II-V, the 4 books of Pieces de clavecin; Vol. VI, Pieces d’orgue consistantes en deux Messes; Vols. VII-X, chamber music, including Concerts royaux, Les Gouts reunis ou Nouveaux Concerts a I’usage de toutes les sortes d’instruments de musique, Les Nations, Le Parnasse ou I’Apotheose de Corelli, Apotheose de Lully, Pieces de violes avec la basse chiffree, and Sonades inedites; Vols. XI and XII, secular vocal music and religious music I and II. More recent eds. are in the Le Pupitre series, vols. 8 (Legons de tenebres; 1968), 21–24 (Pieces de clavecin, books 1–4; 1969–72), 45 (9 motets; 1972), and 51 (Pieces de violes; 1974); also separate eds. of Pieces de clavecin, edited by M. Cauchie (1968–72) and by K. Gilbert (1969–72).
H. Quittard, Les C. (Paris, 1913); C. Bouvet, Une Dynastie de musiciens frangais: Les C…. (Paris, 1919); J. Llongueras, C. o la Gracia (1925); A. Tessier, C. (Paris, 1926); J. Tiersot, Les C. (Paris, 1926); P. Brunold, F. C. (Eng. tr., Monaco, 1949); M. Cauchie, Thematic Index of the Works of C. (Monaco, 1949); W. Mellers, F. C. and the French Classical Tradition (London, 1950; second ed., rev., 1986); P. Citron, C. (Paris, 1956); D. Tunley, C(London, 1982); P. Citron, C. (Paris, 1996); C. Giglio, F. C. (Palermo, 1998).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire
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.
The standard work in English on Couperin's music is Wilfred H. Mellers, François Couperin and the French Classical Tradition (1950).
Beaussant, Philippe, François Couperin, Paris: Fayard, 1980. □
Illustrious baroque harpsichordist and composer (known as "Le Grand"); b. Paris, Nov. 10, 1668; d. Paris, Sept. 12, 1733. The greatest of a remarkable family of musicians, François had by 1690 been organist at Saint-Gervais for five years and published two organ Masses (for parish and convent use). From 1693 he was engaged at the Royal Chapel, first as harpsichord master to the royal princes (at the same time that fÉnelon was their tutor), and from 1717 as harpsichordist to the king. He received many honors, including the Lateran Order (1700). Although he composed church motets, élévations, secular songs, and occasional pieces, it is chiefly for his harpsichord and chamber music that he is remembered. The Pièces de clavecin, four books for harpsichord (1713–30), comprise 240 pieces arranged in suites. The trio sonatas and concertos, when sensitively edited and performed, may prove the equal of his harpsichord works. He produced also an important treatise on harpsichord technique, L'Art de toucher le clavecin (1717).
Bibliography: Oeuvres complètes, ed. m. cauchie, 12 v. (Paris 1933); L'Art de toucher le clavecin, Eng. tr. m. roberts (Leipzig 1933), Pièces de clavecin, ed. j. brahms and k. f. chrysander (Denkmäler der Tonkunst, 4; Leipzig 1869–71), re-ed. t. dart (Paris 1959). w. mellers, François Couperin and the French Classical Tradition (London 1950); Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. e. blom, 9 v. (5th ed. London 1954) 2:484–498. c. bouvet, Une Dynastie de musiciens français: Les Couperin (Paris 1919); Nouveaux documents sur les Couperin (Paris 1932). j. tiersot, Les Couperin (Paris 1926); "Two Centuries of a French Musical Family: The Couperins," tr. t. baker, Musical Quarterly 12 (1926) 406–431. p. citron, Histoire de la musique, ed. roland-manuel, 2 v. (Paris 1960–63); v. 9, 16 of Encyclopédie de la Pléiade 1:1634–39; Couperin (Paris 1956). c. addington, "Peace on Parnassus," Recherches sur la Musique française classique 23 (1985) 71–81. e. corp, "François Couperin and the Stuart Court at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 1691–1712: A New Interpretation," Early Music 28 (2000) 445–453. e. higginbottom, "François Couperin (ii) [le grand ]," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. s. sadie, v. 4 (New York 1980) 860–871. w. landowska, "French Music of the Past: François Couperin," in Landowska on Music, ed. and tr. d. restout (New York 1964) 259–267. d. m. randel, ed., The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music (Cambridge, Mass. 1996) 181–182. n. slonimsky, ed., Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (8th ed. New York 1992) 365–366.