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1668 1733

François Couperin

Couperin, François
Composer of the most influential keyboard music of his time, he introduced popular forms and Italian style into French classicism.

Vital Statistics

Born: November 10, 1668 in St. Gervais, France
Died: September 11, 1733 in Paris, France
Nationality: French
Genre: Baroque
Performed as: Harpsichordist, organist
During the composer's lifetime: Louis XIV, the Sun King, presided over the expansion of French power and a height of its cultural prestige. Even after Louis' death in 1715, “absolutist” kings and queens modeled their courts after the French one at Versailles.

Biographical Outline

  • Heritage: Couperin is born into a very old dynasty, with music the family business as far back as the mid-16th Century. François probably receives his earliest musical education from his father.
  • Church job, 1685-1692: He inherits his father's church job as organist at St. Gervais upon his 17th birthday. He marries in 1689.
  • Copyright, 1689: Couperin obtains a Royal Privilege to print music (like modern-day copyright, but with far more protections), which eventually becomes quite lucrative, as he issues editions of his own works.
  • Royal connections, 1693-1717:He is appointed organist of the king. He teaches harpsichord to royal and noble children, and takes part in palace chamber music as well. Increasingly, Couperin subs for the court's chief harpsichordist and chamber composer Jean-Henri D'Anglebert, as the elder player's eyesight fails. He takes over D'Anglebert's position officially in 1717.
  • Italion lessons, 1710s: Couperin also works for the Stuart family (the family of King James II of England) at St. Germain-en-laye in the 1710s, where he makes contact with Italian musicians in an Italophile court.
  • Later Life, 1717-1733: Couperin publishes some of his greatest works, including the chamber collections Les nations (1726) and, most famously, Les goûts-réünis ("The Tastes Reunited") along with harpsichord collections. In the preface to his fourth book of harpsichord pieces, Couperin reports on his failing health. He had made this announcement in other prefaces, which makes him seem a bit like a hypochondriac. This time he is right, though: He dies three years later.

Fun Facts

  • Couperin the great: There were many famous Couperins throughout history. To distinguish François from his illustrious relatives, eighteenth-century writers referred to him as "Couperin le Grand."
  • In French, please, François: Couperin's music sounds ultra-French to us today, but some of his contemporaries were wary of what they found to be an overly Italian style. The outspoken music and cultural critic Le Cerf de la Viéville, for instance, criticized Couperin for being a "serviteur passionné de l’Italie" ("impassioned servant of Italy").
  • The Teacher: Couperin was the most important harpsichord instructor of his lifetime. His L'art de toucher le clavecin (The Art of Playing the Harpsichord), published in 1716 is both important and charmingly written. It includes endearing advice such as: practice avoiding grimacing while playing, and don't do rough work with your hands.
  • Mystery names: Couperin's harpsichord pieces have mysterious little titles, which scholars are still trying to explain: The Young Nuns, The Prude, The Shadowy One, The Mysterious Barricades.
  • Lost opportunity: Among Couperin's masterpieces are three choral works, the Leçons de tenébres ("Tenebrae lessons"), stunningly beautiful Lenten music which retells the biblical story of Jeremiah, an old French musical tradition. Unfortunately, Couperin only published the first three of a set of nine in 1713. The composer took out a publishing privilege for his remaining unpublished work in the year before he died, but no one in his family was interested in following through on the project, and so the remaining six Leçons are lost – but might someday be found in somebody's attic!

Recommended Biography

Wilfrid Mellers, François Couperin and the French Classical Tradition, (Faber & Faber, 1950, rev. ed., 1987), remains the most extensive English-language treatment of Couperin. It is out of print, but locatable on Amazon and other sellers.

For more recent takes, see the following (both with some idiosyncracies and innacuracies):

  • David Tunley, François Couperin and 'the Perfection of Music,' (Ashgate, 2004). At 172 pages, it's an excellent introduction.
  • Philippe Beaussant, François Couperin, translated from the French by Alexandra Land, (Amadeus Press, 2003.) Out of print.

Explore the Music

Harpsichord-writing is at the heart of almost all of Couperin's music. He published four books of works, compiled into suite-like formations called “orders.” These books contain some of the most masterful harpsichord music ever written. There are several complete recordings of the harpsichord works.

  • Christophe Rousset, Couperin, L’œuvre de clavecin, Harmonia Mundi France (11 CDs)
  • Davitt Moroney is currently in the process of recording the complete harpsichord music, with two discs slated for release later this year. Watch Plectra Music's website for details: http://www.plectra.org.
  • Chamber musicians, unite: Couperin did his best to reconcile the very different French and Italian music traditions of the time, largely through his chamber music, which we now find in suites such as Les nations (1726) and, most famously, Les goûts-réünis ("The Tastes Reunited"). Good recordings of the complete chamber music are conveniently located in one 7-CD box set from Brilliant Classics.
  • Lessons in darkness: The incomparable Leçons de tenébres has an equally incomparable recording, with Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie (Erato, 1 CD).
  • The organ music: Couperin's earliest publication stems from his first job. In 1690, he published his Pieces d'orgue. These works are quite forward looking, not being based on chant models, and adopting ideas from lots of then-popular musical forms, such as the Italian trio sonata

Recommended Websites

  • Wikipedia article on Couperin
  • Naxos records has a pretty large Couperin catalog, and a little biography with sound examples.
  • An old translation of Couperin's harpsichord treatise, L'art de toucher le clavecin, is available for download at Scribd.com.
Couperin -- L'Art de toucher le Clavecin look inside Couperin -- L'Art de toucher le Clavecin By François Couperin. Edited by Margery Halford. For Piano. Masterworks; Piano Collection. Alfred Masterwork Edition. Baroque; Masterwork. Early Advanced; Intermediate; Late Intermediate. Book. 84 pages. Published by Alfred Music Publishing (AP.580)

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Mass for the Convents look inside Mass for the Convents By François Couperin. For Organ. Masterworks; Organ Solo; Solo. Kalmus Edition. Baroque; Masterwork. Sheet. 44 pages. Published by Alfred Music Publishing (AP.K03315)

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