François Couperin: celebrated Baroque composer and harpsichord virtuoso

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

The 18th-century French composer François Couperin lavished as much colour and character on his work as any artist of his era, says Kate Bolton-Porciatti

Few composers offer such a vibrantly pictorial vision of their world as François Couperin, whose music is a gallery of portraits, landscapes, cameos and miniatures – as mysterious and luminous as the paintings of Claude Lorraine, as sensuous and subtly coloured as Watteau’s fêtes galantes.

Through flickering sounds, we glimpse the Sun King and the Versailles courtiers in their gilded salons; we see street performers and parades, military marches, religious processions; we inhabit an Arcadian world populated by satyrs and fauns, or a pastoral idyll of sheep and nightingales and peasants dancing to droning musettes.

We meet Couperin’s musical colleagues, his aristocratic pupils, and the coterie of friends and family who inspired his endlessly affectionate portraits.

When was François Couperin born?

François was born in Paris on 10 November 1668 into a musical family. His father, Charles, is the organist at St Gervais.

Who were the Couperins?

Along with the Bach family, the Couperins were one of the most distinguished of the Baroque musical dynasties who passed on the skills of a professional musician from father to son, and – as we’ll see in the case of François Couperin – to daughter.

Couperin’s great-grandfather, Mathurin, was recorded in the 1580s as a ‘joueur d’instruments’ in the town of Beauvoir, while his grandfather, Charles ‘the Elder’, was a peasant garment-maker and ‘master instrumentalist’ who settled in the rural village of Chaumes-en-Brie.

The few bits of furniture listed in Charles’s will were far outnumbered by the musical instruments which his eight children would have played: six viols, soprano, tenor and bass oboes, pairs of flutes, mandolins and ‘pocket violins’ used to teach dancing.

Among those children were Couperin’s father, Charles (known as ‘Couperin-cadet’, 1639–79), and his uncle, Louis (1626–61), whose precocious talent led him out of provincial Chaumes to Paris, where he became the celebrated organist at one of the most important churches in the capital: Saint-Gervais in the fashionable Marais district.

In 17th-century France, a professional position could be handed down from father to next-of-kin, just as property was inherited. So, when Louis Couperin died at the age of 35, his brother Charles inherited the role of organist at Saint-Gervais. Charles, in turn, was succeeded by his son François when he came of age in 1685, and the line continued down the centuries until 1826.

The organist’s duties were to play at some 400 services a year, as well as marriages, funerals and feast days when the church was lit and decorated. It was for Saint-Gervais that the young François Couperin produced his first compositions: colourful organ masses written for the magnificent organ still in the church today.

When did Couperin become organist at Versailles?

Couperin was 25 when Louis XIV chose him as organist of the Chapelle du Roi at Versailles. Within a year, he was appointed Teacher and Master of Harpsichord Playing to the royal children. Yet even in this exalted position, which earned him the title of Couperin le Grand to distinguish him from other members of his family, he often paid tribute to ‘the work of my ancestors’.

The young Couperin developed a taste for Italian music at the gatherings the Abbé Mathieu, where he probably first heard the sonatas of Corelli, ‘whose music I shall love until the day I die’. Indeed, his earliest chamber works imitate the Italianate style so convincingly that (using a pseudonym) he passed them off as genuine Italian works. Small wonder his contemporary Le Cerf de la Viéville called him ‘an impassioned servant of Italy’.

Throughout his later career, Couperin aimed for a ‘bi-lingual’ musical idiom, melding his native French style with the fashionable Italian. In his programmatic Apothéose de Lully of 1725, Apollo on Mount Parnassus persuades Corelli and Lully that ‘the union of French and Italian musical styles will result in the perfection of music.’ Couperin’s search for this ‘perfection’ manifests itself in different ways.

In Les Nations (1726), he draws together four of his early trio sonatas in the Italian style and pairs each one with a French suite. The two musical languages are more subtly fused in the aptly titled Les goûts-réünis (‘The Union of Styles’). In its ten concerts – dance suites, probably intended for the Sunday afternoon chamber-music gatherings at Versailles and ‘played on all types of musical instruments’ – the languorous and embellished French idiom is impregnated with Italian lyricism and vivacity.

What was Francois Couperin most famous for?

In 1713, the publisher Du Plessis announced the first of four books of ‘Pièces de clavecin composed by Monsieur Couperin, organist to His Majesty’s Chapel’. Unlike other collections by the great French Baroque harpsichordists (Clérambault, Marchand, Rameau) whose pièces are dance-based, Couperin penned over 200 character pieces, grouped by key and mood into ‘ordres’, which evoke people, places and the everyday.

He harks back to a French tradition of creating portraits in words and music, to which the Mercure galant gazette of December 1704 attests: ‘About 40 years ago, a fashion sprang up in France which was taken up by all who could think and reflect about themselves. Everyone studied himself … in order to depict himself in works called portraits, written in prose or verse or a mixture.’

One might imagine a kind of parlour game in which Couperin’s circle would try to guess the identity of the awkward ‘L’Adolescente’, the ‘difficult and haughty’ ‘La Prude’, the majestic ‘L’Antonine’, or the frail ‘Convalescente’ (one of Couperin’s most Bachian inspirations).

Today, we might wonder who inspired the tender ‘Fanchon’ or the voluptuous ‘Babiche’… Easier to pinpoint are his fellow musicians: the great viol player Antoine Forqueray in ‘La Superbe ou La Forqueray’ and the melancholic ‘La Morinéte’ which pays tribute to the composer Jean-Baptiste Morin.

Then there are the pieces named after the royal circle. We encounter the Sun King himself in the gallant ‘L’Auguste’ and the grand ‘La Majestueuse’, and we meet his noble pupils: the precociously gifted Princess of Chabeuil, who played Couperin’s pièces ‘like a kitten who toys with the ornaments that bother her’, while the daughters of the Duke of Bourbon take graceful curtsies in ‘La Charoloise’, ‘La Princesse de Sens’ and ‘La Bourbonnoise’.

Also scattered through the pièces are evocations of rural life: there are orchards in bloom (‘Les Vergers fleüris’), where little windmills turn (‘Les petits moulins à vent’) and, in the 14th ordre, nightingales, linnets and warblers sing, prefiguring Messiaen. One can hear the swish of scythes in ‘Les Moissonneurs’ (The Reapers) – as vivid a description of reaping as Tolstoy’s in Anna Karenina.

Elsewhere, Couperin paints a vision of pastoral Arcadia populated by woodland fauns (‘Les Silvains’), a place where satyrs dance (‘Les Satires-chèvres-piéds’) and females enchant and seduce (‘L’Enchanteresse’; ‘La Séduisante’). These are the musical equivalents of Watteau’s exquisite fêtes galantes – elegant gatherings in an idealised, bucolic setting.

Italian commedia dell’arte had long been popular in France, and its clowns and servants find their way into the comédies of Molière, the canvases of Watteau and Couperin’s pieces ‘in burlesque style’. In L’Arlequine, he sketches the clownish Harlequin with cloddish rhythms and clashing intervals of sevenths and ninths. In La Pantomime, guitar-like strummings, dissonances and grimacing rhythms conjure up the antics of the popular guitar-playing commedia actor Tiberio Fiorilli, or ‘Scaramouche’.

Elsewhere, Couperin lets us join the whirligig of Parisian fairgrounds, street theatre and strolling players. The 11th ordreLes Fastes de la grande et ancienne Mxnxstrxndxsx, is a musical satire in which the composer parodies the ancient Parisian Guild of Minstrels (the Ancienne Ménestrandise – Couperin replaces each vowel with an x, as if to avoid libel!). Here march minstrels, beggars and hurdy-gurdy players; there limp the lame on crutches; jugglers, tumblers and dancers cavort with bears and monkeys, and the troupe falls into a drunken revel at the end.

What is François Couperin known for?

Beneath its decorative veneer, Couperin’s music was meant to touch the depths of human emotion. His celebrated 1716 treatise on harpsichord playing creates a double entendre in its title: L’Art de toucher le clavecin – the art of touching, physically (the harpsichord) and emotionally (the soul). Among his more profound utterances are the elegiac Pièces de violes of 1728 – one of his last publications. Here, he explores a ‘grave, dense world’, with plangent Sarabandes and the ‘Pompe Funèbre’, a meditation on death.

Perhaps the most sublime of his reflective works are the Leçons des ténèbres. Named after the Holy Week service of Tenebrae and performed in sombre candlelight to symbolise the darkness of Christ’s Passion, Couperin’s settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah are among the most intimate and expressive of all French Baroque sacred music. With their flickering vocal lines and yearning continuo, they epitomise what the 20th-century critic Wilfred Mellers describes as the ‘sensuous tenderness and wistfulness’ of Couperin’s late music that springs from an awareness of the transience of all things.

When did Couperin die?

Shortly after taking out a new ten-year licence to print his music, François Couperin died, aged 64, in Paris in 1733.

After the composer’s death, his elder daughter Marie-Madeleine played out her life as organist and nun at the Cistercian abbey of Maubuisson, while his second daughter Marguerite-Antoinette took over his role as court harpsichordist. The church of Saint-Gervais and the Couperin’s family home in the old Rue Neuve des Bons Enfants both still stand, and the music that emanated from them will surely stand even longer.

We named Couperin one of the greatest French composers ever

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