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Francois Couperin: The beginning of a long look.

Couperin Pieces de Clavecin Vol 1

Open Book One of Couperin’s Pieces de Claveçin and look at the first two pages of music. In contrast to the published volumes of d’Anglebert, Rameau, Le Roux and Marchand, Couperin opens not with a prélude, or improvisatory awakening of the instrument but rather with an Allemande Grave. Four of the five suites of Book 1 (and several in the following three volumes) have monumental works that serve as introductions to each collection of pieces, collections he calls ordres. Performed with the required repeats, these allemandes are impressive in stature and reminiscent of canvases of Charles Le Brun, the great history painter to Louis XIV. Each allemande establishes a compelling atmosphere but then explores textures, ranges, rhetorical figures and motion. With Couperin, our ears voyage through sound and time as our eyes travel over space and form in a painting by Charles Le Brun. The dark browns or greens of the land, the blue and white of the sky above and the gold and pinks of a distant sunset or the black and red horrors of battle all have comparable contrasts in the music of Couperin. These allemandes alone justify calling him Le Grand, the title bestowed on François Couperin during his lifetime. #

The fall of the angels, Charles Lebrun and the grand style

With the publication of Book 1 in 1713, Couperin assumed his rightful position in a tradition of Parisian harpsichord composition already in full flower and influential throughout Europe. His earliest style is formed in the salon, theater and church of Louis XIV. If he were not a genius, his music might have been pompous. If he were not a genius his works might have been precious and obscure. Thanks to that genius, he takes the language of the later 17th century to its highest level. At the same time, he hints that Paris is headed towards a great change in artistic values. Indeed, just as the architect Gabriel mastered the decorative styles of Louis XV and then invented the contrasting style of Louis XVI, so too do Couperin’s Books 2, 3, and 4 for the harpsichord define the new musical rococo. His music parallels the exquisite melancholy of French painter Antoine Watteau and the virtuosity and wit of the pastel portraitist, Maurice Quentin La Tour, both younger contemporaries. #

View in a Park of Antoine Watteau

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Comments

  1. Andy, this is truly wonderful writing about music to accompany what I already know is an exquisite performance. Is there a book in the works?

  2. Stephen Hamilton says:

    sounds ravishing…can’t wait to hear the rest.

  3. Thank you for this beautiful writing and playing, Andy.

  4. Charlie Brink says:

    Hi A,

    Congratulations on both the recording and the blog!
    Which harpsichord is that on Les Regrets? Sounds beautiful.

    Charlie

    • HI Charlie
      The harpsichord is a 1991 Rutkowski and Robinette copy of a Ruckers, the original having been enlarged (petit ravalement) in the later 17th century probably in Germany. The original is housed at the Met Museum in NYC and was owned by Hugh Gough. It is a four jack, three register instrument with a dogleg coupler with a range of BB/GG-d3.

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