Margaret Little discovered the viola da gamba at the age of eleven at the CAMMAC Lake MacDonald Music Centre and instantly fell in love with the instrument and Early Music repertoire. She founded the [...]
They spoke about it
The pieces that follow are of another species than those I have given up to now. They are suitable not only for harpsichord, but also for violin, flute, oboe, gamba, and bassoon. I fashioned them for the small chamber concerts to which Louis XIV summoned me almost every Sunday of the year […] If they are as much to the public’s taste as they were agreeable to the Sun King, I have enough to subsequently make several complete volumes. I have arranged them by key and preserved the titles under which they were known at court in 1714 and 1715. (Preface to the Concerts Royaux)
Published in 1722 as a supplement to the third book of harpsichord pieces, the Concerts Royaux (Royal Concerts) were written for a mixed ensemble of strings and woodwinds, playing together or in alternation; like other French composers of the time, François Couperin (1668-1733) left the instrumentation to the musicians’ discretion. When performing them at Versailles for the court, Couperin played the harpsichord and was accompanied by violinist François Duval (a member of the Vingt-quatre Violons du Roy), oboist Philidor (André Danican, known as Philidor “the elder” or his son Anne, both of whom were close to the King), bassoonist Pierre Dubois, and gambist Hilaire Verloge, nicknamed “Alarius.” Couperin’s writing seems to imply that certain lines should be played on woodwinds; for instance, the articulation of some final cadences, such as in “Échos” of the Deuxième Concert, lend themselves naturally to woodwinds. The musicians on this recording had free reign to experiment in this regard, choosing to give prominence either to a juxtaposition of musical colours, to a more homophonic treatment, or to lighter, ethereal interpretations. Hence, the liveliness of the “Gigue” in the Premier Concert is conveyed more naturally by smaller forces, while the sombre “Prélude” and “Sarabande” of the Troisième Concert are better served by a blend of complementary timbres.
These works, which contributed to Couperin’s renown, heed the will of their commissioner, Louis XIV, in taking the form of the oldest French suites. While they appear to lean more toward lightness than depth, their structure is a subtle amalgam of Italian and French styles, the double seal of Couperin’s oeuvre. Though deeply influenced by the heritage of his father and uncles, master organists from whom he inherited his melodic elegance and taste for dance and ornamentation, he was equally taken very early on with the Italian tradition, as evidenced by his fondness for symmetry and his subtle use of chromaticism.
Representative of an era, the Concerts royaux are suites composed of five to seven pieces, with common dances such as the allemande, gigue, minuet, and courante balanced by aristocratic airs and sarabandes. Further contrast is provided by the occasional unconventionally named piece, such as “Air tendre,” “Air contrefugué,” and “Échos” of the Deuxième Concert. Lacking any distinguishing subtitles, preceded by preludes, and anchored in the same key, the works are designed to be played together, quick movements succeeding slow ones, from allemande to gigue. Most are based on a binary form, with each section repeated. Several, however, such as the aforementioned “Échos,” the “Muzette” and “Chaconne” of the Troisième Concert or the “Forlane” of the Quatrième Concert take a rondo form, alternating couplets and a recurring refrain.
Couperin wrote these works for two voices, with the exception of the “Menuet en trio” of the Premier Concert, the “Prélude” of the Troisième Concert, and the last two sarabandes, which contain a countermelody left to the performers’ discretion.
While at first glance the writing seems of somewhat less compact, it nevertheless possesses an undeniable elegance and sensitivity that never crosses over into superficiality. Note, for instance, the quiet gravity of the Premier Concert’s “Prélude,” with its ornate melodic line and descending major or diminished sevenths, the tenderness of the Trosième Concert’s “Muzette,” or the exuberance of the delightful “Forlane” that closes the cycle. Some pieces, such as the Troisième Concert’s “Sarabande,” seem to try and make time stand still, each chord moving naturally toward a reverential cadence. Others are demonstrations of style, such as the two juxtaposed courantes of the Quatrième Concert, one in the French style the other in the Italian. Certain octave leaps are reminiscent of Bach, who indeed used the theme of the Premier Concert’s “Allemande” for the Fugue in A-flat of the second volume of the Well-tempered Clavier.
Couperin had at all times an incredible capacity to evoke moods and atmospheres. As he said himself, it is always better to move listeners than to amaze them. So it shouldn’t be surprising that for Couperin, the ideal listeners for this royal music were “those who have exquisite taste.”
© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen