Dom André Laberge, o.s.b. is the organist of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac (Québec, Canada). He first studied at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal where he had Bernard [...]
They spoke about it
Every nation in the Baroque era, it seems, felt an obligation to provide history with a family of musicians, and, from the most humble to the greatest, members of these family distinguished themselves in several musical genres. We think, of course, of the Bachs in Germany, Scarlattis in Italy and, to a lesser extent, the Loeillets in Belgium and the Purcells in England. Our particular subject matter, however, is the Couperins, a family of French composers whose artistry was essentially devoted to keyboard instruments, particularly the harpsichord. In most cases, the early members of the lineage practised music more or less as amateurs, their descendants inheriting their passion for the art. Thus Mathurin Couperin, ancestor of Louis and François le Grand, was a farm labourer who occasionally conducted legal and financial matters, but also a “joueur d’instruments” (instrument player) at Chaumes-en-Brie since 1586. His son Charles was a merchant, garment-maker, “maître joueur d’instruments tant haut que bas” (on loud and soft instruments) and also, as one document indicates, an organist. On July 24 of an undetermined year around 1650, three of his sons, Louis, Charles II and François, gave an aubade at the country house, near Chaumes, of the illustrious spinet-player Jacques Champion de Chambonnières. Chambonnières, “pleasantly surprised by the fine symphonie which was heard,” according to du Tillet, encouraged the brother to leave the province for Paris. Louis, François and Charles II thus became the first full-time musicians of the family. While there is no surviving works of either Charles II or François—both were organists and harpsichordists—the works of Louis Couperin rank him among the greatest musicians of the seventeenth century. A protégé of Chambonnières, he arrived in Paris in 1650, three years later became organist of Saint-Gervais—a prestigious appointment held by the Couperin family until 1830—and, in 1657, was named treble viol-player at the Chambre du roi. His early death in 1661 ended what would certainly have been a brilliant career. He only composed instrumental music, and of this production, 70 organ works and 132 harpsichord pieces have survived. Although some of the harpsichord music appears in various documents, their principal source is the Bauyn manuscript, a posthumous collection named after one of its early owners, Bauyn d’Angervilliers. In the mid-seventeenth century, the harpsichord was slowly replacing the lute as the salon’s favoured instrument. Couperin’s music shares the delicate sophistication found in the art of both instruments—eloquent and mannered portraits, an exquisite variety of dances—but its often bold harmonic language, intense expression, diversity of keys and masterful counterpoint clearly distinguishes it. This was already noticed by Couperin’s contemporaries, and one witness, the Abbé Le Gaulois, testified that “the musician is highly thought of by learned people, for his music has plentiful chords, is finely drawn and embellished with beautiful dissonance and imitations.” Contrary to what was gradually becoming a tradition for more and more harpsichordists and lute-players, Couperin’s pieces are not organized as suites (accountable, perhaps, to the fact that he did not collect them in view of publication). The Bauyn manuscript opens with the préludes non mesurés (unmeasured preludes), presented in a random order of keys, followed by the dances grouped in a sequence of keys; this means, for example, that among the 20 or so pieces in D minor, we find four courantes and four sarabandes. It is thus left to the performer to choose a combination that would appropriately constitute a suite, drawing among other dances the required allemande, sarabande and gigue. The préludes non mesurés are particularly remarkable works. They are written in whole-notes tied with graceful arabesques, the length of which show the duration of the various tones. Although these works are meant to suggest improvisation—in that, they are similar in style to Frescobaldi’s toccatas—Couperin, as did his friend Froberger, interrupts the flow of some of his préludes with a contrasting middle section written in a more contrapuntal style. Couperin’s art—his preludes, dances, chaconnes and passacailles—makes magnificent use of the multitudinous tone qualities of the harpsichord, an instrument whose making had been brought, by then, to the highest level of perfection. François Couperin, known quite early as le Grand, was the son of Charles II and thus nephew of Louis. His music evokes an entirely different universe than that of his famous uncle. He also composed essentially for the harpsichord, but while Louis inaugurated the “siècle de Louis XIV,” François witnessed the beginning of a new era, that of Louis XV; expression is still the main concern, but the means have changed, and François’ art manifests a unique poetic intent. Born and raised on rue du Pourtour-Saint-Gervais, he replaced his father as parish organist and later became organiste du roi at the Royal Chapel in Versailles. He also won the rights to inherit d’Anglebert’s appointment, became harpsichordist of the Chambre du roi and taught some of the children of the noblesse, the princesse de Conti, the princesse de Monaco, the duc de Bourgogne (who loved music “with a kind of rapture,” according to Saint-Simon), the comte de Toulouse and Mlles de Nantes and de Blois. Between 1713 and 1730, he published four Livres—which consisted of 240 harpsichord pieces in various styles and genres assembled in 27 ordres—and one treatise on instrumental practice, L’art de toucher le clavecin. To establish the expressive range of the instrument, he anticipated all possible ornaments—they are as a fine gold dust within the music’s flow—and precisely indicated how to play both beautifully and in the “appropriate manner” (a “belle exécution,” he advised, depends “less on strength then on the suppleness and independence of the fingers”). Couperin, for reasons still unknown, designated as “Ordres” his harpsichord suites; perhaps he felt the need to order his dances, portraits and evocations as a way of better illustrating, as La Fontaine, different features of this “vast comedy, made up of a hundred varied acts, and whose stage is the universe.” Each ordre has a basic tonality; the Premier Livre offers lengthy suites from which, as was the case with Louis, the performer can draw any number of movements, but from the Second Livre on, each ordre is composed as a whole, has its own atmosphere, and dances are set aside in favour of characteristic pieces and rondeaux. The ordre is thus offered as a tableau of a small fragment of the world, of nature and of life. The Sixième Ordre, in B-flat major—a key that suggests, according to Charpentier, something “splendid and joyful”—is painted in bucolic and rustic tones. While Les Langueurs-Tendres show, in the words of Saint-Evremond, that “To languish is the most beautiful movement of love,” La Bersan is an homage either to André Bauyn, Fermier Général and Lord of Bersan, or to his daughter Suzanne, and the gigue Le Moucheron has strong affinities with the works of La Fontaine. In the case of Les Baricades Mistérieuses, the mystery has yet to be solved: we do not know whether its title comes from the lute-style writing, with syncopations and suspensions, of its melodic lines, which could portray the tangled branches of a barricade, or if it describes the intertwined threads of fine lace, the lovely and mysterious attire of the demoiselles. The Septième Ordre is in G major and G minor—respectively, according to Charpentier, “tenderly joyful” and “magnificent and serious.” Four of its pieces are written in the low register of the instrument, and Couperin often calls for the style luthé (lute style), or brisé (broken style), which consists of never playing together the notes of the melody and those of the bass, or of the middle voices. The model for La Chazé has never been identified, but we do know that La Ménetou evokes Françoise-Charlotte de Mennetoud, a child prodigy who played for the king at age nine. Les Petits Ages is a four-part portrait, perhaps of Coupe-rin’s youth and discovery of “the bud- ding muse.” Les Amusemens, finally, is an answer to Les Délices, and closes this delicate and voluptuous suite. The name of the Couperins is forever associated with the harpsichord. Both Louis and François belonged to the Grand Siècle, but while the uncle enjoyed having an instrument that rings lavishly, the nephew prefered discreet confidence, irony and tenderness. If by “romantic” we mean an extreme outpouring of personal feelings, then the expression certainly does not apply to the Grand Siècle. Yet he knew all passions and was concerned with their artistic and literary transposition; it did, in its greatest moments, show a poetic sense both intense and refined, and all these features were brilliantly revealed by Louis and François Couperin. This concept survived Romanticism: indeed, Debussy and Ravel became its dignified heirs. ” The harpsichord is perfect in its range and brilliance, but since one can neither increase nor diminish its tones, I will always be grateful to those whose magnificent artistry, supported by good taste, can make this instrument capable of expression. It was to this end that my ancestors applied themselves, independently of the fine composition of their pieces. I have tried to perfect their discoveries: their works are still appreciated by those of refined taste. With regards to my pieces, their qualities of freshness and variety have caused them to be received favorably in society, and I hope that the works I offer here which are unknown to the public will become as successful as those already known. ” François Couperin, Pièces de clavecin, Premier Livre, 1713.