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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Couperin Family

Perhaps the most famous musical family in the history of western music is the Bach family. There were musical Bachs (I've counted 77) all over the north German states (and elsewhere) for centuries, from the 1500s to the 1800s, and of course one of those - Johann Sebastian Bach - stands as one of the greatest musical minds ever.

But in this article I want to share some things I've discovered about another musical family, this time a French one. While not as extensive as the Bachs, this family gave the world two remarkably good composers among a dozen or so musicians whose lives spanned the 16th century to the 19th. Unlike the Bachs, they moved in the highest circles of political and artistic power, and also unlike the Bachs three of the musicians remembered today were women. Welcome to a journey through the family tree of the Couperin dynasty.

The name Couperin is known from documents as early as the 1360s, and the musical family is known to descend from one Jehan Couperin, an illiterate farmer who died in 1591.

Jehan Couperin's son, Mathurin Couperin, was born around 1569 and died around 1640. Documents describe him as a merchant, and he may have been involved in the legal or financial professions, but he is also known to have studied music as a child. Later he is described as a player of musical instruments, and his wife, Anne Tixerrant, also came from a family which combined the legal and musical professions.

Jansz: Map of Paris (1618)

Mathurin Couperin had two sons, Charles and Denis. Charles Couperin was born around 1595 and documents describe him, like his father, as a player of musical instruments. Charles and his wife, Marie Andry, settled in the town of Chaumes, about 50 km south east of Paris, and this became the home territory for the Couperin family. In Chaumes, Charles Couperin became the organist at the Benedictine Abbey of St Pierre and he and Marie had at least eight children. He died in 1654.

Three of Charles Couperin's eight children became musicians, and one of these is remembered today as one of the supreme masters of 17th century French harpsichord music. This is Louis Couperin, who was born around 1626 and died in 1661. Louis Couperin is one of the two members of the Couperin family most commonly remembered today. [listen]

Louis Couperin had a tragically short life, and we know next to nothing of his first 23 years. What we do know, from a fascinating series of about 30 organ fugues written by Louis in the early 1650s, is that he worked assiduously on improving his composition technique. These fugues were carefully dated, which provides an insight into his development which is rare for the period.

Louis Couperin

Louis would have been exposed to some of the best music of the day in the region around Chaumes, and Paris was not far away as well. He was particularly acquainted with the organ music of the Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi and later would be influenced by his famous German contemporary, Johann Jakob Froberger.

This is one of Louis Couperin's organ fugues. [listen]

Louis Couperin quickly developed a reputation as a first-rate harpsichordist and organist. Some of his music impressed the famous harpsichordist Jacques Chambonnières enough for Chambonnières to take him to Paris around 1650. Once in Paris, Louis' career took off. He was appointed organist of the church of St Gervais in April, 1653, an appointment which began one of the most remarkable musical legacies in history: a Couperin would be organist of St Gervais for the next 173 years.

The Church of St Gervais

Louis Couperin also worked as a private musician for a Parisian diplomat, and he was eventually employed by the King as a viol player in the royal chamber; he's known to have played the viol in a number of the royal ballets.

Louis didn't marry and he died around the age of 35. None of his music was published during his lifetime and only a relatively small amount has survived. But what has survived is of crucial importance and of extraordinary quality. The organ fugues have already been mentioned; part of their importance lies in the fact that Louis was the first composer to write for specific organ registrations (or stop combinations). [listen]

But of supreme importance to the history of the keyboard is Louis Couperin's harpsichord music. About 130 pieces for harpsichord by him are known: preludes, allemands, courantes, sarabandes, gigues, chaconnes and so on. Normally we would think of such pieces as parts of suites but it seems that Louis intended these pieces to be arranged into suites at the whim of the performer; alternately they can of course be played as stand-alone works.

In his recording of the complete harpsichord works of Louis Couperin (which takes 4 CDs), Richard Egarr arranges the pieces into suites, and in his commentary rates Louis Couperin as the greatest of the dynasty. Certainly the harpsichord works constitute one of the great musical testaments by any composer.

The preludes are the most remarkable pieces. These are written in the style known as the "unmeasured" prelude. All the composer provided were the pitches of the notes - all written in semibreves - with no rhythm, time signature or barlines. There are sweeping curved lines which resemble slurs indicating a sort of phrasing; apart from this the rest is up to the performer to realise. These preludes require the performer to be immensely well-acquainted with the style of the period and immensely creative - if not downright brave - in making a coherent piece out of such freely-offered raw material. Obviously, every performer will create a different result. The recording linked here shares the score so you can see what the player has to play from. [listen]

The dance movements are rich, fascinating, and always varied. This is one of the many Sarabandes. [listen]

At the time of his death, in 1661, Louis Couperin was living in the organist's quarters at St Gervais. He shared this dwelling with two of his brothers, the other two of Charles Couperin's children who became musicians. These two brothers, François and Charles junior, are relatively minor names in the Couperin dynasty. François was born around 1631 and died sometime between 1708 and 1712. His musical involvements were probably limited to teaching and deputising for his brother (and perhaps his famous nephew) at St Gervais and elsewhere. There's no record of him holding any formal musical appointment and no works by him are known.

Perhaps François' lasting reputation was as a drinker rather than as a musician. One document states that he would make lessons go longer if there was a carafe of good wine on hand, and a note on one of his nephew's harpsichord pieces describes him as "a great musician and a great drunk".

The youngest of the three brothers was Charles junior, who lived from 1638 to 1679. It was Charles who succeeded Louis as organist of St Gervais when Louis died, and his reputation rested on his prowess as a performer rather than as a composer. Like François, no works by Charles junior are known. Charles' greatest musical legacy was rather his son, François junior. François Couperin, the nephew of Louis Couperin, is the other hugely important member of the Couperin dynasty, one of the most important French composers of the Baroque. To differentiate him from his drunken uncle François, the younger François is known as François "le grand" (the great), and his musical legacy is one of the treasures of French art.

François Couperin was born in 1668 and inherited his father's post as organist of St Gervais, a post he held until ten years or so before his death. It's perhaps surprising, then, that he published so little music for the organ. Publishing was a major preoccupation of Couperin's, and he held royal privileges to publish and sell his music for most of his professional life, but the music he published was mostly for harpsichord.

Anon: François Couperin le grand

François Couperin's published music for organ consists of two organ masses, a Mass for the Parishes and a Mass for the Convents. The organ mass in this context was a collection of short pieces designed to alternate with music sung by the congregation or choir, and these publications put Couperin immediately and permanently into the mainstream of French organ composition. [listen]

Couperin's reputation as an organist was clearly based on his improvisations, which of course are lost to us, and that reputation led to him being appointed one of the four organists to King Louis XIV. Each organist was required to work for the King for three months each year, an arrangement which enabled these musicians to pursue other professional involvements for the remaining nine months. Couperin was organist to the King for the first quarter of each year from 1693.

Rigaud: Louis XIV

Another genre of music to which François Couperin made an important contribution was chamber music, particularly in the form of trio sonatas, a form of music to which he returned regularly over the years. What is most revealing in Couperin's trio sonatas, though, is his indebtedness to two other famous composers: his compatriot Jean Baptiste Lully and the Italian Arcangelo Corelli. Near the end of his life, Couperin published two trio sonatas, one each in memory of these composers. These "apotheoses" describe the famous composers after death ascending to the Elysian fields and being welcomed by the gods and the muses into a very classical Greek version of the afterlife.

Couperin greatly admired Corelli, in particular. This his sonata called Parnassus, or The Apotheosis of Corelli. [listen]

Once appointed as organist to the King, Couperin's career took off as this provided him with contacts and employment at the highest levels of the aristocracy. He taught the harpsichord to members of the royal family, and like his uncle, Louis Couperin, François le grand was perhaps most famous as a performer, composer and teacher of the harpsichord.

Couperin's publications for the harpsichord were extensive. In all there were four books of harpsichord pieces, the first appearing in print in 1713, the last in 1730. Each book is made up of a number of ordres, or suites, totalling some 220 separate pieces. The four books exhibit a huge range of forms and styles, from dance movements typical of the period to programmatic and descriptive pieces. The actual people or events referred to in the enigmatic titles of many of the descriptive pieces can only be guessed at today, part of their enduring charm.

This is a piece from the second ordre of Book One called La Garnier. [listen]

The final area in which François Couperin made a significant contribution is sacred vocal music. He wrote a little secular vocal music (some stand-alone songs and canons, mainly), but his sacred music is substantial. It was mostly intended for performance at the royal chapel and is directly connected with his appointment as organist to the King.

Couperin wrote some 27 or so petits motets for a small number of solo voices and a small number of instruments; chamber motets on an intimate scale. This is a setting of the psalm Laudate pueri Dominum for two sopranos, bass, two violins and continuo. [listen]

The Palais Royal and its garden (1679)

Couperin's most famous sacred work is his Responsories for Tenebrae. He published the first three of the set of nine (the three Responsories for Maundy Thursday) but the other six (three for Good Friday and three for Holy Saturday) are lost. They were almost certainly composed as Couperin made reference to them in print on a number of occasions, but to date they have not been discovered. This is undoubtedly one of the great losses in music history, judging by the quality of the three Responsories which are known.

The Maundy Thursday Responsories (or Leçons as they're titled) are magnificent. The first two Responsories are scored for a solo voice and continuo; the third requires two voices. This is the third Responsory. [listen]

François Couperin made a major contribution to music history in another way. In 1716 he published a theoretical work, The Art of Playing the Harpsichord. This stands alongside a number of similar works by other great composers and performers of the 18th century as an invaluable guide to performance practice and musical aesthetics of the period. Couperin's fingerings, in particular, are used by performers today when they come to play his music and that of his contemporaries. Such works offer a rare insight into a bygone age for today's performers.

Title page of the first edition (1716) of François Couperin's treatise on harpsichord playing

François Couperin suffered from poor health for much of his life. Despite this he still maintained a punishing schedule of performing, teaching, writing, publishing and travelling, but he eventually succumbed to his various ailments and died in 1733 at the age of 64. The title of "le grand", if it wasn't in use during his lifetime, was certainly in use soon after his death, such was his reputation.

The Couperin dynasty continued in the generations following François le grand. François and his wife Marie-Anne Ansault had four children, one of whom, Marguerite-Antoinette (born in 1705) was a skilled harpsichordist. When her father became too ill to carry out his duties as harpsichordist to the royal court, Marguerite-Antoinette took over from him, the first woman to hold such a post. She was by all reports an extraordinary performer but no compositions by her are known to exist. She never married, and died around 1778.

French double manual harpsichord (Lyon, 1716)

Another branch of the family - the children of the elder François Couperin (the one famed for his drinking) - produced another female musician. François senior's second marriage produced four children, two of whom had musical careers. Marguerite-Louise Couperin was a singer and harpsichordist. The date of her birth isn't known but she died in 1728 around the age of 50. One contemporary report describes Marguerite-Louise as "one of the most celebrated musicians in our time, who sang with admirable taste and who played the harpsichord perfectly".

Her brother, Nicolas Couperin, was an organist and composer. He eventually succeeded his famous cousin François le grand as organist at St Gervais, and he must have done so with great honour as he was the first of the family to be buried in the church under the organ. Apart from one possible work - a motet whose authorship is far from certain - no music by Nicolas Couperin is known today.

Nicolas's son, Armand-Louis Couperin (who lived from 1727 to 1789) succeeded his father as organist at St Gervais. He was also a respected harpsichordist and composer. He had a reputation for being a kind, pleasant individual, and it's tempting to hear something of his nature in this delightful organ piece in the galant style he composed with very specific registration directions. It calls for chalumeau and bassoon stops in dialogue, accompanied by a choir of flute stops on another manual. [listen]

Armand-Louis Couperin (1766)

Armand-Louis and his wife, Elisabeth-Antoinette Blanchet, had four children, two of whom had musical careers. Tragically, Armand-Louis was killed in a traffic accident while rushing to play a service which his son, Pierre-Louis Couperin, had already started for him.

Pierre-Louis, then 34 years old, died later the same year. It's said that his life unravelled as a result of the shock of the news of his father's death, an event which cut short a promising career as an organist and composer in the family tradition. Pierre-Louis' brother, Gervais-François, lived from 1759 to 1826. Life in this turbulent period in French history was difficult for everyone. Gervais-François started his career in the family tradition as a church organist, but the Revolution and the Republic changed everything. He struggled to find a place in the French musical world until the reopening of the churches. Opinion of his merits as a composer were sharply divided with some of his works coming in for scathing criticism. Some lighter keyboard pieces by him are known.

Houël: The Storming of the Bastille

Gervais-François Couperin's daughter, Céleste-Thérèse, was the last Couperin musician; her career even included four months as a stand-in organist at St Gervais. In her later years she gave piano and singing lessons and lived with her aging mother in some degree of poverty. She died in 1860 at the age of 67.

The Couperin dynasty provided the French musical world with musicians for three centuries, and two of these musicians - Louis Couperin and his nephew François Couperin le grand - are among the most important musicians of any age. I hope you get the chance to become more familiar with their glorious music.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2014.

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