François Couperin


François Couperin (Paris, November 10, 1668 – there, September 11, 1733) was a French composer.

He is the most important and well-known member of the Couperin composer dynasty. Couperin, nicknamed ”Le Grand”, is counted among the most prominent Baroque composers, and particularly of harpsichord music. His harpsichord music is characterized by a strong idiomatic character, both in terms of its very personal style and its close connection with the characteristics of the instrument. In addition to his harpsichord music, Couperin wrote organ music, religious and secular vocal music, and chamber music. Moreover, he published theoretical works on playing the harpsichord (L”Art de toucher le clavecin) and on accompanying in music Règles pour l”accompagnement.

The Couperins were from Chaumes-en-Brie: François” grandfather Charles was a skilled amateur organist of the local church and monastery there; his three sons Louis Couperin (1626-1661), François, nicknamed ”L”Ancien” (1631-1701) and Charles, François Couperin”s father (1638-1679) made a musical career in Paris. Louis as organist of St. Gervais and later as one of the official organists of Louis XIV, François also as organist and François Couperin”s father as violinist. All three were students of Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, with Jean-Henry d”Anglebert one of the leading representatives of the first French harpsichord school. It was also thanks to De Chambonnières that they were able to make their ascent into professional musical life. After Louis” death, Charles succeeded his brother as organist of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais. François Couperin was born in the organist”s residence at that church. François probably received the first musical principles there from his father.

Charles Couperin, like his brother, died at an early age and François Couperin, then 10 years old, inherited his father”s organist post at St. Gervais in Paris. The organist Jacques Thomelin took care of him and instilled in him a solid basic knowledge of counterpoint, knowledge he displayed early on in his first work, the Pièces d”orgue (1690). Actually, Couperin would not be allowed to occupy the post until he turned 18, but the interim organist, Michel-Richard Delalande, had no objection to François Couperin being installed earlier, given his heavy position at court. With Delalande”s support, Couperin acquired a “privilège du Roi” in 1690, an official license, in this case for publishing music. The previous year he had married Marie-Anne Ansault, who had important family connections in social life: for example, the first two harpsichord books were dedicated to important government officials. The good connections ensured that in 1693, as organist, he was granted access to the court, succeeding Thomelin, alongside Jean-Baptiste Buterne, Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers and Nicolas Lebègue.

Couperin also worked on a collection of six sonatas in the late 17th century; in addition to La Steinquerque, La sultane, and La superbe, the other three were later included in the collection Les Nations in 1726, under different names: La pucelle, La visionaire, and L”Astrée (included in Les Nations as La Française, L”Espagnole, and La Piémontoise, respectively). In the preface to the sonatas, the name of which he frenchified into sonade, he tells tastefully about the origins of the sonatas. They were supposedly new works by an Italian composer sent to him by his cousin Marc-Roger Normand Couperin, in service at the court of Naples. Couperin made an anagram of his name under which he initially intended to release them. The works are Couperin”s first compositions in imitation of Arcangelo Corelli, whom he greatly admired, an admiration that reached its peak in 1724 with Le Parnasse, ou L”apotheose de Corelli. Italian music was not bon ton in France due to the influence of the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully – who was, by the way, originally Italian. In Italian music the violin had a prominent place; in France the violin was an instrument for minstrels and for dance masters, domestic servants or “d”autres gens de labeur” (Beaussant, 66), the nobility played lute or viola da gamba.

The violin was used as an ensemble instrument for opera and ballet, but not as an independent and fully-fledged instrument. The part in the recognition of the violin as a serious instrument by Couperin, of this “serviteur passionné de l”Italie” (quoted in Anthony), was thus in a sense pioneering in France. Couperin, however, succeeded well in creating a style that retained both Italian and French elements in a proper blend, truly ”goûts réunis”.Especially in his motets, the musically balanced way in which he did this can be seen, without imitation of ”la manière italienne”. French are the short phrases, the rhythm and melodic formulas taken from the airs sérieux or dances, the careful ornamentation, Italian the vivid musical images that support the text and help paint the drama, the insertion of vocalises into the melody line, the abrupt change of tonality and the frequently used chromaticism. Sometimes parts are purely Italian in style, sometimes very French. Couperin did not write any grand motet, as Delalande, Lully or Campra did, with their full psalm settings with and their much more pregnant pomp and circumstance, but preferred to render more intimate lyrical feelings within the petit motet (Anthony).

Couperin”s appointment in 1693 as organiste du roi opened up opportunities and income that could not be obtained anywhere else in the France of the time. Shortly after his arrival at court, he was charged with giving harpsichord lessons to Louis XIV”s grandson, Louis of France, Duke of Burgundy, and other princes and princesses of the blood, such as Louis Alexandre, Count of Toulouse, and his sister, Louise Françoise, nicknamed Mlle. de Nantes, both children of Madame de Montespan and Louis XIV. The daughters of Mlle. de Nantes were also taught by Couperin and live on in the harpsichord pieces he dedicated to them: la Bourbonnaise, la Charoloise and la Princesse de Sens. After only three years he acquired the – paid – privilege of carrying his own coat of arms.From 1700 onwards Couperin”s musical activities became more varied and he took part in concerts in Versailles, Fontainebleau and Sceaux. In 1717, D”Anglebert”s eye problems were so severe that he had to resign his position as court harpsichordist; Couperin was appointed as his successor, and from then on he was the Ordinaire de la Musique de la Chambre du Roi pour le Clavecin. As court composer, Couperin was responsible not only for chamber music (the Concerts royaux, published in 1722, and Les goûts-réünis, published in 1724), but also for music for the Chapelle royale.

The famous harpsichord books – totaling over 240 pieces for harpsichord – appeared from 1713, after he obtained a printing license for thirty years in that year – enough, it turns out, for the rest of his life. Earlier, Couperin”s harpsichord pieces had been circulating in manuscript form, and the publisher Ballard had included pieces anonymously in Pièces choisis pour le clavecin as early as 1707. Couperin arranged his pieces according to key, but called such an arrangement, as the only one, not suites or suites de pièces de clavecin, but ordres.After the death of Louis XIV in 1715, Couperin continued his work at court, including harpsichord lessons to the Polish princess Maria Leszczyńska, wife of the future king Louis XV and daughter of the expelled Polish prince Stanislaus Leszczyński. La Princesse Marie from the third harpsichord book still recalls her musically.The second harpsichord book and L”Art de toucher le clavecin followed in 1716. Between the first and second books lies a caesura, as it were. The Premier Livre de Clavecin of 1713 is stricter in style and more in line with the prevailing harpsichord style in France. From the second book onwards, the compositions are much more typical and clearly ”Couperin”: highly individual character pieces with a very strong melody.The first three Leçons de tenèbres also came out in this period. Couperin had planned a series of nine; whether they were all actually written is unknown, the last six were never published and they have not survived in manuscript form.The third harpsichord book appeared in 1722, containing the four Concerts royaux. Les goûts réünis ou Nouveaux concerts came out in 1724, consecutively numbered from five to fourteen, as a continuation of the Concerts royaux. That fourteenth concerto was “une grande Sonade en Trio intitulée Le Parnasse ou l”Apothéose de Corelli. That sonata was followed in 1725 by its logical counterpart, Concert intrumental sous le titre d”Apothéose composé à la mémoire immortelle de l”incomparable Monsieur de Lully. The Italian and French tastes were once again united.

As outlined above, in addition to the lute, the viola da gamba (viole in French) was the instrument for the nobility and the emerging distinguished bourgeoisie. Couperin”s share in quantity of music for this instrument is not large, in qualitative terms it is a high point in the genre. In 1728, his Pièces de violesIn 1730, his last and fourth harpsichord volumes appeared. In the preface, Couperin complains about his poor health – incidentally, also in the music: a title from the 26th Order is “La Convalescente” (his daughter Marguerite-Antoinette took over the harpsichord duties, Guillaume Marchand, Louis Marchand”s son, the duties in the royal chapel. Three years later, on September 11, 1733, François Couperin died in Paris.

Shortly before his death, Couperin had extended his privilege to allow the printing of his unpublished works. None of his heirs carried out that task, and thus a significant portion of his works has been lost. Little material has survived of Couperin that gives any insight into the person Couperin. No correspondence has survived; letters that he would have exchanged with Bach would have been used as jam jar closures. Impressions of contemporaries are rare, nor was he the man to play a notable role in society life at the time.

At the height of his musical career, Couperin was considered a harpsichord and organ composer and teacher who had no equal. He was also known internationally; Johann Sebastian Bach included his Les Bergeries (6th ordre, second book) in the Notenbüchlein für Anna-Magdalena Bach. In addition to his position at court, which was for the first quarter of the year (the other three quarters were for the other three musician-composers), Couperin also had to fulfill his obligations at St.Gervais. A busy life, which explained for him, as he points out in the preface, the late appearance of his first harpsichord book.In France, contemporaries – Nicholas Siret, Louis-Antoine Dornel, Michel Pignolet de Montéclair – dedicated works to him.

Antoine Forqueray named one of his gamba pieces after him; and Couperin in turn named one of his harpsichord pieces after him, La Superbe ou la Forqueray in the 17th ordre from the third book. Later composers also dedicated works to him: Claude Debussy his Études and Maurice Ravel his Le tombeau de Couperin. Johannes Brahms, together with Chrysander, provided the first complete edition of Couperin”s harpsichord works. Richard Strauss arranged harpsichord works for his Suite for small orchestra from 1923.Interest in Couperin is significantly lower in the Netherlands than elsewhere and if it is interest in a Couperin here then it is for his uncle Louis Couperin. The strong sensualism of François Couperin”s music, with its sense of humour and not completely focused on strict contemplation, means that the kind of compositions Couperin wrote – and those of many of his French contemporaries and later Baroque and Rococo composers – are all too quickly and easily dismissed by Dutch Baroque music lovers as frivolous and

Couperin”s theoretical work L”Art de Toucher le Clavecin (The Art of Playing the Harpsichord) is invaluable because it gives both the view of an early 18th-century composer himself on how he would like his work to be performed, but moreover because it provides a wealth of information on the performance praxis of keyboard music from the Baroque and that of the French in particular. The work is written in a sympathetic, almost endearing style that directly addresses the reader and includes an allemande and eight preludes.Couperin is not the composer of grand musical-architectural constructions such as Bach”s Kunst der Fuge or Beethoven”s Hammerklavier sonata, but the grand master of musical invention on the square centimeter, a miniaturist, who was able to create an atmosphere unparalleled in a relatively short musical span.

Worldly vocal music

Voornamelijk opgenomen in de Recueil d”airs sérieux et à boire (1679-1712)

Pièces de viole


  1. François Couperin
  2. François Couperin