It’s the 350th anniversary of Francois Couperin’s birthday (November 10, 1668), and all this week on “A Little Night Music”, host Kathleen Kajioka is highlighting his music. A few days ago, I received an email notification about an upcoming concert Kathleen’s group Ensemble Masques is performing in Toronto, in tribute to Couperin. Curious, I asked Kathleen a few questions about why this Baroque composer is one of the greats.
I studied music history, so growing up, I’d heard of Couperin, the Baroque keyboard guy. Though the general population won’t know of him – they think of Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel. Why didn’t Couperin break through to the mainstream?
It’s true, Couperin is a name one tends to have heard of, while not necessarily being able to attach it to specific music the way we can nowadays with the other composers you mention — although he was very well known to them! There are a couple of reasons I can think of as to why he hasn’t retained the same prominence. Part of it is the singular nature of French Baroque style. Couperin sits in the heart of this language, and in many ways represents its height. Music from 18th c. France is utterly different from that of Italy or Germany, and doesn’t hold up under modern interpretive habits the way Bach and Handel can. It requires a great deal of knowledge to execute properly, knowledge which has only recently been searched out and revived.
It also has to do with the type of works he focused on. To survive through the 19th century, it seems to have been necessary to have left behind music that played to Romantic-era sensibilities. The virtuosity of concertos (Vivaldi, Bach); the grandeur of large works such as operas and oratorios (Handel & Bach), as well as lineage within the burgeoning dominance of the German tradition (again Handel & Bach) helped those other composers survive. The French Baroque is a musical world in which the virtuosity of the 19th c. “hero-soloist” would have found no footing, as it is oriented instead toward clarity, grace and elegance. Moreover, Couperin’s leanings were much more toward intimate works and miniatures. Even his church music is of a chamber-music bent. He wrote no operas or large ensemble pieces. With Couperin, the brilliance of his art is more like the stunning detail of small etchings and line-drawings, versus monumental frescos. His primary love was the harpsichord, which, again, has only been properly revived in the last 50 or 60 years. He wrote hundreds of brilliant character pieces for this instrument which, when played on the piano, may or may not lose something.
Tell us about his music and what makes it revolutionary in its time.
The key to Couperin is detail. The equivalent of “virtuosity” in every aspect of French court life under Louis XIV lay in manners, the elegance and grace with which one moved and expressed oneself. Style was the main currency. Couperin’s writing is filled with precise details of timing and ornamentation, all of the seemingly spontaneous add-ons to the melodic line that give it sophistication, add expression and, yes, style. He was a master of this language and basically taught everyone how to do it. In a way, his publications are a musical equivalent of Emily Post’s guide to etiquette — except that analogy may distract from the fact that, when done well, this music can be incredibly sexy.
As I mentioned, Couperin’s music is mainly for small audiences. His publications for harpsichord are full of portraits of people, or things in nature. And he published a lot of chamber music as well. One of his jobs was to perform weekly private concerts for Louis XIV — this was in the last 2 years of his reign when the King’s health was failing. One can only imagine the atmosphere of these performances. Many of these pieces — gorgeous! — were written for these occasions.
As for the revolutionary aspect, one of Couperin’s big contributions was to begin embracing what Italian music had to offer. France and Italy had been at an artistic stand-off for generations, and as much as Couperin was a master of all things French, he loved the music of Corelli, and later in his career was very open about his intentions to use the best of both.
Did Couperin’s music influence future composers?
Absolutely. French music has always stood to some degree on its own, and as the paradigm of French-ness in the 18th c., later composers including Debussy and Ravel looked to him as a patriotic role model. And very interestingly, Brahms helped prepare the first edition of Couperin’s complete keyboard music — it would be worth looking out for whiffs of Couperin in his solo piano pieces. Richard Strauss also drew from his work.
You’re clearly a fan, and you’re not a keyboardist. What is the appeal to string players?
There’s lots of his music for string players to enjoy, in particular his 14 suites: the Concerts Royaux and Nouveau Concerts. One great thing is that, unusually for the time, Couperin was not fussy about the instrumentation of these pieces, so wind players can enjoy them, too. French music is a taste I have acquired over the years. It is not easy; one may not be flying around the fingerboard or playing super fast, but internalizing the grace of all the minute gestures is a challenge, and one that can be deeply expressively satisfying.
What can folks expect at your concert coming up, apart from the wine and coffee, which is lovely?
I’m very much looking forward to evoking the intimate atmosphere of Couperin’s music in the gorgeous library at the University Club of Toronto — really, the perfect space for his music. I will be telling Couperin’s story, which will be woven-through with selections from the works I mentioned above, played with my friends in Ensemble Masques: Mélisande Corriveau and Olivier Fortin, who has himself just released a fantastic CD of Couperin’s music, “L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin” on Alpha. It’s going to be a wonderfully cozy afternoon!