Thursday, 29 November 2007

François Couperin and the French aesthetic sensibilities reflected by their musical language


Douceur’ is the word most commonly used during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the French to describe their characteristic style of melody – vocal or instrumental. It suggests not only sweetness and gentleness, but also something unforced and simple. It was moulded from constraints imposed by the poetic text, by the figures of the dance forms and by the contours of the style inherited from the Franco-Netherlandish masters of renaissance times that held sway in France for many years into the seventeenth century.Of the nations of Europe, France managed best to resist foreign influences through the Baroque period. French musicians in the seventeenth century enjoyed a long period of relatively undisturbed civilization of their own soil. Even instrumental idioms – which, lacking a close tie to language habits, tend to be homogenized by border-crossing musicians, printed editions and instruments – preserved in France a distinct character. The reasons for this independence were several. King Louis XIV – during his long reign from 1643 to 1715 – concentrated on building up an image of France as the leader of Europe. Even the arts were subject to national policy. Another factor was the string guild of musicians, the menestriers, whose strict rules of apprenticeship and accreditation made it difficult for outsiders to enter the musical profession. The central social function performed by music in France was to accompany court dancing and ballet entertainments, and this also tended to channelize creative effort in one particular direction.

The central role played by the court in the musical life of France was strengthened through the publication and dissemination of court music by the royal printers – the Ballard family. Their high standard established France’s reputation as the leading nation for music printing throughout the seventeenth century. With musical life largely centred at court, and given the king’s personal tastes, it is small wonder that contemporary Italian baroque music excited little interest in France until towards the end of the century. Thus, while contemporary Italian composers were revelling in new ways to convey greater intensity and brilliance, those in France were looking at ways to refine their art. Growing up at a time when this process defined the French classical tradition in music, the young Francoise Couperin (1668-1733) absorbed its courtly style, its forms and genres with such spontaneity that, before the century was over, he was at the head of a movement which, from its encounter with Italian music, was to transform the French tradition that he had inherited.

Couperin and his Pieces de Clavecin

Couperin wrote 234 harpsichord pieces, all of which are contained in his four books and his L’Art de toucher le Clavecin. In place of the word suite Couperin described the twenty-seven groupings of his harpsichord works as ‘ordres’. It may well have been that Couperin envisaged right from the start that his collection would go well beyond the mere sequence of dance forms implied by the term suite, preferring instead the term ordre with its more widely embracing connotation of an ‘ordered arrangement’ of pieces. Such an arrangement is achieved largely through the unity imposed by the key schemes, each ordre being in one particular key – both in its major and minor versions. Only in the 25th Ordre, in C major/minor, is there a piece out of the prevailing tonality – La Visionaire, written in the key of E flat major, a procedure which Couperin felt impelled to explain in the preface to Book Four. The first of the four books appeared in 1713, and although the composer was by then forty-five years old and quite well-known, yet, apart from his songs in Ballard’s anthologies, this was his first engraved publication, for his two organ masses had been issued by Ballard in manuscript copies only. Book 2 is undated, but evidence points to 1717 as being the likely year of publication. The two remaining books came out in 1722 and 1730. They thus cover a span of seventeen years, the last of the collections appearing two years before his death in 1733.

Ornamentation: If in most vocal music of France ornaments were usually indicated by a little cross, the actual choice of ornament being left largely to the discretion of the singer, in harpsichord music, on the other hand, they were more specific, especially in Couperin's pieces. So that they could be embellished precisely as he wanted, he attached a list of ornaments and how to play them in his First Book of Pieces de Clavecin, three years later touching upon the same subject in his L’Art de toucher de clavecin. His irritation that performers were still not following his instructions some six years after that is clearly conveyed in the Preface to his Third Book (1722): "I am always surprised (after the care I have taken to indicate the ornaments appropriate to my pieces, about which I have given, separately, a sufficiently clear explanation in a Method under the title The Art of Playing the Harpsichord) to hear people who have learned them without following the correct method. It is an unpardonable negligence, especially since it is not at the discretion of the players to place such ornaments where they want them. I declare, therefore, that my pieces must be played according to how I have marked them, and that they will ever make a true impression on people of real taste unless played exactly as I have marked them, neither more nor less."

His explanations were necessary, not because his ornaments were very different from those in use, but because there was no universal agreement about how they should be notated. In his Explication des Agréments, et des Signes published in the first book were the relatively ‘standard’ signs for trills, mordents, appoggiaturas, turns etc., as well as some that were new.

Pictorial and Programmatic Elements: Couperin’s practice of giving fanciful titles to his harpsichord pieces had its origins in the music of Chambonnières and the earliest works of the French harpsichordists who, in turn had borrowed the habit from the lutenists of the late sixteenth century. Couperin added picturesque names to various movements in his ordres, a practice that increased as he moved more and more into the genre of the ‘character piece’.

Jane Clark has penetrated many of the mysteries surrounding the titles and in so doing has linked them very closely to the society in which Couperin moved. Thus Sœur Monique (18th Ordre) is a portrait of a woman of ill-repute.[1] Many of the pieces are coded satires of famous figures of the day as well as affectionate portraits of friends and references to literary and theatrical events. Undoubtedly, those in Couperin’s wide circle would have understood the veiled allusions that added an extra level to their enjoyment. But it may be questioned as to whether – at our distance – the titles are truly significant, when it may be recalled that the composer himself had no hesitation in changing the original titles of his early trio sonatas when they were published many years later as Les Nations. Yet, as Derek Connon points out: "the communicative power of the music is undoubtedly increased by an understanding of the titles, particularly when so many turn out to indicate an ironic stance or a hidden meaning, for, as well as adding an extra musical dimension, they may also clarify the implications of certain aspects of the music. If an understanding of the titles is desirable for the listener, it is surely vital for the performers, since it may well have a significant influence on the way a piece should be played."[2]

This, of course, is certainly true of pictorial and programmatic works which provide clues to interpretation and appreciation. ‘Our music, whether it be for violin, harpsichord, viol or any other instrument, always seems to want to express some sentiment’, claimed Couperin, pointing to the way that French composers, unlike the Italians, even regarded metre and tempo in terms of moods. The fanciful element is charmingly portrayed and readily appreciated in those pieces by Couperin which have a visual or onomatopoeic suggestion: Papillions (Butterflies), Le Réveille-matin (The Alarm Clock), Le Carillon de Cythère (Bells of Cythera), Les Petits moulins a vent (Little Windmills), just to name a few.

While their titles no doubt pique our curiosity, it would, however, be a pity to imagine that Couperin's music depends for its effects upon the presence of non-musical elements. To be sure, in a good number of pieces they add additional delight; but as in all fine music ‘meaning’ is revealed through the musical imagination of the composer – here in abundance.[3]

Forms: Most of Couperin's harpsichord pieces are in two-part (A B) form with repeat signs at the end of both sections. Sometimes the very last phrase of the piece is given an additional repetition at the reprise of B, and occasionally Couperin provides optional florid versions of the repeats, as in the Première Courante (1st Ordre) and Première Courante, with double (1st Ordre). This two-part structure dominates all but two of the named dance movements: allemande, courante, sarabande, gavotte, gigue, menuet, canaries, passepied, rigaudon, sicilienne etc. While these make up at least half the movements in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 8th Ordres, the later Ordres reveal a shift away from them towards more programmatic or ‘character’ pieces. Yet, the spirit, if not the form, of the dance may not be far away, as in some of these later pieces like La Régente ou La Minerve (15th Ordre), La Superbe ou La Forqueray (17th), L’Audacieuse (23rd), La Convalescente (26th), which are, in reality, all allemandes. However, there are also many movements which owe little to dance tradition. The trend away from dance forms can be seen as early as the 4th Ordre which contains no dances so called, even though the final piece, Le Reveil-matin is evidently a gigue.

The two dance movements not in the sectionalised A B form are the chaconne and the passacaille (passacaglia). The words themselves had become synonymous by the second half of the seventeenth century, so that it is not unusual to find the same piece described as chaconne in one source and passacaille in another; nor to find, as in La Françoise from Les Nations, a movement described as chaconne ou passacaille. Thus, as far as French music is concerned, the two terms must be regarded as interchangeable.

From the time of Chambonnières onwards, composers from the French clavecin school incorporated another musical form into their writings: the rondeau (A B A C A etc.). Thus the majority of harpsichord pieces called chaconne or passacaille feature a certain refrain (rondeau) with intervening episodes (couplets), retaining at the same time the features of the chaconne or passacaille. Couperin’s Passacaille (8th Ordre) is in this more typical form of the ‘rondeau passacaille’. La Favorite (3rd Ordre) is a ‘rondeau chaconne’, but this piece departs from the tradition by being in quadruple instead of triple metre, linked to the dance by virtue only of its grave and stately movement, and of course by its cyclic structure. At first sight, the bass line seems to go beyond the stereotyped patterns typical of the chaconne and passacaille, but in fact Couperin has disguised this through figuration of what is simply a descending chromatic scale segment common to countless ostinato types.

Another old dance often employing a characteristic bass melody was the romanesca, and although not so called, Couperin’s Les Barricades mystérieuses is a kind of romanesca in that it takes up the old dance melody in the bass for much of the time. However, as in La Favorite, Couperin changes its metre from triple to quadruple and employs the rondeau form. This is one of his finest works, the piece unified by the ubiquitous presence of a single figure developed in grand and sonorous expression throughout.[4]

Before leaving the cyclic-form pieces, mention must be made of Les Folies françoises; ou, Les Dominos (13th Ordre). This is composed upon a recurring melody and bas known as Les Folies d’Espagne, and as Pierre Citron has shown, the extraordinary affinity between Corelli’s famous La Folia variations for violin and continuo, and Les Folies françoises leaves no doubt that Couperin was paying a tribute to the Italian musician whom he admired so greatly.

There are, in fact, only a few examples of the ‘free’ cyclic forms in Couperin’s Ordres. The great majority of the pieces are in the A B form and the sectional rondeau (of which there are some forty examples). Couperin turned to the rondeau particularly for more extended music, although there are also a number of very short rondeaux, including some with only one couplet. The two-part and rondeau forms provide the structure for almost all the pieces, whether they be single movements or those comprising two or more movements.

Style: Some of the techniques of the French clavecin school had their roots in those of the seventeenth century French lutenists whose style brise considerably influenced the texture of keyboard writing. One aspect of this technique is that the notes of a chord are not all played simultaneously, but one after the other. A sense of movement, lightness of touch, and a melodic line which, shared by more than one part, is woven into the arpeggiated texture, are the chief features of the style and it is easy to see how such a technique admirably suited the harpsichord, especially as the quickly fading sonorities of that instrument could be kept alive by the constant sounding of different notes of the chord.[5]

Traces of the style brise are found throughout Couperin’s harpsichord pieces, but in some – such as Les Charmes (9th Ordre) – he actually describes them as luthé. The harpsichordist is instructed to hold the notes so that the chords achieve full resonance – as on the lute where the strings freely vibrate until the next notes are plucked. Here and elsewhere as well, Couperin employs the style brise to produce passages of eloquent dissonance, as each group of held notes becomes blurred against the others in ever-shifting harmony. The most celebrated of these is Les Baricades mystérieuses (6th Ordre), already cited above.

Couperin’s lyrical genius found many an outlet in the ordres for harpsichord, from the tuneful simplicity of Sœur Monique (18th Ordre) to the noble utterance of La Raphaele (8th Ordre); and while much of his lyricism is couched in the elegant and urbane language of French court music, there are works like La Superbe; ou La Forqueray (17th Ordre) which, through the gradual unfolding of long phrases and in the loftiness of thought, can be compared only with the music of J.S. Bach.[6] There are technical reasons too – these pieces are concerned with the processes of motivic development on which, so much Italian – and also German – music is based.

Couperin once wrote, “I love much better the things which touch me than those which surprise me.”[7] Thus, we should not expect to find daring harmonies in his music. It is more in its sense of tonal stability and forward thrust that shows how he absorbed the harmonic techniques of the Italians. Yet in his music, we constantly come across little ‘brushstrokes’ of harmony which add fascinating colours to the music, many of which would probably never have occurred to an Italian composer whose cast of mind tended to think in terms of modulation or key-change if striking effects were required. Below is a passage from La Mystérieuses (25th Ordre) in which the key of A minor is ruffled, yet not shaken by the curious appearances of B flat in the right hand, and the simultaneous use of D natural and D sharp in the next measure. To ears attuned to the style, these are fascinating little touches and all the more effective because they are not over-done.

The music of the four books of Pieces de clavecin has been classified and codified by dance types and structural organization, by melodic and harmonic analysis and by a systematic review of each of the ordres. The meanings of the often ambiguous and enigmatic titles have been thoroughly investigated by scholars like Mellers and Beaussant. All of this has significance, and yet it gives us little of the essence of the music and tells us almost nothing of the mysterious alchemy that makes Couperin’s harpsichord music so elusive and yet so compelling. As James R. Anthony points out, “in company of some of Chopin’s mazurkas and Debussy’s preludes, much of Couperin’s keyboard music is more a communication between instrument and performer in the intimacy of the music room than it is between the performer on the stage and an unseen audience. It reveals only gradually and only after repeated playing; it is wed to its instrument as is no other music. Only through such intimate acquaintanceship with the music do the many dimensions of Couperin’s art unfold.”[8]


References:

[1] Jane Clark and Derek Connon, The Mirror of human life: Reflections on François Couperin’s Pièces de Clavecin
[2] Jane Clark and Derek Connon
[3] David Tunley, François Couperin and ‘The Perfection of Music’
[4] David Tunley
[5] David Tunley
[6] David Tunley
[7] Couperin, Preface to Pieces de clavecin
[8] James R. Anthony, French Baroque Music from Beaujoyeulx to Rameau

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