'By turning her attention to these works, Angela Hewitt may succeed in reviving and popularising Couperin’s enchanting music as no modern-day harpsichordist has been able to do' (Gramophone)
'not only fabulously played, but also fine-tuned to the sparkle and finesse of Couperin’s world' (Classic FM Magazine)
'Hewitt bridges the gulf between studio and home listener with uncanny directness. An outstanding disc' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Of all living pianists, Hewitt makes the strongest case for hearing Bach on the piano as opposed to harpsichord. Here, she applies the same staggering technique and intellectual grasp to three suites by François Couperin … outstanding' (The Independent)
'Its virtues are those that distinguish her Bach: Clarity of line, delicacy of touch, a sense of rhythm that neither forgets nor overplays the importance of dance in baroque music' (Independent on Sunday)
'it is the highest possible compliment to her playing to say that after a very few minutes the listener loses any awareness that this is not the instrument for which they were written … playing of exquisite subtlety and refinement (The Daily Telegraph)
'crisply articulated and exquisitely musical playing' (The Sunday Times)
'In all three of the Ordres here, Hewitt finds plenty of variety, and she is always punctilious in her observation of the nuances of Couperin’s ornamentation' (The Guardian)
'the point is of course whether the music is interpreted in a fresh, imaginative way, and that is always the case with Angela Hewitt … here Hewitt has a chance to be witty as well as formidably dextrous – a side to her that is rather attractive' (Pianist)
'Angela Hewitt shows that when properly used the piano can project Couperin's thought with grace and accuracy. Her playing is vividly alive to detail and her choice of tempi is wholly convincing. She is finely recorded. Not to be missed' (Musical Opinion)
'Angela Hewitt's initial foray into the 226 harpsichord pieces of François Couperin, short works that were originally published in 27 Ordres, so deeply appealed to me … poignant music and the superb performances … By instinct, inclination, and training, Angela Hewitt emerges as the perfect interpreter of the music of François Couperin' (Ottawa Citizen, Canada)
'particularly haunting, for along with her crisp technique, she adapts many of the expressive devices of the time to the piano' (Turok’s Choice)
6e. Ordre, No 4: La Bersan [2'51]
6e. Ordre, No 7: La Commére [1'50]
8e. Ordre, No 1: La Raphaéle [5'39]
8e. Ordre, No 6: Gavotte [1'18]
8e. Ordre, No 7: Rondeau [2'11]
8e. Ordre, No 8: Gigue [2'38]
8e. Ordre, No 9: Passacaille [5'42]
We are used to hearing the keyboard music of the great harpsichord masters Bach, Scarlatti, even Handel, played on the piano, but why not that of their contemporary, François Couperin ‘le Grand’? Putting this question to Angela Hewitt initiated appropriate investigation, with the result that she has now taken the jewelled miniatures of the French maîtreinto her repertoire in addition to her celebrated Bach.
This is the first of three CDs devoted to the composer and is devoted to Ordres 6, 8 and 18 which include several of his most well-known pieces: Sœur Monique, Le Tic-Toc-Choc, Les Baricades Misterieusesand the famous Passacaille.
Other recommended albums
François Couperin ‘le Grand’ (‘the Great’) was a member of a musical dynasty unique in France and surpassed only by the Bach family. A succession of Couperins held the post of organist at the church of Saint-Gervais in Paris for an amazing 173 years (between 1653 and 1826). It all seems to have begun with his great-grandfather, Mathurin Couperin, who farmed twelve acres of land around Beauvoir in Brie. He was also known as a merchant, attorney, joueur d’instruments (master instrumentalist) and music teacher. Two of his three children were musical. The youngest son, Charles Couperin (‘l’Ancien’) owned many vineyards around the area of Chaumes and also played several instruments, among them the oboe and organ. Of his own eight children, three sons became professional musicians and transformed the family status from artisan/peasant to courtier. How this came about is colourfully told in Le Parnasse François by Titon du Tillet (1677–1762):
The three Couperin brothers were from Chaumes, a small village in Brie, not far from the Territory of Chambonnières. They played the violin, and the two oldest played the organ very excellently. These three brothers and their friends, also violin-players, were among the group who did go to the castle of Sieur de Chambonnières on his nameday to serenade him at dawn. On arriving there, they took their places at the door to the room where Chambonnières was at table with several guests, persons of wit and music-lovers. The master of the house was pleasantly surprised, as were all his company, by the fine symphonie which was heard. Chambonnières straightaway complimented Louis Couperin, invited him and all his companions to sit at table, and displayed much friendliness towards him, telling him that such a man as he was not meant to remain in the provinces, and that he must without fail accompany him to Paris. Louis Couperin accepted with pleasure. Chambonnières introduced him to Paris and to the Court, where he was much appreciated.
The composer Jacques Champion de Chambonnières was well-placed to make such an offer as he was organist and harpsichordist to the Royal Chamber (Chambre du Roi). This aubade took place somewhere around 1650. Three years later, Louis became the first Couperin to hold the post of organist at Saint-Gervais, as well as being organist to the Chambre du Roi. He died in 1661 at the age of thirty-five, leaving us with some of the best compositions of his time. He was succeeded at Saint-Gervais by his younger brother, Charles. At the time of the above-related incident, the latter would only have been twelve years old, so no doubt only later made the move to Paris. We know very little of his life and music, but he does seem to have appeared in one of Lully’s ballets at court in 1659. He married Marie Guérin, and their only child, François, was born on 10 November 1668. Their house, built in 1475, was owned by Saint-Gervais expressly to lodge the organist, and Louis would have lived there before them (the present-day ‘Couperin house’ in the rue François Miron replaced the older one in 1730).
François was only eleven when his father died, aged forty. He must already have shown signs of his exceptional talent, as the church wardens decided to preserve the tradition of handing the post from father to son, and confirmed that it would be his at the age of eighteen—as long as he continued with his musical education. In the interim, Michel Richard de Lalande was appointed organist. The young François continued his studies with Jacques Thomelin, organist of Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie, who, according to Titon du Tillet, became ‘a second father’ to the boy. In 1683 Thomelin was appointed organist at the Royal Chapel, and it is quite probable that Couperin, then fifteen, was already playing unofficially at Saint-Gervais.
In 1689 Couperin married Marie-Anne Ansault, about whom we know little except that her father was a wine merchant. They had four children: the youngest, Marie-Madeleine, was an organist and became a nun; the other daughter became harpsichordist to the Royal Chapel; one son died in infancy, and the other deserted his parents (why, we don’t know—perhaps he didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps) sometime around 1713, never seeing his father for the last twenty years of his life. He evidently turned up in a very bad state two years after the latter’s death, only to disappear once more.
Upon the death of Thomelin in 1693, Couperin was chosen by Louis XIV himself as one of four organists at the Royal Chapel. The following year he began teaching harpsichord to the Dauphin, the Duc de Bourgogne, as well as several other royal children. He was ennobled by the king in 1696, and several years later became a Chevalier of the Lateran Order, designing his own coat-of-arms. In 1717, two years after the death of Louis XIV, he had one final court appointment, that of harpsichordist to the king—a post he relinquished to his daughter in 1730 when he felt his strength diminishing. Already seven years before that, he had passed on his post at Saint-Gervais to his cousin, Nicolas. We don’t know the nature of his declining health, but it was something he lived with for at least the last twenty years of his life, if not more. Indeed he mentioned his ‘delicate state of health’ in the prefaces to three of his four books of harpsichord pieces. He died on 11 September 1733, just short of his sixty-fifth birthday.
So much for the bare facts of his life. What about his music? From Thomelin he must have received a thorough grounding in contrapuntal technique, but no doubt was also made aware of other styles. His first published works, the two organ masses (1690), show an astonishing maturity for one so young. They also show how he synthesized what others had done before him: the chromaticisms and suspensions used by Gigault and Marchand; the lively rhythms of Le Bègue; and of course the wonderful sense of theatre and ballet from Lully (1632–1687), who catered to the taste of Louis XIV at Versailles and in that role became music’s absolute dictator. There was, however, one other influence that was a huge catapult for change in Couperin’s music, and which he openly acknowledged: the Italian style. When Couperin was seventeen years old, Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) published his first book of trio sonatas for two violins and basso continuo. The young Frenchman was totally charmed by them, and wrote:
I was much taken with the sonatas of Signor Corelli, whose works I shall love until the day I die, as well as Lully’s pieces in the French style. I ventured to compose one of my own, and I had it performed where I had first heard Corelli’s sonatas. Knowing the harshness of French attitudes towards any kind of foreign innovation, and not being absolutely certain of myself, I did myself a small service in the form of an official untruth. I claimed that my relative in the service of the King of Sardinia had sent me a sonade by a new Italian author, and I gave my name an Italian spelling, which I put at the head of the sonata. The sonade was received with great enthusiasm, and I kept my secret to myself. This success encouraged me, however, to write others: Under the disguise of my Italianized name, I received great acclaim. Fortunately, my sonades found sufficient favour that my equivocation does not make me blush.
André Tessier, who wrote a biographical essay on Couperin in 1926, suggested that this ‘Italianized name’ might have been Pernucio or Coperuni. The Italian influence made its way into Couperin’s writing for the keyboard, giving great vitality to the fast pieces, and a wonderful lyricism adapted from the bel canto style in the slow ones.
In order to fully understand Couperin, it is necessary to have an idea of the manners and habits during the reign of Louis XIV. Gesture and deportment were taught from a young age. Fluency and grace in movement were stressed, all to be accomplished with ease. In his Mémoires, the Duc de Saint-Simon wrote of the king:
Never did any man give with better grace, and so increase the value of his favours. Never did man sell his words, his smile, even his glances more splendidly … Never was there one so naturally polite … But, more than all, he was unequalled in his behaviour to women. He would never pass the humblest of bonnets without raising his hat, even to a chambermaid … To the smallest gesture, his walk, his gait, his whole physiognomy, all was measured, fitting, noble, grand, majestic, and more—very natural.
Of course all of that is related to the dance, which was considered part of a general education, especially among the nobility. Louis XIV was an excellent dancer and is said to have practised the courante for several hours a day in his youth. France led the way with dance music, contributing more to the history of music in the seventeenth century in that domain than in any other. The two—music and dance—were virtually inseparable, with gesture taking precedence over thematic discourse.
Couperin wrote 234 pieces for the harpsichord. Of those, 226 were published in his four books of harpsichord pieces, grouped into 27 Ordres. Rather than using the more conventional name of suite with its implied sequence of dances, the title ordre gave him more freedom in arranging the movements. In the first book (Ordres 1 to 5), published in 1713 when Couperin was already forty-five, he was no doubt collecting a lot of previously composed material, as the number of movements reaches a record twenty-four in the second Ordre. Perhaps he was referring to this in his quip, ‘This is not a suite, although it has the required dances. You want order? Here is an Ordre, though one could call it a Désordre [disorder] just as well’. Already, though, with the publication of his second book in 1717, we have a new sense of unity that then remains to the end. No autograph manuscripts of any of the four books survive, although we are in possession of the original printed versions that were corrected by Couperin himself. The structure of the individual pieces falls roughly into three categories: the binary movement with two sections each repeated (and sometimes adding an extra repeat of the very last phrase); the rondeau (a recurring refrain interspersed with episodes; 43 of the 226 pieces are in this form); and the chaconne, along with its close relative the passacaille (again a refrain or recurring set of harmonies upon which variations are based).
When looking at a list of Couperin’s harpsichord pieces we are immediately struck by the unusual titles. The tradition of giving picturesque or fanciful names to pieces began with the lutenists of the late sixteenth century, and was adopted by Chambonnières and many of the French clavecinists (and later taken up by Satie). More often than not, a feminine form is used, probably as the word pièce was tacitly implied. It does not mean that Couperin was only describing women in many of his miniatures, although many of them do (for instance La Princesse Marie, written for Marie Leczinska, the future queen of France, and one of Couperin’s harpsichord pupils). In the preface to his first book of pieces, he wrote:
I have always had an object in mind when composing all these pieces, suggested to me by various events or circumstances. Thus the titles relate to ideas that have occurred to me, and I shall be forgiven if I do not account for them. However, since among these titles there are several which seem to flatter me, I should point out that the pieces in question are in a sense portraits, which, under my fingers, have been found on occasion to be remarkable likenesses. Most of these flattering titles are given rather to the amiable original which I have sought to portray, than to the settings which I have drawn from them.
Two and a half centuries later we are still perplexed by many of these titles. Recent research by Jane Clark and Derek Connon (‘The mirror of human life’: Reflections on François Couperin’s Pièces de Clavecin, King’s Music, 2002) sheds fascinating light on the subject, revealing the references to contemporary theatrical productions, and various ‘in-jokes’ that might or might not have been understood by his own circle of friends and acquaintances.
The next thing we are struck by is the huge number of ornaments and unusual signs in his pieces. This is probably enough to put a lot of people off playing it from the start. Leaving them out is not an option! Again it is all related to gesture: ornamentation is there for an expressive purpose, to emphasize one note, to make you wait for another. It is all part of the melodic line and flow. Couperin felt this very keenly and was most explicit with his markings. He included a table of ornaments in the preface to his first book of pieces, and then in 1716 published a treatise on The Art of Playing the Harpsichord (L’Art de toucher le Clavecin) that remains one of the most important and valuable guides ever written to teach keyboard skills. Still in despair at what he was hearing, he wrote in the preface to his third book of pieces (1722):
I am always surprised, after the pains I have given myself for marking the ornaments which are suitable to my Pièces (of which I have given, in part, a sufficiently clear explanation in a particular Method entitled L’Art de toucher le Clavecin) to hear persons who have learned them without heeding my instructions. This is an unpardonable negligence, the more so since it is not at all an arbitrary matter to put in what ornaments one wishes. I declare that in my pieces they ought to be played as I have marked them, and that they will never make a certain impression on persons of true taste, unless they have observed to the letter everything that I have marked, without adding or subtracting anything.
It is not easy to absorb fully Couperin’s ornamentation at first sight. Indeed it takes a great deal of time and patience for it to become second nature. This aspect of his work has not always been well understood. The English music critic and historian Dr Charles Burney wrote in 1789 that Couperin’s pieces ‘are so crouded and deformed by beats, trills, and shakes, that no plain note was left to enable the hearer of them to judge whether the tone of the instrument on which they were played was good or bad’. Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, wrote that although Johann Sebastian greatly admired the Frenchman’s compositions, he ‘considered them as too affected in their frequent use of graces, which goes so far that scarcely a note is free from embellishment’. That probably has more of Forkel’s opinion in it than Bach’s (more about the Couperin/Bach relationship later on). As Wanda Landowska, one of the foremost interpreters of Couperin’s music, has said: ‘There is a certain common way of playing trills which reminds me of an electric doorbell. An ornament badly played is like a smile in a toothless mouth.’ For sure it makes the performance of Couperin’s music, both technically and musically, much harder than it seems.
This is the first CD in a series of three to be devoted to Couperin’s Pièces de Clavecin. Having initially read through all 226 pieces, I chose those which I felt translated the best to the modern piano, and which I found the most interesting. On this first CD I am presenting three of his greatest ordres from books Two and Three.
Dating from 1716/17, the second book of Pièces de Clavecin begins with the Sixième Ordre, a set of eight pieces all in B flat major. This was the first time he used the same key throughout, and that alone gives this ordre a sense of unity that is lacking in many of the others. It is one of the most successful in concert performance as it has all the necessary ingredients to make a satisfying whole. It also harks back to Couperin’s rustic origins, beginning with Les Moissonneurs (‘The Reapers’). Marked gaÿement (‘gaily’), it is in the rhythm and tempo of a gavotte, and is a naïve, good-natured rondeau. In the third couplet, which moves up the keyboard, the melody is presented in thirds to provide a charming effect.
One of Couperin’s loveliest compositions comes next, Les Langueurs-Tendres (‘Tender Languors’). Its lyrical melody is a beautiful example of Couperin’s mastery of line, with the left hand providing exemplary support. The ornamentation is rich but not unnecessary: every note speaks and has a role to play. The mood is slightly melancholic—one which will occur again in again in Couperin’s harpsichord works, often quite subconsciously. Pierre Citron, in his 1956 biography of the composer, quotes the following lines of Saint-Évremond (c1614–1703) in regard to this piece: ‘To languish is the most beautiful movement of love; it is the delicate result of a pure flame which gently consumes us; it is a sweet and cherished malady which makes us dread the idea of being healed’. Wilfrid Mellers, who wrote the first English biography of Couperin in 1949, remarks on the closeness of such a melodic line to the French language, which I believe is very true.
We are back outdoors for the next piece in the set, Le Gazoüillement (‘The Warbling’). Marked gracieusement et coulé (‘gracefully and smooth’), it takes place solely in the top part of the keyboard, and the chirping or warbling is portrayed more by the delicacy of the touch than by any direct imitation of birds. In his treatise on keyboard playing, Couperin remarks frequently on the importance of playing delicately, saying that ‘Beautiful playing depends a great deal more on suppleness and great freedom of the fingers rather than on force’. This is certainly one piece where that is needed. An ‘echo’ effect in the third couplet of this rondeau is marked plaintivement (‘plaintively’).
The whole keyboard is used in the next piece, La Bersan, probably named after the Lord of Bersan or his daughter Suzanne who might have been one of Couperin’s students. Here we are more reminded of Bach in his use of imitation and harmonic progressions.
The third rondeau of the ordre is one of Couperin’s most famous harpsichord pieces, Les Baricades Mistérieuses. The title is indeed a mystery and Couperin left no clues. The two hands are certainly ‘barricaded’ in the lower half of the keyboard, a particularly sonorous area on the French harpsichords of the time. I have even heard it explained as ‘ladies’ underwear’, or to be more specific ‘chastity belt’! Clark and Connon explain it as the masks worn in Le Mystère, one of the frequent divertissements put on by the Duchesse Du Maine at the Château de Sceaux in order to relieve her insomnia. What does matter about this piece is that it is one of the best examples of what is called the style brisé (broken texture)—a technique of composition stemming from lute-playing where the melodic line appears in an arpeggiated context. Everything is spread out, yet we hear each individual line clearly. Two bits of advice with which Couperin ends his treatise are important here: ‘It is necessary to preserve a perfect legato in all that you play … and do not hold notes for longer than is notated’. That is easier said than done, as anyone who has attempted to play this piece knows well. It has a slightly hypnotic effect, no doubt due to the recurring theme and the sounds emanating from the lower register.
Another pastoral piece comes next, titled Les Bergeries (‘The Sheepfolds’). Again in rondeau form, it has a musette imitating the drone of a bagpipe as the second couplet. This calm evocation of nature must have made an impression on J S Bach as he copied it into the 1725 Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, his second wife. One interesting difference in the notation concerns the length of notes in the left hand: what is known as ‘finger-pedalling’ to keyboard players (holding notes with the fingers longer than notated to produce a harmony) is actually written out by Couperin, whereas Bach chose not to write it this way but presumably played it like that (a common Baroque practice). It is thought that Bach and Couperin at one time corresponded (they certainly never met, as both of them stayed in a relatively small area all their lives), but evidently their letters ended up as jam-pot covers (or so the story goes!) and thus were lost for ever.
We are then woken up by the chatter of La Commére (‘The Gossip’), a lively piece in two parts where the ornaments add zest. She certainly gets very insistent by the end!
To end the Sixième Ordre, Couperin writes an Italian gigue called Le Moucheron (‘The Gnat’). With wit, he portrays this annoying insect turning in circles and buzzing around, really making a nuisance of himself in a passage with left-hand trills. It brings this charming, good-natured ordre to a perfect conclusion.
The Dix-Huitième Ordre comes from the Third Book of Harpsichord Pieces published in 1722. Three of the pieces are in F minor; three in F major. It opens with a solemn allemande, La Verneüil, which isn’t far away from Bach in its texture and chromaticisms. We are not sure who this particular Verneuil was—there were several of them around at court. No doubt Couperin is portraying Verneuil’s daughter in the next piece, La Verneüilléte, who, although still dancing in minor mode, is much lighter on her feet. In this Third Book, Couperin introduced a new sign which looks like an apostrophe and which he explained thus:
It is used to mark the ending of phrases, or of our Harmonic sentences, and to indicate that one must make a slight break at the end of a phrase before going on to the following one. Generally speaking this is almost imperceptible, although, when this little Silence is not observed, persons of taste feel that something is lacking in the performance; in a word, it is the difference between those who read everything straight through, and those who pause at the full stops and commas. These silences must make themselves felt without altering the beat.
That, of course, is one of the basic rules of musicianship, but it is still necessary to say it to students almost three centuries later!
The ordre continues with another rondeau-pastoral, Sœur Monique (‘Sister Monique’) which must have already been popular before the Third Book was published. Couperin’s tune was parodied in two songs published in 1721, one serious, one less so, the words of the latter being:
My dear shepherdess, Love is using
The word sœur had two distinct meanings at the time: a nun, of course (in which case the repeated C in the left could be portraying the church bell), and a girl of ill repute. Marked tendrement, sans lenteur (‘tenderly, without dragging’), this is certainly one piece where he meant the tempo not to be too slow (he issues a warning in his treatise, saying that ‘Expression and good taste can still be preserved independently of too much slowness’).
In contrast, the next movement, Le Turbulent (‘The Turbulent One’) is marked tres viste (‘very fast’). Halfway through, the time signature suddenly changes from 2/4 to 3/8 with some very nimble fingerwork required.
One of Couperin’s most affecting moments comes next with L’Attendrissante (‘The Touching One’). The indication douloureusement (‘sorrowfully’) sets the mood for the piece which is played entirely in the lower half of the keyboard. Here we feel once more Couperin’s special feeling for melancholic longing, and the effect is quite haunting. Lengthening the dotted notes (a Baroque performance practice) is necessary to give the right swing to the rhythm.
From the bottom of the keyboard to the top for the next movement in this ordre, Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou Les Maillotins. This is a pièce croisée (one in which the hands play at the same point on the keyboard but on two different manuals). On a two-manual harpsichord this is no problem. With only one, this particular piece becomes impossible. So Couperin advised putting either the left hand down an octave or the right hand up. (I chose to do the latter.) The effect is different, of course, but is still effective. The title is slightly baffling: obviously onomatopoeic for the first half, but Les Maillotins? Rosalyn Tureck says it has to do with a name given to a band of revolutionaries who rebelled against the re-imposition of taxes in 1382, after the death of Charles V. They carried mallets, hence their name Les Maillotins. Clark and Connon again come up with something different: a famous family of rope-dancers called Maillot who performed at the Foire Saint Germain. For sure the piece is another rondeau with three couplets and a witty coda tacked on to the end. It is also a bit of a finger-twister.
Couperin ends this ordre with a piece dans le goût Burlesque (‘in the Burlesque style’) called Le Gaillard-Boiteux (‘The Limping Fellow’). Although the time signature is the very unusual one of 2/6, Couperin asks for it to be played as though it were in 6/8. Its comic nature is emphasized by the plentiful use of ornaments that must be executed very quickly and clearly.
We return to the Second Book for the Huitième Ordre, one of the greatest of his entire output, and, I think, one of the best of all the Baroque keyboard suites. It is written entirely in the key of B minor—a solemn, majestic, solitary key which was unusual for the time. Bach was perhaps paying homage to Couperin when he wrote his French Overture in B minor (BWV831) as there are quite a few similarities. It opens with a grand-scale allemande, La Raphaéle, full of dramatic gestures and with the dotted rhythms so characteristic of the French style. The chromaticisms in the second section are remarkable for their intensity and expressiveness.
Another allemande follows, but this one is completely different in mood. It is certainly more Italian than French, which might explain the title, L’Ausoniéne (Ausonia was a poetic name for Italy). Again telling us to play lightly, Couperin charms us with this steadily-moving dance played, for the most part, in the lower part of the keyboard.
This ordre is much closer to the normal Baroque idea of a suite with its set sequence of dance movements (allemande, courante, sarabande, various galanteries, gigue). Not content with only one courante, Couperin here gives us two, both of which seem prime candidates for what is called notes inégales (inequality). This is a little similar to what jazz musicians would call ‘swing’. It denotes an alteration of the notated rhythm, usually when the notes are stepwise, so that one note is longer than the other although they are written in equal values. The earliest mention of it in France dates back to 1550. So much confusing material has been written on the subject that it is difficult to be sure how widespread a practise this was. For sure, in the France of Couperin’s day it was widely used, as he writes in his treatise:
In my opinion, there are defects in our method of writing music which correspond to our manner of writing our language. We write differently from the way we play, which is the reason why foreigners play our music less well than we play theirs. On the contrary, the Italians write their music in the true note values in which it is to be played. For example, we dot several eight notes in succession moving by conjunct degrees; however, we write them in equal time values. Our custom has enslaved us and we continue in it.
It seems important, therefore, to understand this way of playing and to know when it should or should not be used. Musical judgement plays a big role in deciding. To apply it everywhere indiscriminately seems wrong and sounds like a student practising a piece in rhythms (a well-known but, I think, useless method of practising). In these courantes, which might otherwise sound a trifle dull, it certainly adds elegance, rhythmic vitality, and makes them much more danceable. Although Couperin doesn’t indicate any difference in tempo between these two courantes, I have adopted the practise of playing the second one slightly faster than the first, something which he asks for in other similar cases.
The sarabande is traditionally the expressive core of the suite, and the next movement, entitled L’Unique certainly fulfils that role. Again by sticking to the middle and lower parts of the keyboard, Couperin gives us a deep, dark sound that perfectly suits the key of B minor. This sarabande is unusual in that, all of a sudden, it departs from its stately gait and is twice interrupted by two measures in 3/8 time marked vivement (‘lively’). The anxiety thus created makes the returning tempo seem all the more solemn.
The two galanteries inserted at this point are a Gavotte marked tendrement (‘tenderly’) and a Rondeau marked gayement (‘gaily’). They serve to lighten the mood after the sarabande and to prepare us for the final movements. The Gigue in the French style (again the famous dotted rhythms) is not at all dissimilar from the one in Bach’s French Overture, and like it builds up to the pièce de résistance of the whole work. In Couperin’s case, this is a magnificent Passacaille, one of his favourite forms in which he was always inspired. This dance originated in Spain and was performed at the time of Corpus Christi, when dancers and guitarists would parade through the streets (and from where comes the name: passar calle). Some of the wild, proud Spanish temperament remains in the theme chosen by Couperin in this movement. It is stated nine times (or, rather, eighteen times as the first four bars are repeated) and yet we are drawn to it at each return rather than thinking it repetitive. The intervening couplets all show off one particular thing: while the theme has an upward motion, the first couplet descends from the top of the keyboard, in no hurry at all. The second proudly and defiantly shows off trills in the left hand. The third is the quietest of them all, with the two hands engaged in sighing figures. The fourth again takes us to the upper range, with stormy double trills. The fifth uses echo effects while not forgetting the majestic nature of the piece. In the sixth couplet, broken dotted chords begin to build up the energy for the end. The seventh is a wonderful outburst of arpeggiated discords and sighing appoggiaturas, with the top voice descending while the bass moves upwards. For the final couplet, the note values are suddenly quickened, and running scales propel us to the final statement of the ostinato. Landowska calls this Passacaille ‘the queen of all his harpsichord pieces’; Mellers labels it ‘unquestionably the greatest single piece in Couperin’s clavecin music’. In it, Couperin displays a temperament, and a depth of passion, that is often not associated with his music.
The Huitième Ordre does not end here, however. He tacks on one final page, La Morinéte, which is a simple gigue, perhaps evoking the daughter of the composer Jean-Baptiste Morin. Its daintiness is not without poetry and melancholy, and in this way Couperin chooses to end the ordre in the half-light rather than with splendour and magnificence.
Angela Hewitt © 2003
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