3e. Ordre, No 13: La Lutine [1'59]
7e. Ordre, No 1: La Ménetou [2'51]
With this third volume Angela Hewitt concludes her personal survey of Couperin’s keyboard music and proves that, in the hands of someone as steeped in Baroque keyboard style as herself, music which was previously thought the exclusive domain of the harpsichordist can be successfully transferred to the modern piano.
Unlike her programming on the previous discs Hewitt here only plays one complete Ordre (suite)—the hugely entertaining 13th with its wicked parody of a debauched masked ball. For the rest, after tackling a group of pieces from the 14th Ordre she chooses, almost as encores to her series, a wide selection of her favourite pieces taken from suites not featured previously.
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On this, the third and final CD of excerpts from the harpsichord music by François Couperin, I am presenting one of his best suites, the Treizième Ordre. Along with that, I have included separate pieces from the first three volumes of his Pièces de Clavecin, choosing those which I think are the most interesting and the most suitable to performance on the modern piano.
It was in the preface to his third book of pieces (1722) that Couperin begged his interpreters to follow closely all his indications in the score – especially the ornaments (see the notes to volume 1,). They were not to be added or subtracted in an arbitrary fashion. Certainly everything is minutely indicated in his wonderful Treizième Ordre in B minor. It is one of his best and most satisfying suites, perhaps because it has more of a sense of unity than many of the others. The suite is supposedly concerned with Philippe d’Orléans, the nephew of Louis XIV, who became Regent of France when his uncle died. He was not a happy man. The Duc de Saint-Simon wrote of him, saying:
When his ambitions were thwarted he took pride in licentiousness. The rakes of Paris gained a hold over him. Resentment at being forced into an unsuitable marriage drove him to seek consolation elsewhere. Disappointment at being refused the command of an army and the governorships and other offices he had been promised finally led him into dissolute living which he carried to extremes …
Nevertheless, the ordre starts calmly with Les Lis naissans (‘The Budding Lilies’), a short piece in binary form with broken chords and ornaments on the weak beats. The ‘Fleur de Lis’ was, of course, the emblem of the Kingdom of France, and also that of purity. Next comes Les Rozeaux (‘The Reeds’), which denoted human weakness. It is one of Couperin’s loveliest pieces in rondeau form (a recurring refrain interspersed with couplets). Another rather innocent piece follows, L’engageante, which could be translated as ‘The Engaging One’ but evidently was the name given both to a certain type of sleeve that exposed the arms of young ladies and to a bow of yellow ribbon that they wore in their bosom. Charm is in evidence here, and is heightened by the frequent use of a dotted-note motif that is obviously related to a poised gesture.
After this relatively innocent beginning, we turn to high drama with the arrival of Les Folies françoises, ou les Dominos. It is a miniature theme and variations using the same Folia bass as Les Folies d’Espagne. Each variation depicts a character arriving at a masked ball. Philippe d’Orléans frequently hosted such events that became known for their scandal. In the one portrayed here we have Virginity arriving in an invisible cloak (or domino). Then appears Modesty in pink, followed by Ardour in a flesh-coloured cloak. Hope comes next, sporting green, followed by Fidelity in blue. And after Fidelity? Perserverance arrives in flaxen grey, with Languor in purple not far behind. Coquetry livens things up a bit wearing different colours (wonderfully portrayed by the use of three different time signatures in the first four bars). The Old Roués and Pensioned-off Courtesans stumble in, wearing crimson and verdigris. Then come the benevolent Cuckolds in yellow, accompanied by a cuckoo-like musical motif. Silent Jealousy in Moorish grey takes to the bottom of the keyboard in a very sinister variation. The last character to arrive is Frenzy or Despair – in black. As Wilfrid Mellers writes: ‘The work is a microcosm of Couperin’s art, its tragic passion, its witty urbanity, its sensuous charm.’
After this procession of characters, Couperin finishes the ordre with one of his most eloquent pieces, L’âme en peine (‘The Soul in Torment’). Constant sighing figures weigh it down. There is no escape. The work is thus brought to a hushed and tragic close.
The Quatorzième Ordre (from which I have included four of the seven pieces) is totally different in character, giving us the brightness of D major rather than the solitude of B minor. Here are several bird pieces that reflect various stages of being in love. The first is one of Couperin’s most beautiful pieces, Le Rossignol en amour (‘The Nightingale in Love’). It is the state of rapture induced by the song of the nightingale rather than the song of the bird itself that is beautifully portrayed, or, as Olivier Messiaen said: ‘I think that Couperin, given what he wrote, never heard a nightingale, but this takes away nothing from the charm of the piece.’
The double, or variation, is a perfect example of the art of embellishment. Couperin writes at the end of this piece:
One should not attach too much importance to keeping a regular beat in this Double. Everything must give way to taste, to the neatness of the passages, and to soften the accents caused by the ornaments.
He also says it cannot sound better than when it is played well on the transverse flute.
All calm is broken by the startled linnet, La Linote éfarouchée, a rondeau with two couplets, the second being harmonically the more interesting. It seems a mere trifle, but is not easy to play well, requiring great nimbleness of touch. Then we switch to the minor mode for the plaintive song of the warblers, Les Fauvétes Plaintives. It is marked très tendrement (very tenderly), and is played in the top half of the keyboard. It is amazing how much intensity and melancholy Couperin can muster with so few notes. The last piece of the ordre is Le Petit-Rien (‘The Trifle’), dismissing all with its gaiety and tripping gait.
We now return to the first book of Couperin’s harpsichord pieces (published in 1713) and the most interesting piece of his Deuxième Ordre. Les Idées heureuses (‘Happy Thoughts’) is the piece that Couperin is holding in one of the few portraits we have of him – the one by André Boüys (see below) – so it must have been a piece he particularly liked. It is certainly not happy-sounding, but rather pervaded by a melancholy that seems so deeply rooted in his music. Perhaps his happiness lay in solitary hours while others revelled in society. Wilfrid Mellers writes:
Couperin is the black-robed figure who, in some paintings of Watteau, beside the merry throng discoursing and flirting with such gracious urbanity, stands quietly in his corner, seeming to suggest not that the junketings are meaningless, the gestures empty, the urbanity a sham, but that, though the company may be delightful, one may be lonely, still.
The next piece is Le Dodo, ou L’amour au Berçeau (‘The Dodo, or Cupid in the Cradle’) from his Quinzième Ordre. This is a ‘pièce croisée’ – one of those pieces written for a harpsichord with two manuals as the hands cross over each other and often play at the same point on the keyboard. On the piano, it is possible to play it as written, using a minimum amount of sustaining pedal; it is not necessary to play the right hand up an octave as in some of his other pieces of this type (e.g. Le Tic-Toc-Choc), which would ruin the atmosphere altogether. It is a simple, gentle lullaby consisting of two rondeaux – one in the major, one in the minor. I repeat the major one at the end (not marked in the score but a convention at the time). The word ‘dodo’ is to this day baby-talk for ‘sleep’ in French.
La Mézangére comes from his Dixième Ordre, a work in which the theme of wine seems to be prominent. Antoine Scott, Seigneur de Mézangére, was the King’s Maître d’Hôtel, and the husband of one of Couperin’s pupils. Perhaps the jerky rhythm of this piece portrayed him in a drunken state. It stays in the lower half of the keyboard, never venturing far above middle C. Another personage altogether was Mademoiselle de La Plante, who was brought to life in the next piece, La Muse-Plantine, from the Dix-neuvième Ordre. She was a gifted harpsichordist and composer, known for her delicacy and brilliance. For her, Couperin writes a rondeau with a chromatic descending bass and three couplets, the last of which shows both of these qualities.
His Quatrième Ordre also seems to have a lot to do with the pleasures of Bacchus (especially its second piece, entitled Les Baccanales), and it ends with Le Réveil-matin (‘The Alarm Clock’). Obviously it was just as important then as now to get up in the morning, even with a hangover. Although the harpsichord would certainly be much more ‘noisy’ in the broken-octave passages, the piano can do the trick as well. The hardest thing here is to play all the trills in the tempo that the music demands.
La Favorite (‘The Favoured One’) is from his Troisième Ordre, and is subtitled Chaconne a deux tems. Rousseau states in his dictionary of 1768 that chaconnes used to be in either two or three beats to a bar, but that those in duple time were now extinct. The ‘favoured one’ is a reference to Madame de Maintenon, who had married the King without anyone knowing it. Austerity was the order of the day, as France was then involved in the War of the Spanish Succession. It is a great piece, one of Couperin’s finest, marked gravement, sans lenteur (solemnly, without dragging). The refrain of the chaconne is interspersed with five couplets, and the noble, rather gloomy character remains throughout. This mood is dispelled by the next and last piece in the Troisième Ordre, La Lutine (‘The Elf’). A ‘lutin’ was a sprite that made appearances in plays, frolicking about and generally trying to liven things up.
Two pieces from Couperin’s Seizième Ordre come next. La Distraite (‘The Distracted One’) could be some poor lover who has a hard time focussing on things other than his malady (and in fact the music doesn’t stray from a few repeated motifs throughout), or it could have something to do with the Prince de Conti. The opening piece in this ordre – Les Graces incomparables ou La Conti (not recorded here) – is a depiction of him and his unaffected manners. The Prince de Conti got himself in trouble for calling Louis XIV the ‘King of Theatre’ in a letter that the latter opened (one of his unfortunate habits), a remark which had the Prince banished for good to Chantilly. He was also in love with the married Duchesse de Bourbon, with whom he had an affair that lasted until death. Couperin is no doubt depicting both marriage and love in L’Himen-Amour (Hymen being the God of marriage). This is musically one of his most interesting pieces, and is in two distinct parts. The first, marked majestueusement (majestically), could be a portrayal of a wedding ceremony with the descending peal of bells heard for a fleeting moment. But then the mood changes abruptly: marked galamment (gallantly), the descending figure is now joyous, jaunty, and accompanied by the interrupted drone of the bagpipe (an erotic symbol at the time). Some kind of whirling dance is suggested for sure.
The final piece on this disc, La Ménetou, which opens the Septième Ordre, depicts another female artist, Françoise Charlotte de Ménethoud (born 1680). She was a gifted child who sang, danced, played the harpsichord and flute, and also composed. At the age of nine she performed for the King. For her, Couperin wrote one of his loveliest rondos, full of tenderness and grace. The refrain uses his much-loved ‘lute style’ (style brisé) and the whole piece remains in the lower half of the keyboard, giving it an extra gentleness. That is one quality that is really possible to bring out when playing Couperin on the piano. In the composer’s own words:
The harpsichord is perfect with regard to its compass and its brilliance; but as one can neither swell nor diminish the sound, I am always grateful to those who, by an art sustained by taste, are able to render the instrument susceptible to expression.
There are ways, of course, of being expressive on the harpsichord and they are many and varied. But the piano has the potential to go one step further in making a phrase expressive. Couperin was the epitome of grace, of light and shade, of subtle inflections, of melancholy and lightheartedness. Above all, Couperin wanted music to affect people:
I love much better the things which touch me than those which surprise me.
Angela Hewitt © 2005
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