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The Couperin Dynasty

2018 marks the tercentenary year of François Couperin. Known as 'le Grand', he is the most famous of a line of family musicians and composers that stretches from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The Couperin musical heritage begins with Mathurin Couperin (c.1569–c.1640), amateur musician and father of Charles (d. 1654), organist at the Abbey of St. Pierre and father of at least three professional musicians: Louis (1626–1661), François (1631–1701), and Charles (1639–1679).

The rise to fame began with a visit by the three sons to Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, harpsichordist to the King of France. So impressed was Chambonnières with the playing and compositions of Louis, he took the boy with him to Paris, where he became the organist at Saint-Gervais - a post held continuously by a member of the Couperin family for the next 173 years.

His most recognizable works are the préludes non mésuré, which are, as the name suggests, without meter and written in open whole-notes. These improvisational preludes find their roots in lute music of the Renaissance, and were originally intended as introductions to other works. By the mid 17th century, the unmeasured prelude had become a full-fledged compositional genre, and Louis Couperin is credited with being the first harpsichordist to notate such works and penned more than any composer following him, though most of Louis' works were not published until the 20th century.

François Couperin, or 'Couperin le Grand,' was the son of Charles Couperin, Louis' brother, and most famous member of the clan.

Assuming the position of court harpsichordist from his teacher, Thomelin, François also served as organist at Saint-Gervais. These positions brought him into contact with the most famous musicians and aristocrats of France, and in 1718, Couperin succeeded another famous harpsichordist, Jean-Baptiste-Henry d'Anglebert, as ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du roi pour le clavecin - one of the highest appointments for a court musician. Not long after his health began to decline, and in 1723 he was forced to surrender his post at Saint-Gervais, and in 1730 he turned his position at court over to his daughter, Marguerite-Antoinette. Somewhat like tenure in the modern sense, royal appointments to musicians were considered property, and by French law were alienable and descendible. Couperin lived until 1733, and was survived by at least three children: Marguerite-Antoinette, Marie-Madeleine, who became a nun and organist at the Maubuisson Abbey, and François-Laurent, who died in 1740.

Couperin composed chamber music, organ masses and keyboard works, and having received a 20 year royal privilege to publish, he produced his monumental Pièces de Clavecin a collection of 230 pieces in four volumes. Grouped into suites he named ordres, these suites contained traditional dance forms as well as pieces with descriptive titles, and are notable for the attention Couperin gave to notating ornaments, which in most harpsichord music of the period were left to the discretion of the player. These volumes were admired by Bach, who exchanged letters with Couperin, and by Brahms and Ravel. A harpsichord teaching manual came in 1716, l'Art de Toucher le Clavecin, in which eight non-measured preludes are provided for didactic purposes.

Couperin admired the work of Corelli, and blending the Italian and French styles is a mark of his contribution to musical development, most obviously in his work known as Les goûts réunis (styles reunited), and his grand trio sonata was subtitled Le Parnasse, ou L'apothéose de Corelli (Parnassus, or the Apotheosis of Corelli).

Below is one of Couperin's chamber pieces, Concert Royaux 3 in A. These works are composed in keyboard grand staff, and may be performed by harpsichord alone or in some combination of instruments. This particular Concert will be featured in the concert "Le Grand: Music of the Couperin Dynasty" at the Twin Cities Early Music Festival on Sunday, August 12 at 3 pm at the Summit Center for the Arts and Innovation in St. Paul, MN. Here is it played by Ensemble Floridante of Estonia: Mari-Liis Vihermäe - traverso Meelis Orgse - baroque violin Tõnu Jõesaar - viola da gamba Saale Fischer - harpsichord.

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