Friday, February 3, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: François Couperin, le Grand

I seem to be unfolding a mini-course in music history here! A lot of my love for early music stems from the first course I took in music history way back in the early 70s. At the time many of the students and other professors were scandalized that the professor teaching the course spent the entire first half, up to Christmas, just barely managing to get up to Monteverdi. This meant that by the end of the year she had to add on an extra class just to do most of the 20th century. The last class covered Stravinsky, Bartok and Hindemith, as I recall. At that point in time, the progressive composers of the 20th century were held in very high esteem and jamming the whole era into one--extra--class, seemed outrageous. But in retrospect, it meant that we were able to give a lot more attention to the earlier periods. My feeling these days is that the jury is still out on the music of the 20th century and the Deuteronomy that was recited thirty or forty years ago: Schoenberg begat Berg and Webern and they begat Stockhausen and Boulez and also of that tribe were Messiaen and Stravinsky and Bartok... this litany is going to be overturned as we get more distance from that time.

In any case, now we are up to the Baroque and choosing just a couple more composers is going to be very hard indeed! I chose one from the Middle Ages, Machaut, one from the transition to the Renaissance, Dufay, one from the early Renaissance, Josquin and one from the high Renaissance, Orlande de Lassus. Monteverdi is the logical choice for the early Baroque. Today I am going to do the French Baroque, a truly magnificent time. I am sorely tempted to talk about Robert de Visee, the composer of lovely guitar music for Louis XIV, but I have already mentioned him in a couple of posts. Forqueray would be another possibility but I talked about him in this post. But to pick out someone who really sums up the French Baroque there are only two possibilities: François Couperin, le Grand and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Couperin was born in Paris in 1668 and died there in 1733. He is known as "le Grand" because he is the most famous member of a musically-gifted family that included his uncle, Louis Couperin. 

I have a particular love for French Baroque music because it has an expressiveness and elegance that no other music of any time or place has. Here is an example from Couperin:

This is, above all, harmonic music. It is heavily ornamented, but all the ornaments are based on the tension/resolution of dissonant to consonant tones. It is largely in two voices, treble and bass, with other voices added for emphasis. It is rhythmically flexible--one of the features of this style is the use of notes inégales as you will hear in the first piece whenever there are sixteenth notes: the first of each pair is held slightly longer than the second. This is the first part of a suite for harpsichord, the 21me Ordre in E minor from the Quatrieme Livre. In the clip are the first three movements: "La Reine des Coeurs", a slow prelude in 3/8; "La Bondissante", a gigue-like piece in 6/8; and "La Couperin" a rather brisk allemande in duple time. French composers at this time were very influenced by Italian music--after all, the Florentine Camerata and composers like Monteverdi had just invented an entirely new kind of music. Then as now, the French were more conservative and restrained than the Italians. As Couperin remarked, "I love much better the things which touch me than those which surprise me." What the French truly excelled at was subtlety and expressiveness. Here is the first movement of the suite in the original edition of 1730:

Click to enlarge

What is going on here shows a momentous development in music. As I pointed out before, the big discovery of the early Baroque was functional harmony: how to use the tensions and resolutions of harmony to give music a sensation of forward movement. For a long time the device of the cadence, that which concludes a passage, had been in use. But the Baroque made all that led up to the cadence more dynamic. The fundamental device was the harmonic sequence. A sequence is nothing but a repetition--but in music the idea of repetition is a very powerful one. Some composers (*cough* Steve Reich *cough*) do nothing but repeat. Indeed, the usual problem with student composers is that they have one idea, then another idea, then another idea, which is the most incoherent thing you can do. The discovery of the harmonic sequence was a huge one because it solves two problems: how to move the music forward and how to organize it for clarity. A harmonic sequence is nothing but a simple two chord group that is repeated on different steps of the scale. Usually after two or three repetitions there is a cadence. To put it very simply, Couperin's method is to begin with a simple motive, do some harmonic sequences using that motive and end the phrase with a cadence. If you look at the third line, second measure of the score you will see an example. After the cadence on G, there is a two measure group, repeated up a step, repeated again up another step followed by a one measure idea repeated down a step, then a cadence. Couperin does this in hundreds of different ways in hundreds of different pieces.

Not only Couperin, of course. Once the idea of the harmonic sequence was discovered, every single composer started using it. There are different kinds of sequences and more and more were discovered all the time. But in all Baroque and Classical period music, the sequence is used extensively. Whenever you sense the music shifting gears or turning a corner (notice how I use driving metaphors), you are probably hearing a sequence. You might suddenly sit up while listening to Vivaldi and say, "my God, everything is a sequence!" The Baroque discovered how to drive music along a path. And how to do so with real elegance.  Here is one of his most delightful pieces harmonically, "Les baricades mistérieuses" from the Second Book of suites for harpsichord:


Nathan Shirley said...

Ah yes Couperin, one of the greatest pre J.S. Bach masters. I can listen to him perhaps longer than any of the composers from this time period (except for Vivaldi, I can listen to him endlessly- the first supreme master of melody and harmony in my opinion).

Bryan Townsend said...

I love the great harpsichord composers! I lived with a harpsichordist for two years so I really have it in my ears...

Nathan Shirley said...

I love many of the pre-Bach composers, Couperin and at least several others were consistently excellent. Many of the others are hit and miss though, even Corelli becomes a little old after a while (for me at any rate).

Great article.