At a recent piano recital, I started with the very beautiful Chaconne in F major by the early French Baroque composer Louis Couperin (1626-61), uncle of the better known François Couperin “Le Grand” (1668-1731).
For most who were in the audience, it will have been their first encounter with the music of Louis Couperin, and even those with an interest in the early French Baroque will perhaps never have heard this music performed on a modern piano before – it was written for the harpsichord (or clavecin as the French knew it) and while later Baroque music (for example the keyboard works of J.S.Bach and Domenico Scarlatti) has found its way into the piano repertoire, earlier Baroque keyboard music is rarely heard outside of specialist “Early Music” circles.
Discovering Louis Couperin
For my own part, during my student days I became enamoured with the harpsichord and other early keyboard instruments – and the music of Louis Couperin played a particular role in my own conversion to “early music” buff.
My inspirational harpsichord teacher David Ponsford first introduced me to the music of this extraordinary composer when I was his student in Birmingham, and I quickly fell in love with the elegant subtlety of Couperin’s style, and the intoxicating harmonies which so startlingly foreshadow later French music.
It was my fascination for the French Baroque above all else that drove me to further my study of authentic performance practice, going on to take the Early Music Course at the Royal College of Music as a postgrad student, learning harpsichord and fortepiano with the renowned performer Robert Woolley.
During those student days, the very idea of playing Louis Couperin’s music on a modern piano would quite frankly have appalled me. It is of course much easier to take that position when one is being funded to study at an institution with a basement museum full of well-preserved keyboard instruments from the Renaissance right through to the Romantic Era!
These days, in a teaching studio where modern instruments are all that are available, should I avoid this great music? I think not!
With that in mind – and given the popular reception of my performance – I have now recorded the piece, which you can listen to here. But while listening, scroll down to read more about the background to this music, and my thoughts on playing it on the modern piano…
Who was Louis Couperin?
Louis Couperin (1626-1661) was born in Chaumes-en-Brie, moving to Paris under the patronage of Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, the most acclaimed clavecinist of the age, and a key pioneer of the French school.
In Paris, Louis quickly became a leading light on the musical scene, taking the position of organist at the church of St-Gervais-et-St-Protais as well as establishing himself as a popular musician at the royal court. According to the leading expert, Davitt Moroney:
“His personality was a mixture of fire and restraint, of startling outbursts given artistic shape by quiet but sure compositional skill.”
Louis Couperin: Pièces de Clavecin, ed. David Moroney 1984, introduction,
Tragically, Louis’s career was cut short by his early death at the age of just 35 after a short but devastating illness. None of his works was published during his lifetime, but more than 200 pieces exist, including his fabulous “unmeasured preludes”. These were written entirely as whole-notes/semibreves, without any bar-lines or indications of rhythmic intention beyond the implications of the notes themselves.
In just ten years between arriving in Paris and his early death in 1661, Louis left an indelible mark on the course of music in the French Baroque and beyond. His music shows the influence of the lute style popular in France, the keyboard writing of Chambonnières, and his great German contemporary Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667) – but all with an imagination and command that is his alone.
It was only in the decades after his death that music engraving was perfected in France, benefitting composers who immediately succeeded Louis, and by the end of the century his music was largely forgotten. However, most of his pieces were thankfully preserved in the ‘Bruyn Manuscript’ held in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. From this source, 20 pieces first appeared in print in 1874, paving the way for the very steady rediscovery of Louis Couperin’s music in the twentieth century. Today, Louis Couperin is rightfully considered alongside Frescobaldi and Forberger as one of the foremost European keyboard composers of the 17th century.
Louis Couperin on the Piano
There are many considerations to take into account in order to play French Baroque pieces in a historically informed and artistically credible way.
Here are some of the major decisions, and how I have responded to them in my own recording and performance:
One of the most important, but difficult choices when playing baroque music on the piano is that of tempo. Many pieces of the era were written in dance rhythms, but we know that in most cases the dances themselves we taken at different speeds at different stages of their development, and in different countries. The Sarabande, for example, was a fairly brisk dance in Louis Couperin’s time, but had become a far more solemn and stately dance by the time of J.S.Bach, nearly a century later. Without scholarly insight, it is easy for the pianist to pick entirely inappropriate tempi for these pieces.
Such is the case with the Chaconne in F major, which is rhythmically a Sarabande. Louis Couperin seems to have used the Chaconne or Passacaille at the end of his ‘Suites’, with the Passacaille probably having been played at a slower pace than the Chaconne. In both cases the pieces offer a simple theme with several variations.
Performing this piece live I took a very steady pace, rather in keeping with the Eric Satie Sarabande with which I followed it, emphasising the spiritual connection between these similar works from very different periods of French musical history. However, at the slower pace there is a danger of losing the dance-like aspects of the music, and for that reason I chose to record at a slightly faster ‘medium’ tempo.
On the harpsichord, chords are invariably “spread” so that the notes are not played simultaneously. To play the notes simultaneously produces a clanking mechanical sound as the quills all go to work plucking the strings, and the consequent harmonic decay also appears diminished, giving a rather percussive effect. Spreading the chord allows for greater musical impact and resonance. Indeed, even notes played in two-part counterpoint would generally be played slightly apart for this reason, foreshadowing the “agogic accent” as it is now handed down to piano players.
Playing Louis Couperin’s music on the piano presents an interesting interpretive choice. The F major Chaconne is a very chordal piece, and while I have chosen to use spread chords as the default option – primarily because of the impetus this adds to the rhythmic flow of the music – I have also in some places made a feature of not spreading chords, and thus exploring the very different sonority that the modern piano offers.
I would argue that in doing so I am implementing the pianist’s alternative to the “registration changes” available to harpsichord players, and in doing so highlighting the structure in an equivalent and idiomatic way that is simply more appropriate on the piano.
Much of our understanding of ornamentation in Louis Couperin’s music comes from an analysis of his “unmeasured preludes”, in which ornaments are fully written out, and comparing this with the ornament tables of Chambonnières (1670), Nicolas Lebègue (1677) and Jean-Henri D’Anglebert (1689).
Allied to this is our understanding that written ornamentation was often ignored, and that it was regarded as in the performer’s gift to extemporise ornamentation at will, especially during the repeats. My own ornamentation on the recording is largely extemporised, relying of course on my knowledge of the style, and my formative experiences performing Louis Couperin’s music on the harpsichord.
There’s an important point here for piano teachers to note. I would say that idiomatic ornamentation in this music is only really possible once the player has mastered the “unmeasured preludes” in order to truly assimilate the style. And these are much more difficult pieces to approach than the easy dance movements.
Another lesson underlined by the unmeasured preludes is that the clavecinists freely added to the substance of pieces, going beyond the ornamentations that were later codified. In my recording I extemporised a few runs and frills in keeping with this tradition. Hopefully these are stylistically appropriate and help to the performance!
The French Baroque style is known for the convention of notes inègales, in which some notes with equal written time values are performed with unequal durations, usually as alternating long and short.
In many respects, the effect is similar to that of “swing quavers” in jazz music, but it’s important to bear in mind that in French Baroque music the convention of notes inègales is not applied universally or even as standard, but is rather a device used to heighten certain dance figurations and phrasing.
Within my recording of the Chaconne in F, notes inègales is used sparingly in a coupe of the variations, hopefully illustrating the point.
All of the above points highlight the central issue that on the harpsichord expression is achieved by different musical means to those used by the pianist. Use of articulation to emphasise rhythmic devices and dance steps, use of rubato for expressive impact, spreading chords (which is also sometimes a form of tenuto) and using ornamentation to heighten expressivity are all stock in trade tricks for the harpsichord player.
On the piano we can try all of the above, or indeed ignore them. But we have two final tricks which were unknown to the harpsichord player:
- Dynamics. The harpsichord of Louis Couperin’s day was less advanced than the two-manual beasts of the later baroque. With just a single manual and a couple of stops, little dynamic variety was possible, especially within a movement. However, it would be rather odd for the pianist to ignore the use of dynamics to shape phrases and underline structure from one variation to the next, and I have done so freely in my recording.
- Pedalling. Louis Couperin’s music attains much of its power by focussing the listener on the extraordinary beauty of the harpsichord’s resonance – and of all the baroque composers he was one of the most gifted at doing this with brilliant effect. For the modern pianist the use of the sustain pedal to colour tone (and the una corda pedal as a registration effect) seems highly appropriate.
Some Concluding Thoughts
Questions of whether and how we should play French Baroque music on the piano will undoubtedly persist, and continue in their orbit around the gravitational fields of “composers intentions”, “performer’s gift”, “audience expectations” and “historical preservation”.
Whether my own efforts to realise Louis Couperin’s music on the modern piano are effective is something that I invite the listener to consider for themselves, bearing in mind the various points I have made above.
What is certain is that the recording offers a version of the piece which differs considerably from what is on the written page, and rightly so, as the notation of Louis Couperin’s music provides only a glimpse of his true expressive intentions, and we heavily rely on scholarship and understanding to fill in the blanks. That is a big part of what makes the music so fascinating, and so rewarding to play.
In the final analysis my plea is that we don’t let this fabulous music simply be forgotten, when it has so much to offer today’s players and listeners.
I look forward to reading your comments below, and on social media.
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