Today is the birthday (1668) of François Couperin, a French Baroque composer, organist and harpsichordist. who was known as Couperin le Grand to distinguish him from other members of the musically able Couperin family.
Couperin was born into one of the best-known musical families of Europe. His father Charles was organist at Church Saint-Gervais in Paris, a position previously occupied by Charles’s brother Louis Couperin, a highly regarded keyboard virtuoso and composer whose career was cut short by an early death. As a boy, François must have received his first music lessons from his father. Unfortunately, Charles died in 1679. The church council at Saint-Gervais hired Michel Richard Delalande to serve as new organist, on the condition that François would replace him at age 18. Meanwhile, the boy was taken care of and taught by organist Jacques-Denis Thomelin, who served both at the court and at the famous church of St Jacques-de-la-Boucherie.
In 1689 Couperin married Marie-Anne Ansault, and the next year he published Pieces d’orgue, a collection of organ masses that was praised by Delalande (who may have assisted with both composition and publication). In three more years Couperin succeeded his former teacher Thomelin at the court. The new appointment was extremely prestigious and brought Couperin in contact with some of the finest composers of his time, as well as numerous members of the aristocracy. His earliest chamber music dates from around that time. The numerous duties Couperin carried out at the court were accompanied by duties as organist at Saint Gervais, and also by the composition and publication of new music. He obtained a 20-year royal privilege to publish in 1713 and used it immediately to issue the first volume (out of four) of his harpsichord works, Pieces de clavecin. A harpsichord playing manual followed in 1716, as well as other collections of keyboard and chamber music. In 1717 Couperin succeeded one of his most eminent colleagues, Jean-Baptiste-Henry d’Anglebert, as ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du roi pour le clavecin, one of the highest possible appointments for a court musician. However, his involvement in the musical activities at the court may have diminished after Louis XIV’s death in 1715.
Couperin’s health declined steadily throughout the 1720s. The services of a cousin were required by 1723 at Saint Gervais, and in 1730 Couperin’s position as court harpsichordist was taken up by his daughter Marguerite-Antoinette. Couperin’s final publications were Pièces de violes (1728) and the fourth volume of harpsichord pieces (1730). He died in 1733. The building where Couperin and his family lived from 1724 still stands and is located at the corner of the rue Radziwill and the rue des Petits Champs. The composer was survived by at least three of his children: Marguerite-Antoinette, who continued working as court harpsichordist until 1741, Marie-Madeleine (Marie-Cécile), who became a nun and may have worked as organist at the Maubuisson Abbey, and François-Laurent, who according to contemporary sources left the family after François died.
Couperin acknowledged his debt to the Italian composer Corelli. He introduced Corelli’s trio sonata form to France, for example. Couperin’s grand trio sonata was subtitled Le Parnasse, ou L’apothéose de Corelli (“Parnassus, or the Apotheosis of Corelli”). In it he blended the Italian and French styles of music in a set of pieces which he called Les goûts réunis (“Styles Reunited”).
His most famous book, L’art de toucher le clavecin (“The Art of Harpsichord Playing”, published in 1716), contains suggestions for fingerings, touch, ornamentation and other features of keyboard technique. This link has dozens of Couperin’s pieces on it:
Couperin’s four volumes of harpsichord music, published in Paris in 1713, 1717, 1722, and 1730, contain over 230 individual pieces, and he also published a book of Concerts Royaux which can be played as solo harpsichord pieces or as small chamber works. The four collections for harpsichord alone are grouped into ordres, a synonym of suites, containing traditional dances as well as pieces with descriptive titles. They are notable for Couperin’s detailed indication of ornaments, which in most harpsichord music of the period was left to the discretion of the player. The first and last pieces in an ordre were of the same tonality, but the middle pieces could be in other closely related tonalities. These volumes were admired by Johann Sebastian Bach, who exchanged letters with Couperin, and later by Brahms and by Ravel, who memorialized their composer in Le tombeau de Couperin (Couperin’s Memorial).
Many of Couperin’s keyboard pieces have evocative, picturesque titles (such as “The little windmills” and “The mysterious barricades”) and express a mood through key choices, adventurous harmonies and (resolved) discords. They have been likened to miniature tone poems. These features attracted Richard Strauss, who orchestrated some of them.
I have taken a recipe for a venison stew with beetroots from the 1674 classic, The English and French Cook, to commemorate Couperin. In the 17th and 18th centuries, there were a great many recipes shared by English and French cooks before the cordon bleu school put its stamp on French cooking. The recipe is straightforward except noting that “sweet spices” could be thyme, sage, parsley, rosemary, etc., and Saunders is red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus) that was used in Medieval cooking to give a red color to dishes.
Potage of Venison
Take a Haunch of Venison, and cut it into six pieces, and place them in the bottom of a Pan or Pot, then put in no more Water than will cover it, let it boil, then scum it, after that add to it a good quantity of whole Pepper; when it is half boiled, put in four whole Onions, Cloves, and large Mace, some sliced Ginger, Nutmeg, three or four faggots of sweet Herbs, let it boil till the Venison be very tender, and a good part of the broth be wasted; after this pour out the broth from the meat into a Pipkin, keep your Venison hot in the same Pot by adding other hot broth unto it; then take a couple of red-Beet roots, having very well parboil’d them before, cut them into square pieces as big as a shilling, and put them into the broth which is in your Pipkin, and let them boil till they are very tender, add unto the boiling four Anchovies minced, then dish up your Venison on Sippets of French-bread, then pour on your broth, so much as will near-upon fill the Dish, then take your roots by themselves, and toss them in a little drawn Butter, and lay them all over the Venison; if the Beets be good, it will make the broth red enough, which you must have visible round about the Dish sides, but if it prove pale, put to it some Saunders: This is a very savory Potage.