1668 — 1733
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The French composer and keyboardist Francois Couperin was the most notable member of the renowned Couperin family, of which almost every member became a prominent musician. Called Couperin le Grand as a way of avoiding confusion with the rest of his family, Francois wrote hundreds of works for harpsichord which in many ways would form the basis of the instrument’s repertoire.
Couperin was born and raised in Paris, France and instructed in music from an early age by his father, the organist at St. Gervais Church. Although his father died when the younger Couperin was only ten years old, the child had already begun to exhibit such remarkable talent that the position as church organist was reserved for him until he came of age. In the meantime he studied with Jacques Thomelin, the organist at the nearby Saint Jacques de la Boucherie Church, who also was a mentor and a father figure for Couperin. It was while in his early years at St. Gervais that Couperin married Marie-Anne Ansault, the daughter of a well-connected and prosperous wine merchant. They had one child, who did not survive infancy.
The year 1693 witnessed one of the most remarkable points in young Couperin’s career, with him being appointed as organist for the court of King Louis XIV, the infamous “Sun King,” at his chapel in Versailles. Not only were the terms of the job very generous, leaving enough time for him to retain his job at St. Gervais, the job also offered various connections which would allow Couperin to quickly establish himself as an integral part of the court. In 1694 Couperin became the music teacher for the royal family, instructing the six princes and princesses in the harpsichord and theory. Two years later, he was made a nobleman.
It was around this time that he began writing his first compositions. As a lifelong admirer of the Italian style of composition, many of Couperin’s works, especially the early ones, represent a fascinating synthesis of French and Italian music, which the composer referred to asLes Goûts réunis, or “styles reunited.” An avid admirer of Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli, he is responsible for bringing his trio sonata form to France, and popularizing it with his great work,Le Parnasse, ou l'Apothéose de Corelli (1724).
Beginning in 1713, Louis XIV allowed Couperin to begin publishing his own works, resulting in a huge release of decades worth of material. His first of four collections of harpsichord music was published that year, followed by additional volumes in 1717, 1722 and 1730 which altogether accounted for more than 230 pieces of music. Each volume was organized intoordres, which were Couperin’s own unique version of a traditional dance suite, and although many of them were clearly written to fill space and are relatively uninspired and formulaic, there are frequent moments of brilliance.
Although these ordres were hardly the culmination of his career, they are still widely regarded as some of the most influential works for keyboard. Richard Strauss chose to orchestrate several of them for larger ensemble and Johannes Brahms would often perform Couperin’s works and cite them as an influence on his own compositions.Maurice Ravel, who referred to Couperin as “theChopin of the harpsichord,” wrote an homage to Couperin called Le tombeau de Couperin(1914-1917), which was a solo piano suite in the Baroque style with each movement dedicated to a friend or family member of Ravel who had died during World War I.
In 1719 Couperin was appointed to the long-overdue post of harpsichordist to King Louis XV, a position which he probably had already been fulfilling for years. By this point it seems he had already adopted a fairly luxurious lifestyle, as evidenced by his rental of a country house in Saint-Germain-en-Laye ten years prior, and was widely regarded as the greatest living composer, organist and harpsichordist in France.
The Couperin musical dynasty would continue for several generations, finally dying out in the 19th century. With no surviving offspring, Couperin’s nephew assumed the position of organist at St. Gervais upon Couperin’s death, continuing a legacy which would run unbroken until the French Revolution.
However, Couperin's greatest lasting impact was not a particular composition but his pedagogical book L’Art de toucher le clavecin (1716). The work contained instructions for everything from technique to ornamentation, and is said to be directly responsible forJohann Sebastian Bach adopting Couperin’s unique fingerings and way of treating the thumb. Bach was a great lover of Couperin’s music in general, as Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg attested in 1750 by stating “I can do no more in praise of Couperin than to inform you that the learned J.S. Bach regarded him as worthy of approbation.”
Couperin’s compositions for organ are often overlooked but still a valuable part of his repertoire. Many of them were lost along with a large amount of Couperin’s music after he died. The collection that survives,Pièces d'orgue consistantes en deux Messes (1690), was not published for many years due to Couperin’s low profile at such a young age, but his teacher Michel Richard Delalande was enthusiastic about the work, calling it “very beautiful and worthy of being given to the public.” The two Masses were written for very different audiences with the first being written for parish churches and the second for abbeys. It is not surprising therefore that the first Mass is more highly regarded, as Couperin likely performed it himself on organ at St. Gervais and would have wanted to make a good impression.