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Francois Couperin and Les Concerts Royaux

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François Couperin (November 10, 1668–September 11, 1733) was a French Baroque composer, organist and harpsichordist who was known as Couperin le Grand (“Couperin the Great”) to distinguish him from other members of the musically talented Couperin family.  Couperin was born on November 10, 1668, at Paris, France, into one of the best known musical families of Europe. His father Charles (1638-79) was organist at Church Saint-Gervais in Paris, a position previously occupied by Charles’ 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, with the condition that François would replace him at age 18.

François, an early musical genius, was already deputizing for Lalande at the age of ten.   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.  Thomelin treated the boy extremely well and became a second father to him. François’s talent must have manifested itself quite early, since already by 1685 the church council agreed to provide him with a regular salary even though he had no formal contract.  Couperin’s mother Marie (née Guérin) died in 1690, but otherwise his life and career were accompanied by good fortune. In 1689 he married one Marie-Anne Ansault, daughter of a prosperous well-connected family.

The next year saw the publication of Couperin’s 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 as organist at the Chapelle Royale (Royal Chapel) with the title organiste du Roi, by appointment to the King. This was the Sun King, Louis XIV.  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. He turned his attention to the import of the Italian sonatas and cantatas being performed in private concerts during the 1690s.  In 1700 he acquired the younger D’Anglebert’s position as harpsichordist at Versailles. Couperin divided his time between Paris and Versailles.  He soon acquired heavy commitments to teach the harpsichord and organ which made it difficult to find time for the publication of his vocal and instrumental chamber music.

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. Ever the individualist, Couperin chose to group his pièces into ordres rather than suites, and relied much less on dance movements than his contemporaries, preferring the freer and more evocative pièces de caractère. A harpsichord playing manual, L’art de toucher le clavecin, 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. With his colleagues, Couperin gave a weekly concert, typically on Sunday. Many of these concerts were in the form of suites for violin, viol, oboe, bassoon and harpsichord, on which he was a virtuoso player.  However, his involvement in the musical activities at the court may have lessened after Louis XIV’s death in 1715.

Couperin’s health declined steadily throughout the 1720s. In 1722 the Concerts royaux (for one to three players) were appended to the third book of harpsichord ordres. Two years later he issued the brilliantly assimilated Apothéose de Corelli within a second collection of concerts, aptly entitled Les goûts-réünis, in which the French and Italian elements are so subtly blended as to be barely extricable. The Concert instrumental à la mémoire de Monsieur de Lully (1725) allegorized the synthesis.  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 trio and quartet sonades in the Corellian style were absorbed into his 1726 collection Les nations.  Couperin’s final publications were Pièces de violes (1728) and the fourth volume of harpsichord pieces (1730). The composer died on September 11, 1733, in Paris.  Couperin 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.

The following works by Francois Couperin are contained in my collection:

Les Concerts Royaux (1722): Premier Concert in G.

Les Concerts Royaux (1722): Deuxieme Concert in D.

Les Concerts Royaux (1722): Troisieme Concert in A.

Les Concerts Royaux (1722): Quatrieme Concert in E.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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