François Couperin: De la lumière aux ténèbres (“From Light to Darkness”)

The following post was written by Bénédicte Hertz, librarian and musicologist of Les Talens Lyriques, in anticipation for the ensemble’s performance of the music of François Couperin on Thursday, Oct. 11 at Zipper Concert Hall.

Founder of Les Talens Lyriques

Founder of Les Talens Lyriques

“Couperin compels silence, as we listen to the dreamy, tender, delightfully teasing qualities of his music. We have to bow before him, not because he was a knight, ‘le chevalier Couperin,’ but because he was the first poet of French music.” This is how Christophe Rousset, in a monograph he devoted to Couperin (Actes Sud, 2016), describes a composer who was one of the greatest masters of his time. The figure of François Couperin (1668-1733) was present from the end of the Grand Siècle— the age of Louis XIV and that of the creation and affirmation of a national French art—to the beginning of the reign of Louis XV, well into the 18th century. His music, sensitive, and full of modesty and poetry, moves between shadow and light, Ombre et Lumière.

This program could resemble one of the short chamber concerts that accompanied the Coucher du roi— the king’s daily retirement. Indeed, we know that short vocal pieces or trios were performed for that occasion in the daily life at court. The Sun King appears to have been particularly fond of hearing such music, which was performed for 30 minutes by a small ensemble, at the end of a day punctuated by music. It could also be like one of the concerts that were given in the king’s presence in the apartments of his second wife Madame de Maintenon, or one of the soirées d’appartement that Louis liked to hold as soon he moved his court to Versailles.

François Couperin’s Concerts royaux were written for Louis XIV, during the last two years of the king’s life (he died in 1715). As the composer explains in his preface: “I made them for the short chamber concerts to which Louis XIV summoned me almost every Sunday of the year. These pieces were performed by Messieurs Duval, Philidor, Alarius and Dubois; I played the harpsichord.” The king had suffered several bereavements in succession, and it is very likely that Madame de Maintenon organised this type of regular entertainment as part of her efforts at that time to cheer him up. The Concerts royaux were first performed by five musicians, but Couperin states that they were composed without specific instrumentation in mind, most of them being set out on two staves only, like a keyboard piece. These dance suites can therefore be played as solo harpsichord pieces or as small chamber works, with violin, oboe, flute and either viol or bassoon “concerting” (conversing with each other) as the title of the work indicates.

The Concerts royaux were published in 1722, and they were followed two years later by a second volume entitled Les Goûts réunis, ou Nouveaux Concerts. This new collection completes the first and carries on the numbering to form a set of 14 compositions in all. It is highly likely that Les Goûts réunis were also played before Louis XIV, despite there being no mention of the word “royal” in the title. The term “goûts réunis” (reunited tastes) that was so dear to Couperin, could define his instrumental works, which present a fusion of French and Italian music.

In the early 18th century, the French harpsichord repertoire adopted a completely new aesthetic, when François Couperin grouped the usual archaic dance suites into a series of “character” pieces bearing mysterious titles that fire the listener’s imagination. Melancholy and frivolity, thematic constancy and inventiveness, vigour and moments of tenderness: as many contrasts, found in pieces with evocative or picturesque titles.

Couperin’s Second Book of Harpsichord Pieces represents the affirmation of a very personal style, that of one of the greatest masters of his day. It was composed around the same time (1716–17) as he was writing his famous L’Art de toucher le clavecin (“The Art of Harpsichord Playing”) and it followed a First Book that was more conformist. Here, the pieces break free and take on different characters, by turns facetious, sensual or sombre. The seventh suite of the Second Book is intentionally childish and playful.

At that same time instrumental music came into its own. The pieces composed by the great masters of the lute and the harpsichord were performed in the intimate setting of the salons and, among the musicians of the King’s Chamber, French good taste—le bon goût—and the increasing virtuosity of the solo instrument also found a choice ambassador in the bass viol, or viola da gamba. It was in that context that Couperin, at the height of his maturity as a composer, published his book of Pièces de viole (1728), one of the great masterpieces of the viol repertoire, in which he makes full use of all of the instrument’s possibilities, in the pure French tradition, already affirmed by Marin Marais and Antoine Forqueray: the writing, perfectly in keeping with the specific style of the viola da gamba, magnifies the instrument through a virtuosity that, although it is less present in Couperin than in the works of the master gambists, shows perfect mastery of the instrument’s technical capacities, while taking into account its recent developments.

The Leçons de Ténèbres (“lessons of darkness”) constitute a distinct body of sacred compositions. The first composer to publish such a work was Michel Lambert, in 1662, and subsequently the genre experienced a golden age in France under Louis XIV, when it enhanced the Easter Triduum with a worldly act of worship. The context was unprecedented: the opera houses being closed during Lent at that time, people in Paris would flock to the conventual or parish churches to hear three days of lessons set to music. Due to their popularity, the services of matins on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week were advanced to the previous evening, taking the name of Ténèbres (Tenebrae). Each office comprised three antiphons and three lessons with their responsories, sometimes following the Roman rite, and sometimes the Paris breviary then in use. The Lamentations of Jeremiah, “elegies” mourning the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, form the basis of this liturgy. The Hebrew letters that introduce the different verses are given a melismatic plainsong setting.

In 1730, Couperin published three Lessons for the Wednesday of Holy WeekLeçons pour le Mercredy Saint— which, as he tells us in the preface, were composed for and sung with success by the nuns of the order of St. Clare who resided at Longchamp Abbey, on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. The offices of that convent were extremely popular in Paris. Couperin apparently composed a full set of nine Leçons de Ténèbres, but those for the Thursday and the Friday of Holy Week have unfortunately been lost. We are left with this absolute masterpiece, a transcendent work.

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