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The Couperins: To French Music as the Bachs Were to German

January 18, 2014

The Couperins: To French Music as the Bachs Were to German

The Couperins were to French music as the Bachs were to German music: for two centuries, one of the most prominent names in the field. Throughout the 1600s and 1700s, their names and music were ever-present and ever-respected. For the Bachs, Johann Sebastian (1685- 1750) was the greatest; for the Couperins, it was François (1668-1733). Even in his own time he was known as “Le Grand,” in part to distinguish him from his uncle also named François, but also in recognition of the quality—and quantity—of his music. Although he was also an organist, serving in that capacity for Louis XIV, François Le Grand was most associated with the harpsichord, as performer, as teacher, and as composer. Couperin published four separate collections of harpsichord pieces, each including four to five dozen descriptively named solo pieces.

Three were borrowed by English composer Thomas Adés (b. 1971) as melodic inspiration for his orchestral suite Three Studies from Couperin, which will be performed this weekend, January 17-19, in the Colorado Symphony’s Masterworks concert Return to Paris, a tribute to Couperin le Grand. The work was commissioned by the Basel Chamber Orchestra and premiered in Switzerland April 21, 2006. It is scored for strings with alto flute, bass flute, and a varied assortment of percussion and mallet instruments, even a marimba. Adés’ selected instruments allow an expressive feature of which the original harpsichord was unequal: the holding of longer sustained notes, so that different tones can blend together to highly varied effect.

Adés’s orchestral work takes Couperin’s often intricately layered keyboard lines and parcels them out amongst his orchestral players, making even more of the contrasts between those lines than Couperin could with only one player at his disposal. Moreover, the diverse instruments bring quite different colors to the mix. For example, Adés calls for alto and bass flutes, though not the standard flute. Those two varieties of flute differ in more than just pitch, allowing Adés to shade the results as he desires. This is especially useful in that he does not always restrict himself to Couperin’s original harmonies, a fact more easily perceived with the different instrumental flavors. Additionally, he divides his string ensemble into two separate groups that do not duplicate each other’s music. In all, Three Studies from Couperin is a blend of old and new to impressive effect.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) completed Le Tombeau de Couperin in 1917. He had begun work on it prior to his enlistment in World War I as a military truck driver. This so-called “tomb of Couperin” is in no way fit for a funeral. Rather, it is a fond and lively tribute to the courtly days of the seventeenth century, specifically to the great François Couperin.

Each of its movements was intended to evoke the spirit of that time through the use of Baroque dance rhythms and musical forms. Among other inspirations, Ravel drew upon the Menuet, a graceful and elegant ballroom dance in triple meter, as well as the flowing Rigaudon, a dance originating in Provence. Italy, too, was given recognition, through its native Forlane, which became popular in France around 1700, and in Ravel’s hands is given a stately and elegant turn.

Le Tombeau was at first a piano suite in six movements, each of which was dedicated to one of the composer’s friends lost in the war. Later, Ravel himself selected four of those movements—Prelude, Forlane, Rigaudon and Menuet—and re-scored them for chamber orchestra. Despite the slender forces, he made the most of instrumental timbres, contrasting the voices of strings to those of woodwinds and brass. In this version, the piece premiered in 1920. Later that year, Le Tombeau was choreographed for use as a ballet, completing the circle for this dance-inspired composition.