Francois Couperin (1668 – 1733)

Francois Couperin (1668 – 1733), was a composer and organist to Louise XIV. He was also a harpsichordist and published works addressing fingering, ornamentation and other skills of harpsichord performance.

The organ had already developed a rather rich history, which he inherited. It was first developed during the Middle Ages and compositions for it bloomed in the Baroque era. The modern pipe organ is quite similar to that which Couperin played and for which he composed. Most people know that the pipe organ produces sounds with a stream of air which flows into and through a pipe. The harpsichord is less familiar to us both by look and by sound. It is the precursor of the modern piano looking similar to it and similarly strung, tuned and arranged upon a wood or metal frame within a curved cabinet; however, rather than the strings being struck with a felt hammer, it’s tone was produced by the action of the keys drawing a moderately flexible plectrum across the string much as a guitarist plucks the strings of the guitar. Harpsichords could have two different keyboards, much as that of the organ, one of which could play soft and another loud. It was commonly used as a solo keyboard instrument or as an accompaniment for voice or instrument.  By the Classical Era (from approximately 1600 – 1750) it was replaced by the pianoforte, which produces sound from its strung strings by a felt hammer-actuating a keyboard, as opposed to plectrum-plucked strings actuated by the harpsichord keyboard. 
Couperin published much music for the harpsichord, much of it in “ordres,” which might be a collections of dances or descriptive of a mood, a place, or an action, much as a “suite”in the compositions of Bach. His writing is very much indicative of the influence of the Doctrine of Affections, in which different keys were associated with different moods, and different melodic lines, ornaments and tempos associated with different affects. One characteristic of Baroque music in the Doctrine of Affections is a musical device known as a “sigh” which was a melodic and harmonic device in which the end of a phrase consisted of a dissonance on a strong beat of the measure which was then resolve on a weak beat or weak part of the beat. Moreover, Couperin’s music became so descriptive as to be picturesque with specifically associative titles such as “the mysterious barricades” Jordi Savall, an early – music expert, called him the “poet musician par excellence.” His style and technique of compositions for harpsichord would influence J.S. Bach in his compositions both for harpsichord and for orchestra, which were designated as “suites,” rather than “ordres.” His descriptive music would later be developed by Strauss into even more descriptive tone poems.

The Baroque eras a time when musical form developed into richer and more complex forms. Polyphony predominated with its fugues, cannons, and imitative or dialogical interplay of the voices; but composers were also developing more homophonic textures. Much as the liturgical music of the individual parts of the mass developed from individual settings to an artistic grouping of the whole, so, suites, ordres, and other multi-part collections were composed so that not only were the parts were composed with the sense of wholeness standing alone, but they also provided some contrast to maintain the interest while complementing each other. Typically, a three – part form would begin allegro (or fast), followed by a middle section of a slower tempo (such as Largo), and concluded with a final section of a faster tempo. Or, it could begin and end with a slower tempo, with a faster middle section.

Not much of his sacred music is extant, but its expressive qualities in that which is available is rich:

For a dramatic cinematic use of a fragment of Couperin’s Tous les Matins du Monde, see:

The following YouTube site presents a video of Michel Chapuis playing an improvisation of ”Prelude et Fugue dans le Stylus Phantasticus.” It would be of particular interest to those who play organ, is preceded for 40 seconds by videos of still photos of the organ on which he plays and its setting within the church, and shows not only his own playing, but the mechanics of operating the bellows, as would’ve been typical in the Baroque era when it was composed and performed:


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