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Meticulous or perfectionist? The enigma of Francois Couperin

The composer's work highlights the need for balance between composers and performers ... and a quirky sense of humour

Francois Couperin (1668 - 1733) is sometimes referred to as Couperin le Grand in order to mark him apart from the other famous musical Couperins. Like the Baroque composer J S Bach, he came from a distinguished family of musicians that was perhaps slightly biased towards harpsichords and organs. Couperin's first job was as the organist at the Paris church of St Gervais, a post which had been held by his father and uncle, and which remained in the family for up to until 1826. The last representative of the Couperin family at the church of St Gervais was Gervais-Francois Couperin. What a name! Was his career ear-marked for him from birth?

Couperin le Grand himself wrote a remarkable canon of keyboard works. He is perhaps known best for his harpsichord pieces - he wrote four books which encompassed over two hundred pieces in all. He is also famous for his keyboard treatise, L'Art de toucher le clavecin, or The Art of Playing the Harpsichord, which is still referred to in the modern day. You would be hard-pressed to find a keyboardist who studied Classically without encountering one of Couperin's harpsichord pieces.

In the keyboard works, Couperin was very meticulous about the ornamentation, phrasing and tempo markings. This was in stark contrast to many other Baroque composers, who left their works open to the artistic interpretation of the performer.

Many might have perceived Couperin as being a 'control freak' and indeed, much to his annoyance, performers of his works sometimes deliberately neglected to follow his detailed markings, just to assert their artistic independence.

Couperin mused, 'I am always surprised, after the pains I have given myself for marking the ornaments which are suitable to my pieces... to hear persons who have learned them without heeding my instructions. This is an unpardonable negligence, the more so since it is not at all an arbitrary matter to put in what ornaments one wishes. I declare that in my pieces they ought to be played as I have marked them, and that they will never make a certain impression on persons of true taste, unless they have observed to the letter everything that I have marked, without adding or subtracting anything."

In his own eyes, Couperin obviously saw himself as being meticulous and a perfectionist (in the good sense of the word).

A common theme that comes up in discussions about composition and performance is the level of detail of the notation that a composer should indicate, and the manner in which it should be observed.

If a composer indicated every single detail such as pedalling, pulse, and ornaments, and if that were followed to the letter by a performer, then the music would end up with a mechanical feel to it and the manuscript would end up looking unnecessarily complicated. The performer in this case would have an insignificant role, other than to depress the keys in the way the composer wanted, and X would play it the same as Y.

Of course, leaving things open to interpretation means there is the chance that certain sections of music may be interpreted differently from how the composer intended.

One can only speculate what Couperin thought of Erwin Schulhoff's Funf Pittoresken. The resolution of this composer-performer relationship is perhaps best summarised by saying the composer should indicate specific details in key sections of the music, and accept that different performers will interpret them differently; and performers have a duty to try to depict what they think the composer wanted to convey, in line with his musical style.

Couperin's music was well-known for its reconciliation of graceful lyric charm, an influence from the French style, with the energy and movement that came from the Italian school of thought. Perhaps performers should aim to bring out both these key elements when playing his works.

And before we leave with the impression of Francois Couperin as a miserable and grumpy composer, it is worth noting that he had a sardonic sense of humour and was a bit of a rebel. Many of his harpsichord pieces, grouped into twenty-seven suites, have fanciful titles such as Les Baricade Misterieuses (The Mysterious Barricades) and Le Rossignol en Amour (The Nightingale in Love), although another French composer, Oliver Messiaen, did say of the latter piece, 'I think that Couperin never did hear a nightingale sing.'

Some other pieces with baffling titles include The Gnat, The Turbulent One, and The Limping Fellow. But the one that takes the biscuit must certainly be 'Le Tic-Toc-Choc'. What does that mean? Did Couperin foresee the popularity of After Eights two centuries ahead?

Perhaps the clues to unravelling these pieces may lie in following Couperin's performance indications to glean insights.

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