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Bilingual Music: The French tradition of Baroque keyboard music (I)
雙語音樂: 法國巴洛克鍵盤音樂傳統(一)

The church of St-Gervais-et-St-Protais in Paris, where both Louis Couperin and Francois Couperin served as organist.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Louis Couperin (1626–1661) and his nephew Francois Couperin (1668–1733) were extremely influential composers, helping to establish the French tradition of keyboard music and playing technique during the Baroque era. Both composers explored harpsichord and clavichord composition and technique, and wrote many of the works we have today.

Louis Couperin died at the early age of 35, with none of his work published during his lifetime. Still, some of his manuscripts have survived, including over 100 solo harpsichord pieces and some sixteen pieces of the Unmeasured Preludes. The genre can be traced back to the Renaissance era as short improvisatory pieces for lute, normally played as introductions to larger pieces or simply to test the instrument.

Louis Couperin may be the first prominent figure to compose such pieces specifically for harpsichord. His compositions present many challenges for the performer: His notation consists of a string of whole notes marking up the music’s melodic direction, but the note values are undifferentiated, nor are there bar lines. Each whole note is accompanied by curves of varied length, by which Couperin reveals subtle clues on the length and shape of a musical phrase, for the purposes of shaping diverse melody lines in a quasi-counterpoint manner. This also allows performers to make their own decisions about the flow of music, thus retaining the genre’s original improvisatory nature. With arpeggiations recalling the strumming of strings, Louis Couperin’s music also creates a soundscape reminiscent of the lute.

Following Louis Couperin’s death, his position was passed to Francois Couperin, who would be made court musician and would perform for the Sun King, Louis XIV. Francois’ most important contribution to the French tradition of keyboard music is none other than his 1716 treatise “L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin,” in which he explored the fingering and the touch of harpsichord playing, and also the designs for musical ornamentation or embellishments. Compostionally, Francois published four volumes of harpsichord music, entitled Pieces de Clavecin, containing a total of over 230 pieces.

While many composers from the Baroque period left the majority of ornamentation for the performer to add at their own discretion, Francois Couperin wrote down every note of the ornamentation in the score, which often consist of complex and grandiose elaborations. He often composes in “suites,” a form popular during the period, but prefers to call them “ordre.” A suite is a set of pieces consisting of short dances of various tempos and moods, with the first and last being of the same key, and the intervening dances being different in style and sentiment, creating a strong sense of contrasting narrative.

Francois Couperin would often give each individual piece a descriptive title. “La Misterieuse,” for instance, reflects the music’s atmosphere of suspense, created by sighing figures, chromaticism, and bewildering oscillation between different keys. “La Convalescente” is an allemande with a title descriptive of the composer’s own health, with rests placed on the downbeat and the music ending in the lower range of the keyboard, as if urging us not to disturb his rest. Sometimes, however, the titles have no apparent connection to the music, or their origins have been lost. Giving titles to individual pieces was quite uncommon at the time, but would later become a model to be followed by future generations when composing for solo piano a set of “character pieces,” each with a descriptive yet intriguing title.

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