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At Home with Couperin


An engaged and attentive audience—possibly more engaged than the courtiers at Versailles where François Couperin served as the king’s harpsichordist—gathered in the Lindsay Chapel at the First Church in Cambridge on Friday evening to hear a recital by Matthew Hall entitled “Chez Monsieur Couperin.” The program, part of Musical Offering’s 2012-2013 French Baroque series, will be repeated on Sunday afternoon, March 10th, at 2 pm at St. Anne’s in-the-Fields, Lincoln. In keeping with the title, Hall presented a selection, not of stately and formal dance movements—the Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, and Gavottes that make up a considerable part of Couperin’s output—but of less formal preludes and character pieces ideally suited to performance in an intimate space.

Couperin was both the leading French composer of sacred and secular music of his day and a highly regarded teacher of organ and harpsichord. His Art de toucher le clavecin (The Art of Playing the Harpsichord) was first published in 1716, and in a revised and enlarged edition in 1717 (reproduced in beautiful facsimile by Broude Brothers). By way of introduction, Hall explained that the eight preludes in the treatise are arranged in three groups in order of ascending difficulty, for beginning students, for those of more mature skills, and finally for professionals. Couperin even provided fingerings for the more difficult spots. Both of the first two groups open with a leisurely “warm-up” piece, followed by a more lively piece demonstrating French dotted rhythms and ornamentation, and conclude with a rapid piece in Italian style, the contrast between French and Italian styles being a major concern of Couperin’s.  Hall played a two-manual French-style instrument by D. Jacques Way, the beautifully painted interior of its lid displaying an idealized spring landscape in contrast to the snowy mounds outside. It has a resonant bass that provided solid anchoring to the suspended harmonies of the first and second preludes and participated crisply in the lively counterpoint of the third. Hall’s playing was straightforward and unmannered, yet keenly sensitive to the tonal qualities of his instrument and the stylistic nuances demonstrated in these elegant short pieces. The fourth prelude opened with cloudy suspended harmonies leading into rapid scale passages for both hands, the fifth introduced two contrapuntal voices in each hand, and the sixth, moving farther afield to B minor and reaching high into the upper register, featured variations on a “pathetic” bass moving down by half steps. The final pair of preludes consisted of a fully-fledged French overture with a slow introduction followed by a livelier section exhibiting virtuosic hand-crossings, and a sonorous Italian “concerto” in E minor. Hall concluded with the single Allemande in the treatise, “composed expressly” for harpsichord to illustrate, as Couperin explained in a prefatory note, the need for a constantly moving bass to compensate for the instrument’s lack of sustaining power.

Already in 1713 Couperin had published his beautifully engraved First Book of Pieces for Harpsichord, consisting of five Ordres.  Although they may contain the movements of a typical eighteenth-century dance suite—Allemande, Courante, Sarabande (Gavotte, Minuet), Gigue, these Ordres are not “suites” in the sense of an obligatory succession of more or less related pieces. They are simply a collection of as few as four and as many as twenty-two pieces in a single key (major or minor); it was up to the performer to assemble his or her own  grouping of pieces for presentation in concert.  In fact, the Ordres consist largely of individual pieces with idiosyncratic titles, some descriptive, some slyly biographical, others  inscrutable. Similar titles are appended to some of the dances. From the First Book, Second Ordre, Hall chose the introspective “Les Idées Heureuses” (Happy Thoughts) in D minor, eliciting affecting melody from a thicket of French-style ornaments, and the lively D major “La Terpsicore” (Terpsichore), in full-throated Italian concerto style.

As a student of 17th- and 18th-century rhetoric, Hall is as much concerned as Couperin and his contemporaries with character and expression. Perhaps as a reaction to the elaborate court ritual under Louis XIV’s, court culture under Louis XV was characterized by a whimsical nostalgia for the rustic, a yearning for simplicity. From Couperin’s Second Book, published in 1722 and continuing with the sixth to twelfth Ordres, Hall chose four pieces of contrasting character from the sixth Ordre. “Les Langueurs-Tendres” (Tender Languor) with quirky appoggiaturas that perhaps depict the halting progress  of a female pupil ; “La Bersan,” a musical portrait of the composer’s wealthy tax farmer (tax collector) friend by way of a lively two-part invention; “Les Baricades Mistérieuses” (The Mysterious Barricades), a title that seems to suggest no concrete interpretation; and “La Commére” (The Gossip), whose shrill chattering busyness in the instrument’s upper range contrasted with the deep bass and tenor curtain of broken chords in suspended harmonies in “Les Baricades Mistérieuses.” The latter piece, a rondeau whose recurring refrain alternated with couplets increasingly complex in their suspended harmonies and rhythmic density, was the expressive highlight of the evening, Hall’s thoughtful playing bringing the rich subtleties of the instrument to the fore.

Johann Sebastian Bach is known to have used Couperin’s harpsichord treatise in his own teaching. He was a subscriber to Couperin’s Second Book, and even copied one of its pieces into the book he  prepared for his second wife, Anna Magdalena. At some time in the 1770s, decades after he must have studied “Les Langueurs-Tendres” with his father, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach reimagined Couperin’s piece, Hall believes, as “La Mémoire Raisonnée.” Changing Couperin’s placid B-flat major to a mournful F minor, and introducing a chromatically descending bass figure, it is a beautiful example of the younger Bach’s inimitable “sensitive” style. Hall, who is on the editorial team preparing the ongoing new edition of the complete works of C. P. E. Bach, came upon the piece recently and offered it as a suitably subtle and expressive encore, very much in the spirit of the evening.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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