The Kennedy Center

Five pieces for cello and piano

About the Work

Francois Couperin Composer: Francois Couperin
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

François Couperin, nicknamed even during his lifetime "le grand" ("The Great"), was the most important member of a family of musicians prominent around Paris from the late-16th century to the mid-19th century: Couperins, including François' father, Charles, occupied the organ loft of St. Gervais in Paris for 173 years. François, born in Paris in 1668, was appointed organist of St. Gervais in 1683 and ten years later was named one of four organists to the court of Versailles. By the turn of the century, Couperin was appearing regularly as harpsichordist and composer at the court's musical events, though he was not officially given the title Ordinaire de la Musique de la Chambre du Roi pour le Clavecin until 1717, a year after his pedagogical treatise L'art de toucher le clavecin appeared; it was one of the era's most important manuals concerning the ornamentation and performance of French keyboard music. At the same time, Couperin published the first of four large volumes of Pièces de clavecin, which contain over 200 separate items, many with fanciful or descriptive titles inspired by friends, feelings or fashions. Couperin also composed several books of chamber music (Concerts royaux; Les Goûts Réünis; Les Nations; Le Parnasse, ou L'apothéose de Corelli; Apothéose de Lully), a considerable amount of Latin sacred vocal music, and a few vernacular songs. His works were famed for being unfailingly elegant and melodious, rich but not excessively chromatic in harmony, clear in design, expressive without being maudlin, and current with the best musical fashions of the day.

From at least 1714, Couperin supplied ensemble music for the chamber concerts at Versailles, "where Louis XIV made me come almost every Sunday of the year," the busy but proud composer recorded. The most popular works at those regal matinees combined the Italian penchant for lyricism and formal clarity with the French traits of full instrumental sonority, harmonic felicity and elaborate decorative filigree. Couperin compiled four suites from those pieces and published them in 1722 as the Concerts Royaux; a sequel of ten additional Nouveaux Concerts appeared two years later under the title Les Goûts Réünis ("The Tastes United"), referring to their reconciliation of French and Italian musical idioms. Though Couperin seems to have preferred the performance of these suites by an ensemble of violin, oboe, gamba, bassoon and harpsichord (in his preface he named the specific musicians who usually played them at Versailles, including himself as harpsichordist), the score was published in a two-stave version whose notes he said could be distributed among any appropriate combination of instruments. In 1924, the French cellist, composer and pedagogue Paul Bazelaire (1886-1958) arranged five movements from Les Goûts Réünis for solo cello and strings as the Pièces en Concert. (Bazelaire also orchestrated Bach's six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.) The work comprises a somber Prélude, a graceful but rather sad Siciliène, a dashing piece of ersatz hunting music titled La Tromba ("The Trumpet"), a delicately drawn Plainte, and a vigorous "Devil's Tune" (Air de Diable).