François Couperin: Concert Royal no. 1

performed by I Fiori Musicali, or as below

(cover image by Larm Rmah)

I willingly admit that I much prefer what moves me to what surprises me.

François Couperin ‘Le Grand’ was born on November 10, 1668. He was born into what Wikipedia says is “one of the best known musical families of Europe.” His father Charles was organist at the Church Saint-Gervais in Paris, and it was from him that the young François received his first music lessons. Unfortunately the elder Couperin died when François was only 11, and the organist post was given to one Michel Richard Delalande, on a temporary basis, until the younger Couperin reached 18, at which time he would inherit his father’s post.

The young man must have been truly remarkable, because he began drawing a salary years before his contract was even in place. On a side note, Delalande himself was a successful composer whose works Wikipedia says “foreshadowed the cantatas of JS Bach and the Water Music and oratorios of Handel.” That’s saying something.

Couperin’s mother died in 1690, but aside from the deaths of his parents quite early in his life, his rise to fame is a story of really outstanding privilege and success, but that’s not to say that’s all it was. He seems to have been a truly outstanding talent.

The Concerts Royaux (plural) were were written in 1714 and 1715, but not published until 1722. They were composed for the French court of Louis XIV, hence the ‘royal’ part. There’s no indication of instrumentation, but Wikipedia says that they could be played either by solo harpsichord, “or by an ensemble with a bass instrument, a violin, a viol, and an oboe or a flute.” It seems so odd today that no specific instrumentation would be given, but it was apparently common back then, and made for a more adaptable piece.

As you may guess from the time, each of the ‘concerts’ begins with a prelude followed by a series of dances “in the traditional order.” The first concert is in G major and is as follows:

  1. Prélude
  2. Allemande
  3. Sarabande
  4. Gavotte
  5. Gigue
  6. Menuet en trio

Boy is this tough music for me to talk about.

Just think for a moment, 1715 is already more than three hundred years ago! Three centuries. Normally I’d make a comment about how with sheet music (and leaving allowance for things like A440 vs A443 or whatever), we can basically hear exactly what a composer heard that long ago when he or she wrote it, but that’s not as much the case here. I Fiori Musicali records the piece with a flute, but the above YouTube video gives us an oboe. I digress.

Three hundred years is a long time. That’s already more than one Plutonian year. That being said, we’re still a few years short of the tricentennial of the work’s publication, as a supplement to book 3 of the composer’s harpsichord pieces.

In the album booklet of a recording of Couperin’s work, Lucie Renaud (translated by Peter Christensen) says:

While they appear to lean more toward lightness than depth, their structure is a subtle amalgam of Italian and French styles, the double seal of Couperin’s oeuvre.

And we’ll just put on the brakes here. I don’t really know what makes up the Italian or French styles, except for what Wikipedia calls Couperin’s “debt to the Italian composer Corelli.” Couperin’s movements here, and even the G major key, may remind you of J.S. Bach and his cello suites (the first being in G).

Again, here, these aren’t actually meant for dancing, more for listening, but even then… I personally find they lack the near-spiritual, poetic depth that Bach’s suites do, or rather that I am unable to find it in these works.

The prelude, to me, feels solemn and plodding, and the former of the two I do not mind. Thankfully a few of the movements make up for the slower, heavier movements, and the gigue is the only one of the whole set I feel has any kind of charm I can appreciate without reaching.

This is baroque music, indeed. I don’t know if it qualifies as ‘early music,’ per se, or if that label belongs to even earlier eras, but… by and large it’s just not my thing. I’ve not done a single thing on the blog from Handel, Telemann, etc., and one of the reasons I chose Couperin’s work here is because I wouldn’t be able to get, say, Rameau, Lully, or Charpentier in the series. As we discussed in the introduction to this series, the symphony is a form to which it took the French some time to warm. That’s okay. We represented here, however weakly, what some of the earliest French music, dating from around Bach’s day, sounded like. Enjoy. Or don’t, but it’s still worth knowing about.

Stay tuned for so much more French music for the next six weeks or so. There’s some fantastic stuff on the way. Thanks so much for reading.

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