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Francois Couperin: Biography & Music

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

François Couperin was a musical genius from a musical family. He is remembered largely for his harpsichord pieces and his treatise 'L'art de toucher le clavecin.' This lesson will explore the life and work of François Couperin.

A Brief Introduction

François Couperin was a French Baroque composer and organist, from a prolific musical family. He was a patron of King Louis XIV. His musical style bridged the difference between French and Italian Baroque styles. He is widely viewed as the most influential French composer after Jean-Baptiste Lully and before Jean-Philippe Rameau.

The Life of Couperin

First, it's important to distinguish François from the rest of his famous musical family. His father Charles, his uncle Louis, his grandfather Charles (the older), his great uncle Denis, and his great-grandfather Mathurin were all accomplished musicians in their own right. It was Louis who began the family tradition of being the organist at the church Saint-Gervais: Charles succeeded Louis, who was then succeeded by François, continuing on for 173 years. François is called 'le Grand' because he was seen as the most accomplished and prolific.

Francois Couperin
Francois Couperin

Couperin le Grand was born in Paris on November 10, in 1688. He was a rather sickly child, but fortunately it didn't particularly affect his musical contribution. His father died when he was around 10 years old.

Documentation of Couperin's life is scarce at best, probably because it took place during the late 17th and early 18th century. He definitely had two children, Marguerite-Antoinette and Marie-Madeleine, and possibly a third, François-Laurent, for whom there is no birthdate and only a mention of his death some time after 1740. Marie-Madeine was an organist, and Marguerite-Antoinette was le Grand's successor as court harpsichordist for King Louis XIV. As part of the Couperin succession of organists at the church of Saint-Gervais, François appointed his cousin Nicolas as successor. He died in Paris in 1733 of unspecified causes.

Couperin le Grand held a number of posts during his life. Upon his father's death when he was 10, he was appointed organist at Saint-Gervais (the Church had caretaker organists that Couperin deputized for until he was about 18). He was the organist at the Chapelle Royale, appointed by King Louis XIV. He was the harpsichord teacher for the royal children, as well as the court harpsichordist. He wrote a series of pieces called 'Concerts royaux' to be played for King Louis XIV's weekly entertainment.

Compositions

As a composer, Couperin is best known for his harpsichord music -- he wrote more than 200 pieces for harpsichord! The pieces were grouped in what he called ordres, basically his version of the suite. His music can be described as programmatic, meaning it tells a story or evokes an image through music.

Couperin didn't only write for harpsichord; his trio sonatas are still widely performed, as is his 'Leçons de ténèbres', which combines the French and Italian Baroque styles. Strangely, despite his proficiency and employment, he only composed only a single piece for the organ, the 'Pièces d'orgue.'

Couperin composed two pieces in tribute to two leading composers, owing to the French and Italian influences: 'Concert instrumental à la Monsieur de Lully' for Lully (French) and 'L'Apothéose de Corelli' for Corelli (Italian). The synthesis of the two, 'La paix du Parnasse', is a grand sonata that combines the musical styling of the two composers.

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