François Couperin

(10 November 1668, Paris – 11 September 1733, Paris)


François Couperin, also named Couperin le Grand (”Couperin the Great”) -to distinguish him from other members of the musically talented Couperin family- was a French Baroque composer (highly regarded as one of the leading composers of the French Baroque era), organist and harpsichordist. He is best known for his harpsichord works, all of which are found in the collection of more than 220 pieces entitled Pièces de clavecin, consisting of four books. He first studied music under his father, Charles Couperin who was the organist at Saint Gervais church and soon after his death, with Jacques Thomelin.

In 1685 he occupied the position of organist at the church of Saint-Gervais, a post he inherited from his father and that he would pass on to his cousin, Nicolas Couperin, and other members of the family. His (François) innovative 1690 collection of Pièces d'orgue was praised by his then teacher Lalande as ”worthy of being given to the public” and no doubt helped to establish him as a court organist in 1693. In 1700-17 he acquired the younger D'Anglebert's position as harpsichordist at Versailles. 

Just like his uncle Louis, François is well known above all for his harpsichord music. Between 1713 and 1730 he published four books of suites (called ”ordres” by him) for harpsichord. Unlike the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, George Friderich Handel and others, Couperin's music was highly ornamented and with complex accompaniments, containing frequent dialogues between treble and bass registers. Actually, this feature (high ornamentation) is very iconic for the French harpsichord baroque music.

His music was influenced by the works of Jean-Baptiste Lully and Arcangelo Corelli whom he acknowledged in two chamber works: Apothéose de Corelli (1724, ”The Apotheosis of Corelli”) and Apothéose de Lully (1725, ”The Apotheosis of Lully”). Moreover, he successfully integrated elements of the Italian and French styles in his  Les goût réunis ou nouveaux (”Tastes united”) concerts (1724) , a collection of chamber compositions for unspecified instruments. Many of his works were lost to posterity, as none of his original manuscripts has survived. 

There is evidence that Couperin also found time for concerts in the early part of the eighteenth century in Versailles and other nearby locales. Actually, relatively is known about Couperin's life from about 1700 onward. There is record of his renting a country home in 1710 at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, confirming the view he was financially secure. In 1719, Couperin became harpsichordist to King Louis XV, a position he most probably had held in all but title for a number of years. By this time, he was recognized as the leading composer in France and the greatest exponent of organ and harpsichord teaching as well.

Couperin's legacy can be fairly divided into 3 categories: church music, chamber music and harpsichord music. He composed church music for the Royal Chapel under Louis XIV. The surviving Leçons de ténèbres are possibly the best example of this form of composition—settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah for the Holy Week liturgy. The first two of the three are for soprano solo and continuo (the vocal part of the second pitched slightly lower than that of the first), and the third is for two sopranos and continuo.

His chamber music includes a tribute to the two French and Italian composers, J.B.Lully and A.Corelli. It was an exploration of the rival French and Italian tastes in music, a quarrel in which Couperin remained neutral. The Concerts royaux represent another important element in Couperin’s music for instrumental ensemble.

Couperin's compositions for the harpsichord occupy a very important position in French music. His 27 suites, most of them published between 1713 and 1730, contain many pieces that are descriptive in one way or another. These richly varied suites, or ordres, represent the height of Couperin’s achievement as a composer and arguably that of the French harpsichord composers.

Here  you can find a complete list of François Couperin's works.