François Couperin, French Composer

Francois Couperin, French Composer
Francois Couperin, French Composer

In 17th and 18th Century France, there were an extraordinary number of men and women artists that emerged, making a name for themselves. They were poets, fabulists, painters, playwrights, actors, composers and writers. Some of the writers became the foundation for the L’Académie Française, which was established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. The Académie is the most distinguished learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Freelance History Writer would like to take a look at some of these remarkable artists.

The Couperin family of composers was almost as famous in France as the Bach family was in Germany. François was the most well-known of his relatives and a leading French Baroque composer. To distinguish him from his relatives, he was known as “Couperin the Great”.

François was born in Paris on November 10, 1668. His father was Charles Couperin, the organist at Saint-Gervais. François was a child prodigy and probably learned music from his father. Charles Couperin died when François was ten years old. He and his mother were well taken care of due to the benevolence of composer Jacques Thomelin who was the organist at Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie and later at the Royal Chapel. Thomelin also taught music to François. François was so talented, his father’s job as organist of Saint-Gervais was reserved for him until he reached the age of seventeen. Four years later he married Marie-Anne Ansault, the daughter of a well- connected wine merchant.

In 1690, Couperin published his “Pièces d’orgue” (Organ Pieces) which consisted of two masses and a few other pieces. He was then to become influenced by the Italian school of music and in 1692, wrote several chamber works combining French and Italian style. In 1693, Couperin succeeded his mentor Thomelin as organist at the Royal Chapel for King Louis XIV, sharing his duties with a few other musicians. His time at the Royal Chapel lasted for the first quarter of the year and he would continue his work at Saint-Gervais the rest of the year. He wrote a great deal of vocal music and motets for the Royal Chapel and took on private pupils such as the Duke of Burgundy and other princes and princesses, teaching them harpsichord.

In 1717, Couperin was given the title of “Ordinary musician of the King’s chamber”. He began a prolific period of composing, writing pieces for the harpsichord which were published in four books in the years 1713, 1717, 1722 and 1730. These volumes contain over 230 individual compositions that can be played as solo works or as small chamber works. These volumes were much admired by J.S. Bach, Richard Strauss, Johannes Brahms and Maurice Ravel. Ravel was to write a piece in Couperin’s honor called “Le Tombeau de Couperin” (Couperin’s Memorial).

Couperin’s most famous book, “The Art of Harpsichord Playing” was published in 1716. He gives suggestions for keyboard technique such as fingerings, touch and ornamentation. It is believed he played concerts during this time at Versailles and other nearby locations. In 1719, Couperin became harpsichordist to King Louis XV and was by this time recognized as the leading composer in France. In 1724, Couperin moved to the Rue Radziwill near the Académie Royale de Musique and he lived there for the rest of his life. There is very little on record about Couperin’s personal life from about 1700 onward. We know he died in Paris on September 11, 1733. He was buried in the Church of St. Joseph in Paris.

On an interesting note, Couperin had no sons when he died. His daughter, Marguerite-Antoinette Couperin succeeded her father in the office of “Ordinary musician of the King’s chamber for harpsichord” when her father retired in February of 1730. She was the first woman to take up a position as court musician and she taught harpsichord to the daughters of King Louis XV.

Pianist Angela Hewitt plays a piece by Couperin

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