“François Couperin’s pieces for the harpsichord are a landmark in French instrumental music. Couperin extended the virtuosity of the keyboard; established a modern method of fingering; developed the techniques and art of ornamentation.”—David Ewen, The Complete Book of Classical Music
“French Baroque harpsichord maestro.”—Phil Goulding, Classical Music
François Couperin was a French Baroque composer, organist and harpsichordist. He was known as Couperin le Grand (“Couperin the Great”) to distinguish him from other members of the musically talented Couperin family.
He introduced Corelli’s trio sonata form to France. Couperin’s grand trio sonata was subtitled Le Parnasse, ou L’apothéose de Corelli (“Parnassus, or the Apotheosis of Corelli””). In it he blended the Italian and French styles of music in a set of pieces which he called Les goûts réunis (“Styles Reunited”).
His most famous book, L’art de toucher le clavecin (“The Art of Harpsichord Playing”, published in 1716), contains suggestions for fingerings, touch, ornamentation and other features of keyboard technique.
Couperin’s four volumes of harpsichord music, published in Paris in 1713, 1717, 1722, and 1730, contain over 230 individual pieces, which can be played on solo harpsichord or performed as small chamber works. These pieces were not grouped into suites, as was the common practice, but ordres, which were Couperin’s own version of suites containing traditional dances as well as descriptive pieces. The first and last pieces in an ordre were of the same tonality, but the middle pieces could be in other closely related tonalities. These volumes were loved by J.S. Bach and, much later, Richard Strauss, as well as Maurice Ravel who memorialized their composer with Le tombeau de Couperin (Couperin’s Memorial).
Many of Couperin’s keyboard pieces have evocative, picturesque titles (such as “The mysterious barricades”) and express a mood through key choices, adventurous harmonies and (resolved) discords. They have been likened to miniature tone poems. These features attracted Richard Strauss, who orchestrated some of them.
Johannes Brahms’s piano music was influenced by the keyboard music of Couperin. The early-music expert Jordi Savall has written that Couperin was the “poet musician par excellence”, who believed in “the ability of Music [with a capital M] to express itself in prose and poetry”, and that “if we enter into the poetry of music we discover that it carries grace that is more beautiful than beauty itself.”
He lived from November 10, 1668, to 11 September 11, 1733.