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Couperin, Francois
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François [le grand] Couperin

(Born; Paris, 10 Nov 1668; Died; there, 11 Sept 1733). French composer. He was the central figure of the French harpsichord school. He came from a long line of musicians, mostly organists, of whom the most eminent was his uncle, Louis Couperin, though his father Charles (1638-79) was also a composer and organist of St Gervais. François succeeded to that post on his 18th birthday; his earliest known music is two organ masses. In 1693 he became one of the four royal organists which enabled him to develop his career as a teacher through his court connections. He was soon recognized as the leading French composer of his day through his sacred works and his chamber music and, from 1713, his harpsichord pieces. In 1716 he published an important treatise on harpsichord playing and the next year he was appointed royal harpsichordist.

Among the music Couperin composed for Louis XIV's delectation were his Concerts royaux, chamber works for various combinations. He had written works in his own elaboration of trio-sonata form in the 1690s following the Italianate style of Corelli but retaining French character in the decorative lines and rich harmony. Later, he published these alongside French-style groups of dances as Les nations; they include some of his emotionally most powerful music. He was much concerned with blending French and Italian styles; he composed programmatic tributes to Lully and Corelli and works under the title Les goûts-réünis. He also wrote intensely expressive pieces for bass viol.

But it is as a harpsichord composer that Couperin is best known. He published four books with some 220 pieces, grouped in 27 ordres or suites. Some movements are in the traditional French dance forms, but most are character pieces with titles that reflect their inspiration: some are portraits of individuals or types, some portray abstract qualities, some imitate the sounds of nature. The titles may also be ambiguous or metaphorical, or even intentionally obscure. Most of the pieces are in rondeau form. All are elegantly composed, concealing a complex, allusive and varied emotional world behind their highly wrought surface. Couperin took immense pains over the notation of the ornaments with which his harpsichord writing is sprinkled and animated. These, and his style generally, are expounded in his L'art de toucher le clavecin.

Couperin's children were also musicians: Nicholas (1680-1748) succeeded his father at St Gervais, and probably composed, while Marie-Madeleine (1690-1742) was probably an abbey organist and Marguerite-Antoinette (1705- Circa; 1778) was active as a court harpsichordist, Circa; 1729-1741.

Chamber music: 12 trios, incl. L'apothéose de Corelli (1724), L'apothéose de Lully (1725), Les nations, 4 trios (1726); 4 Concerts royaux (1722); 10 'Nouveaux concerts' in Les goûts-réünis (1724); 2 bass viol suites.

Harpsichord music: Book 1, suites 1-5 (1713); Book 2, suites 6-12 (1716-17); Book 3, suites 13-19 (1722); Book 4, suites 20-27 (1730); 9 pieces in L'art de toucher le clavecin (1716).

Organ music: 2 org masses (1690).

Sacred vocal music: 18 versets (1703-5); 3 Tenebrae lessons (1713-17); 27 motets.

Secular vocal music: 9 airs, 3 trios.

© Groves Dictionaries, MacMillan Publishers Limited, UK

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