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Program Notes
CESAR Symposium
Williams College Department of Music and the Clark
Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall
September 13, 2008
Mark Kroll
The French harpsichord tradition spans a period of almost 200 years, from the first
decades of the seventeenth century to the last years of the eighteenth. Although the music
evolved and changed dramatically, the essential core of the French harpsichord style remained
remarkably constant throughout these two centuries. This statement would be difficult to make
about any other period or genre in the history of keyboard music. For example, the harpsichord
works of Handel bear little resemblance to those of Purcell or Byrd. There are few similarities
between the music of the seventeenth-century Spanish composer Cabanilles and the sonatas of
Domenico Scarlatti. Yet a harpsichord piece written by Chambonnières in 1655 and one
composed by Balbastre in 1787, although different in many details, would both be immediately
recognized as examples of French harpsichord music.
The Elements of the Style
A two-voice texture predominates, featuring on the one hand an elegant, richly
ornamented melodic line and on the other a simple accompaniment. Intricate contrapuntal writing
or full-voice chordal homophony are avoided, and many of the genres typically found in the other
national styles of the Baroque, such as fugues, ricercare, fantasias and sonatas, are rare in France.
The French harpsichord composer achieved maximum expressive effect by the resonant spacing
of parts, a sensitivity to sonorities, and a rich harmonic language. Virtuoso keyboard displays
were also kept to a minimum, and techniques such as the extensive arpeggiation in J.S. Bach's
Chromatic Fantasy and Handel's Lessons or the rapid scale passages and repeated notes of
Scarlatti do not appear until the middle of the eighteenth century, when the influence of the
Italian style was once again felt in France.
Three major genres can be found in eighteenth-century French harpsichord music: dance
music, character or descriptive pieces, and dedicatory works.
Four dances comprised the typical French suite of this period: allemande, courante,
sarabande and gigue. To this basic core were added a variety of dances and other movements,
including menuets, gavottes, chaconnes, passacailles, rigaudons, and rondeaus.
Character or descriptive pieces are programmatic in nature. French composers believed
that music should express something other than itself. By the creative use of keyboard figures,
distinctive rhythms or unusual harmonies, they might depict natural phenomena, political or
social situations, scenes from the theater or folk heritage, emotions or paintings and other works
of art. Character pieces appear infrequently in the early part of the century, but gradually became
the standard after 1730.
Dedicatory pieces were written to honor or acknowledge famous or influential persons,
and carried the name of the dedicatee in the title. This genre was usually abstract in nature, but
dedicatory works could occasionally be programmatic or even take the form of a dance
The extensive use ornaments is perhaps the most distinctive feature of French
harpsichord music, and listeners often express astonishment (or chagrin) at their number and
variety. The eighteenth-century writer Charles Burney's opinion of Couperin's music was not
"The great Couperin ...was not only an admirable organist but, in the style of the times,
an excellent composer for keyed instruments...tho' his pieces are so crowded and deformed by
beats, trills, shakes, that no plain note was left to enable the hearer of them to judge whether the
tone of the instrument on which they were played was good or bad."
However, this is not ornamentation in the sense of divisions or Italianate embellishments,
in which the performer adds notes and figurations to a simple melodic line. The manner in which
ornamentation was used in France distinguishes it from all other Baroque keyboard music. On a
basic level French ornaments are decorations to the melody, similar to the style of decorating
French furniture and architecture during the period. However, on a more profound level, the
ornaments are meticulously notated and applied to create an astonishing range of nuance, color
and dynamics on the harpsichord.
The eighteenth century was a period of intense activity for the composers of pièces de
clavecin, and virtually every major composer published harpsichord collections. The first half of
the era includes François (Charles) Dieupart, Louis Marchand, Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, JeanFrançois Dandrieu, Gaspard LeRoux and Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. The second half is
represented by Jacques Duphly, Michel Corrette, Jean-Francois Tapray, Jean-Jacques
Beauvarlet-Charpentier, Nicolas Siret, Armand-Louis Couperin and Joseph Nicolas Pancrace
Royer. Leading the list are François Couperin, Rameau and Balbastre.
Francois Couperin (1668-1733)
Francois Couperin represents the ultimate expression of the art of French harpsichord
composition. His music encompasses all the elements of the national style, raised to an unequaled
level of refinement. Couperin's figure towers over his predecessors and successors.
Acknowledged as le Grand in his own lifetime, he enjoyed the most esteemed reputation among
his contemporaries as a performer and composer. Works were dedicated to him by Siret, LouisAntoine Dornel, and Michel Pignolet Monteclair, and a tribute to him is included in François
Dagincour’s harpsichord pieces of 1733. Couperin occupies a central position both
chronologically and stylistically. His life comes at the middle of the 200-year tradition of
clavecinistes. He was witness to the last years of the reign of Louis XIV and the beginning of the
gradual dissolution of the absolute monarchy that was France. Couperin's music represents a
fusion and synthesis of all that had come before it, and it profoundly influenced all that would
follow. French opera epitomized by Lully, Italian chamber music and the sonatas of Corelli, the
Commedia dell'Arte and the Tragédies lyriques, French folk songs and the paintings of Watteau:
all these elements left their imprint on Couperin's harpsichord music, where they are imbued with
Couperin's natural delicacy, passion, humanity, and bon goût.
A member of a distinguished musical dynasty, Francois was born on November 10, 1668.
His uncle was the great seventeenth-century claveciniste Louis Couperin and his father François
was organist at St. Gervais. It is a touching piece of history to note that when the young François
le Grand lost his father, his mother arranged for Michel-Richard de Lalande to assume the duties
at St. Gervais until Couperin was old enough to inherit that position. Couperin’s appointment as
organiste du roi in 1693 allowed him to come in close contact with many members of the
aristocracy. He performed regularly at Versailles and Fontainebleau, wrote many of his chamber
works, and established his reputation as a composer and teacher. In addition to four published
volumes of harpsichord music, Couperin's works include two organ masses, secular and religious
vocal music, chamber music and pedagogical treatises.
Couperin called each group of harpsichord pieces an ordre rather than the more common
“suite.” The Quatriême Ordre appears in his first book of harpsichord music, published in 1713,
and Ordres VI and VIII were published in the second book (1716-1717). Book III appeared in
1722 and Book IV was published in 1730. Couperin’s preference for character and descriptive
music is found in abundance throughout all of these books, revealing his love of popular culture,
his tender sympathy for everyday life, and his understanding that the simple and the serious can
easily coexist in one style. He expressed his philosophy with characteristic eloquence and
modesty in the Preface to Book I:
“I have always had a subject in mind when composing these pieces—subjects suggested
on different occasions. Thus the titles correspond to ideas I have had…the pieces they describe
are types of portraits which have sometimes been judged quite lifelike when I performed them.”
Quatriême Ordre
La Marche des Gris-vètus: This title refers to a fashionable regiment of soldiers who wore
distinctive grey uniforms. The tone is ironic, since they sang the following song while marching:
“The grey shirts sing of glory, sing of their virtues when they need to drink, and this gives them
the power to gain honor.”
Les Baccanales: This bacchanal is divided into three parts: “the pleasures of Bacchus,” “the
tenderness of Bacchus” and the “excitement of Bacchus.”
La Pateline: Patelin was a character in a fifteenth-century French farce that remained a hit play
during Couperin’s lifetime. Patelin was always portrayed as smooth and tricky.
La Réveil-matin: The oscillating tremolo figures in this piece imitate the ringing bells of an alarm
clock, one that was sure to wake up a sleepy Couperin (and his audience).
Sixiême Ordre
Les Moissonneurs: The rhythm and articulation evoke the cutting motions of the scythes of the
Les Langeurs-Tendres: Appoggiaturas and sigh-figures give this piece a dramatic if not
melodramatic feeling of tender melancholy.
La Bersan: Dedicated to the daughter of André Bauyn, Seigneur de Bersan.
Les Baricades Mistérieuses: Couperin’s use of the word “Baricades” and the meaning of the title
still remains mysterious.
Les Bergeries: This title refers to faux shepherdesses, aristocrats who dressed up and played at
being peasants. The gentle motion and the tempo marking of “naïvement” evoke the pastoral
world of Watteau. “Bergeries” were also the little curls that were all the fashion in hairstyles of
little girls at the time.
La Commére: The incessant, repetitive musical figures that seem to go nowhere create a subtle
and ironic portrait of the gossip.
Le Moucheron: Chains of trills and mordents evoke the annoying buzzing of a flea or fly.
Huitiême Ordre
La Raphaéle: Couperin, a close friend of the painter Watteau, was acquainted with Watteau’s
patron Crozat, in whose house one could find an impressive collection of paintings by Raphael.
Allemande l’Ausoniéne: This dance, subtitled “the Italian,” was dedicated to Couperin’s student
the Duke of Bourgogne, who was also known as Seigneur d’Ausone.
Passacaille: A grand dance, the passacaille was the traditional conclusion of French baroque
operas. One critic, however, described Couperin’s somber passacaille as representing: "the
rigidity of a social and technical convention ...(which)... only just succeeds in holding in check a
passion so violent that it threatens to engulf both the personality and the civilization."
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)
Rameau's reputation is based primarily on his operas and theoretical works, but his pièces
de clavecin contain some of the most important and exciting French harpsichord music of the
eighteenth century.
Rameau received his early musical training in his birthplace Dijon from his father and from
the Jesuits. In 1706 he moved to Paris, where the success of his first book of harpsichord pieces
led to his appointment as organist of the Jesuit College. Rameau returned to Dijon in 1709-15 to
succeed his father at Notre Dame, and from 1715-22 served as organist at Clermont Cathedral. He
returned to Paris in 1722, but was unable to secure a suitable organist position even after the
publication of his harpsichord collections.
Rameau's fortunes dramatically improved when he began his association with the
important patron of the arts, La Pouplinière. It was at that salon, from 1730-1753, that he
received support and met the most important librettists, musicians and other artistic figures in
Paris. It was only at the age of fifty, however, that he made his operatic debut, with Hippolyte et
Aricie, after which time he enjoyed his greatest success and recognition as the leading opera
composer of the era.
Rameau's harpsichord music includes three solo collections (1706, 1724 and 1729 or
1730), transcriptions from Les Indes Galantes (1735), La Dauphine (ca.1747), and the
accompanied harpsichord music of the Pièces en Concert (1741). The three works by Rameau on
this program appear in the collection of 1724. Like Couperin, Rameau sought to create dramatic
musical portraits with his harpsichord music, and his innate talent for the theater made him
particularly effective in this regard. In fact, many of the harpsichord pieces were first heard or
later used on the operatic stage, or were inspired by it. Les Tendre Plaintes, for example, is a
scene for voice and instruments in Rameau’s opera Zoroastre (Act I, scene 3). Rameau himself
tells us that Les Tourbillons represents “the swirls of dust raised by high winds," and Les
Cyclopes might have been inspired by the one-eyed giant in Lully's opera Persée. Rameau’s 1724
collection features some of the most virtuosic and progressive keyboard writing in the history of
French harpsichord music, such as the revolutionary left-hand figure in Les Cyclopes, which
Rameau called batteries.
Claude Balbastre (1727-1799) was also a native of Dijon. He went to Paris at the age of
twenty-three, studied and became friends with Rameau, and achieved great fame as an organist
and harpsichordist. Balbastre appeared often at the Concert Spirituel, taught harpsichord to
Marie-Antoinette and Thomas Jefferson, and became a popular if somewhat controversial figure
in Parisian musical circles. The large crowds attracted to his yearly performances of his Noels en
Variations at St. Roch forced the archbishop to forbid him to play. This was probably a wise
idea, if Burney’s description of Balbastre’s playing in Paris in 1770 is any indication: "When the
Magnificat was sung, he played likewise between each verse several minuets, fugues, imitations
and every species of music, even to hunting pieces and jigs, without surprising or offending the
congregation, as far as I was able to discover." Balbastre was also an early champion of the piano.
Balbastre published his first book of Pièces de Clavecin in 1759. Several other
harpsichord pieces appeared later in miscellaneous collections, including a Marche des
Marseillais... Arrangés pour le Forte Piano/Par le Citoyen C. Balbastre/ Aux braves défensers de
la Republique. The two works on this program come from the 1759 collection. La d'Héricourt, a
work in C minor in the grand French tombeau tradition, is a dedicatory piece for M. l’abbé
d’Héricourt, Conseiller de Grand’ Chambre. La Lujeac, an irrepressible gigue-like piece in the
spirit of Domenico Scarlatti, reveals the strong Italian influence in late eighteenth-century France.
It is dedicated to Charles-Antoine de Guérin, a page of Louis XV who later became Marquis de