F Couperin: A (European) Confession

The polarity between France and Italy runs as a clear thread through the cultural history of the Baroque. François Couperin was one of the rare artists daring to cross these seemingly insurmountable borders – even if it meant disguising his true identity.

Nowadays, the traditional (conservative?) classical music scene presents music mostly as a universal and international art form, which should be understood similarly everywhere on the globe – an idea which strongly opposes the notion of music of 16th and 17th century Europe, where the nations’ striving for cultural independence created clearly distinguishable styles almost competing against each other.


The major rivals at the time were France and Italy, not only politically but first and foremost culturally. Evidently, this had to affect art and music. The polarity seemed irreconcilable and even went so far that musicians from each respective country refused to play music from the other “side” – often, at best, they despised each other. Before the so-called “mixed taste” came into being, even composers from other countries, for example from England or Germany, had to choose to write either in French or Italian style.


François Couperin, anonymous portrait. (source: wikimedia commons)


This polarity between France and Italy runs as a clear thread through the cultural history of the Baroque – however, 300 years later, it is not directly understandable for us today when listening to this music; this presumably is due to a music-making that commonly focuses on leveling-out any imbalances and differences, and most of all, a programming which often grasps music only as an ornament, thereby just scratching its surface. Even though already the scores and sources speak for themselves: in French music, clear and short forms, in which every detail of their execution was meticulously described, prevailed – from bowings to a complex and very strict ornamentation catalogue. The keen hearing of the smallest details and their “elegance” becomes the essential priority. The opposite then enlivens the Italian music: Theatricality, exuberant liveliness and free improvisation are basic elements, which must inevitably have seemed vulgar and tasteless to the French!


Despite these extreme opposites, there have been some attempts at combining the two styles. Louis XIV. tried several times to bring Italian artists to France. Therefore, he appointed Berini, one of the most important Italian sculptors and architects of the time, to draft plans for the Louvre’s reconstruction and also the composer Cavalli to write an opera for the king’s wedding in 1660. Both projects were not successful (even though Louis’s appearance as the sun in the performance of Cavalli’s Ercole Armante should go down in history as a memorable event). François Couperin (1668-1733), who composed chamber and sacred music at the court at Versailles during Louis XIV.’s later years, was not afraid of crossing these borders. During his lifetime an admirer of his Italian colleagues, in the preface to Les Nations (1726), he made an astonishing confession only at the end of his career. In fact, he had written the first sonata of this collection already as a young man 30 years before – published under a false name. It was so close to Corelli’s style that Couperin, as a precaution, chose to publish it under an Italian pseudonym:


The preface to Les Nations (1726) (source: Bibliothèque National de France)


“It is a few years now since one part of these trios was composed […] The first sonata in this collection is also the first that I composed and the first of its kind to be composed in France. It has quite a singular story.
Charmed by [the sonatas] of Signor Corelli, whose compositions I shall love as long as I live, and by the French works of M. de Lully, I ventured to compose a sonata myself which I had played by the same groupe as I had heard play Corelli’s. Knowing how avid the French are for foreign novelties of all kinds, and lacking confidence in myself, I did myself a favour by telling a white lie. I pretended that arelative of mine that I actually do have [his cousin Marc-Roger Norman] and who is attached to the court of Sardinia, had sent me a sonata by a new Italian composer. I arranged the letters of my name so as to form an Italian name which I gave instead. The sonata was recieved with much acclaim and I shall say nothing further in its defence. However, that encouraged me. I wrote others and my italianised name brought me, in disguise, great applause. Fortunately, my sonatas enjoyed sufficient favour for me not to blush at my subterfuge.” (Translation: David Tunley in François Couperin and ‘The Perfection of Music’)


Il y à quelques Années déja, qu’une Partie de ces Trios a êté Composée […] La Premiere Sonade de ce Recüeil fut aucy la premiere que je composay; et qui, ait êté composée en France. L’Histoire même en est singuliere.
Charmé de celles du Signor Corelli, dont j’aimeray Les oeuvres tant que je vivray, Ainsy que Les Ouvrages françois de Monsieur de Lulli, j’hazarday d’en composer une, que je fis éxécuter dans le Concert ou j’avois entendu celles de Corelli; connoissant L’âpreté des françois pour Les Nouveautés-étrangeres, sur toutes-choses; et me Déffiant de moy-même, je me rendis, par un petit mensonge-officieux, un très bon service. Je feignis, qu’un parent que j’ay, effectivement auprés du Roy de Sardaigne, m’avoit envoyé une Sonade – d’un nouvel Auteur italien: Je Rangeai les Lettres de mon nom, de façon que cela forma un nom italien que je mis à la place. La Sonade fut devorée avec empressement; et j’en tairay L’apologie. Cela cependant m’encourageà. J’en fis d’autres; et mon nom italiénisé m’attira, sous le masque de grands applaudissemens. Mes Sonades heureusement, prirent assés de faveur pour que L’équivoque ne m’ait point fait rougir.)


– François Couperin in the preface to Les Nations (1726)


Three decades later, as a respected and successful composer, he probably did not have to fear the consequences of making this anecdote public anymore. Even more so: the second volume of his Concerts Royaux, which he composed for the Sunday concerts at Versailles, are titled Les Goûts-Réunis – the mixed tastes. The idea of uniting the two antithetic styles seemed to have fascinated Couperin during his last years; in the preface to Les Goûts-Réunis, he writes in 1724:


The preface to Les Goûts-Réunis ou Nouveaux Concerts (1724) (source: Bibliothèque National de France)


“Italian and French styles have for a long time (in France) shared the Republic of Music; for my part, I have always esteemed those things which have merit, without distinction of author or nation; and the first Italian sonatas which appeared in Paris more than thirty years ago, and which afterwards encouraged me to compose some, did no disservice to my mind, either to the works of Lully or to those of my forebears, who will alwys be as admirable as they are inimitable. Thus, by the right which my neutrality confers to me, I always sail under the favourable auspices that have guided me up to the present.” (Translation: David Tunley in François Couperin and ‘The Perfection of Music’)


Le goût Italien et le goût François, ont partagé depuis longtemps (en France) la République de la Musique; à mon égard, J’ay toûjours estimé les choses qui le meritoient; sans acception d’auteurs, ny de Nation; et les premiéres Sonades Italiénes qui parurent à Paris il y a plus de trente années, et qui m’encouragerent à en composer ensuite, ne firent aucun tort dans mon esprit, ny aux ouvrages de Monsieur de Lulli, ni à ceux de mes ancêtres; qui seront toûjours plus admirables, qu’imitables. Ainsi par un droit que me donne ma neutralité, je vogue toûjours sous les hereux auspices qui m’ont guidé jusqu’à présent.


– Francois Couperin in his preface to Les Goûts-Réunis ou Nouveaux Concerts (1724)


At the end, I would like to point out a remarkable piece, which Couperin published directly after Les Goûts-Réunis: L’Apothéose composé à la mémoire de l’incomparable Monsieur de Lully, an instrumental piece with a clearly programmatic narrative. Couperin transfers an imaginary encounter into music: Lully and Corelli, the most important representatives of their respective styles at the time, meet on Mount Parnassus, refuge of Apollo and therefore the epitome of art. In thirteen movements, he introduces both characters and their musical identities with a lot of ingenuity as well as at times humor, bringing them together in the end. It remains always clear which musical protagonist ist “speaking”: “Lully” reads invariably in the French violin clef (G clef on the first line), “Corelli” uses the G clef on the second line, which is commonly used today. Tempo indications are also kept in French and/or Italian respectively.


Aus L’Apothéose de Lully: “Apollon convinces Lully und Corelli, that the unification of the French and Italian style has to lead to perfection in music”, notation in different keys and ornamentation signs. (Quelle: Bibliothèque National de France)


In conclusion, “Apollo convinces Lully and Corelli that the unification of the French and the Italian style has to lead to perfection in music” (nothing less!). Thereupon, he lets Lully and Corelli play an imagined duet, an air:


L’Apothéose de Lully: the imaginative duet of Lully and Corelli (source: Bibliothèque National de France)


Lully commences with a short, fugal motif, which Corelli picks up in respect for his famous colleague. Lully’s part develops into an elegant melody, enriched by coulades and other typically French ornaments. Corelli, however, develops a more rhythmic accompaniment made out of arpeggios, almost without thereby indicating any ornaments. In the second air, the two masters switch roles and, here, Couperin even notates other (Italian) ornament symbols for Corelli than he had done for Lully beforehand. Subsequently, the piece ends with the trio sonata Le Paix de Parnasse (the Peace of Parnass), which brings together the two personalities as a musical entity.


sources / further reading
David Tunley. François Couperin and ‘The Perfection of Music’. Farnham: Ashgate 2004
Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Der italienische und der französische Stil. in: Musik als Klangrede., 8. Auflage. Kassel: Bärenreiter 2016
François Couperin. Les goûts-réunis, ou Nouveaux concerts. Paris: Boyvin 1724 (Bibliothèque National de France)
François Couperin. Concert instrumental sous le titre d’Apothéose composé à la mémoire immortelle de l’incomparable Monsieur de Lully. Paris: Boyvin 1725 (Bibliothèque National de France)
François Couperin. Les Nations. Paris: Boyvin 1726 (Bibliothèque National de France)