article 48: DOUBLE-ING DOWN

I have recently been rethinking the conclusions I came to more than 20 years ago regarding the 17th-century Couperins, and which were finally published in 2017 (see Article 1 on this website). It now seems clear to me that not only Louis and Charles (ii) Couperin are represented in the sources, but also François (ii) “le Grand”, and possibly even the third Couperin brother, François (i) and the paterfamilias, Charles (i). My main conclusions back in the year 2000 were

– that the attributions to “Mr. Couperin” (and variants) represented a kind of trademark, covering all the family’s composers – a situation similar to that found in other French musical dynasties – and

– that there are stylistic breaks that preclude the attribution of all the harpsichord music to Louis, as is customary in most circles down to the present day.

The recent re-dating of the Bauyn MSS (B) to the 1690’s, and that of the Parville MS (P) to around the same time, place these collections – by far the most important sources for the 17th-century Messieurs Couperin – in a period when the two François would have been the stewards of the family’s musical heritage. Both MSS were sourced from collections very close to that archive, Bauyn almost exclusively, and the main section (Gustafson’s numbers 1-104) of Parville to a very large degree. The younger François was 22 in 1691, and already had published his brilliant organ works, so it is certainly possible that early harpsichord works of his could appear in both MSS. (His livre premier of 1713 represents a first step towards an authoritative “collected works”.) His uncle and namesake, if Titon du Tillet (1732) is to be believed, was mainly a teacher and a drunkard, but Le Gallois, in his letter to Mlle. Regnault de Solier (1680) lists him among the famous living harpsichordists.

In this small contribution I will only discuss the doubles found among the “Couperin” harpsichord works. A total of six of these variations on dances appear in Bauyn and Parville. One (111 in the deeply flawed Oiseau-Lyre Brunold-Dart-Moroney edition (O-L) / B II and III, P) is a simple variation on a Menuet de Poitou.

The others are more elaborate. Their Italianate style points, in my opinion, to the later period of Charles and beyond. Hardel’s inexplicably popular A-minor gavotte appears with a relaxed double by “Couperin” (O-L 125, B III, P). So does Chambonnières’ canonic allemande Le Moutier (O-L 126, B I, P). Mr. Moroney’s notes to O-L say this was “Louis Couperin’s tribute to his patron, to whom he owed his good fortune in Paris”. If so, it wasn’t much of a tribute (compare it to d’Anglebert’s tombeau), and in any case, all three of the brothers owed their presence in Paris to the same man.

A good deal more virtuosity is required for the double of a rigaudon from the Prologue of Lully’s “Acis et Galatée” (O-L 127) which only appears in P. Mr. Moroney thinks the variation is “rather simple, even crude”, and that “it probably dates from Couperin’s youth”.

He means Louis Couperin. I would suggest it stems from the youth of his illustrious nephew. I think it ties in with the final double to be discussed, the most interesting of these cases. Nicolas Lebègue’s 1677 C-major gavotte/double appears with a different variation by “Mr. Couperin” in B III. The same double appears as a late addition (without the simple) in P (number 146, long after the main opening section), but both versions are so corrupt that Mr. Moroney is forced to offer a composite version which he calls “an unusual use of the sources”. (Since I happen to believe that the job of an editor is to edit, I have no problem with that.) He also goes so far as to say that the B text “hardly makes sense as a double”. (I have no quarrel with him there either, and would add the same comment as regards the P text.)

But what makes the Lebègue case so interesting is that yet a third (after Lebègue’s and the one ascribed to a Couperin) anonymous double appears in P as Gustafson’s number 68a, right after Lebègue’s simple. It is an excellent little variation, tidy and effective. It is the only insertion by a different hand into the main section, which is otherwise in Gustafson’s “Hand A”. Whoever added it stopped the work of that copyist to use a still-blank page.

This third double is in “Hand G”, the same one that later added the “bad” double P 146. P 145 is Chambonnières’ Le Printemps, which also appears in the Oldham MS, with its close associations with the Couperin family. P 147 is a Lully transcription. P 145-7 are all in “Hand G”.

What is going on here? What is such a poor specimen of musical craftsmanship doing in the Couperin family archive, and turning up in the two most important surviving collections taken from it? My working hypothesis is this: it is the oldest preserved work by Thomelin’s young student, François Couperin (ii), his only piece to make it into B.

Then who added it to P, as well as an “improved” version? Uncle François, hovering over his precocious nephew? Possibly. If so, the somewhat erratic “Hand G” might be that of the bibulous François Couperin (i).

P 69, which appears directly after the “good” double, is an unmeasured prelude in C-minor (O-L 128). It is one of two (the other is in G, O-L 129) which are so different in style from the 14 others that they cannot be by the same composer. Their simplicity caused me originally think they were by Louis, but his only securely attributed works are anything but simple. I now believe the two preludes are either by the young François (ii) or his uncle of the same name. I tend towards the latter, since (as reported and recorded in article 9 on this website) I think the fine anonymous prelude P 1, “tentatively” ascribed to Louis by Alan Curtis and dismissed by Mr. Moroney, is by Charles’ son.

There is one more anonymous double to a work by a Couperin. As noted in article 21 on this website, I think it, too, is by François (ii). If so, the courante simple, ascribed in the source (Gustafson’s Regensburg , after 1710) to “le vieux Couprin”, must be by Charles.

Le Gallois, listing famous deceased harpsichordists, mentions Louis and Charles, but says Louis was also a great organist. Charles, who I think composed most of the “Couperin” pieces in B and P, was a modest man of the harpsichord. He was an officier of the only really decent human being who was a high-ranking member of the court of Louis XIV, “Liselotte von der Pfalz” – Madame. There are those who think the epithet le Grand ought to be transferred to Charles Couperin.

March 14, 2022

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