article 61: La la Barre

I’ve recently been puzzling for the nth time over the Parville MS, the second (after Bauyn) most important source for early Couperin family pieces. Its somewhat amateurish notation, its unica, its clear connection to two great musical dynasties – Couperin and La Barre – and its arrangement into suites by mixed composers, almost all taken from the Couperin archive, make Parville the biggest riddle of the period.

Pride of place is given to three D-minor Préludes non mesurés. The first is anonymous, and in article 9 I tentatively proposed an attribution to François Couperin (ii) “le Grand”. The second is probably by Charles Couperin. The third is attributed to “Monsieur de la Barre”. I was too disparaging of it back when I wrote article 9; it’s a fine, if modest work. It got an elaborate, anonymous redaction in the MS of Mlle. de la Pierre (begun 1687), probably undertaken by that young lady’s teacher. The version in Parville is clearly earlier.

The de la Barre most obviously in question in Joseph (1633-78), court organist from 1656, son of Pierre, whose spectacular diminutions on a song by Louis XIII appear in Mersenne. One gigue or allemande (it appears as both in Bauyn III) is expressly attributed to him. But there were two brothers of Joseph who, in a case similar to that of the Couperin brothers, cannot be excluded as composers at least some of the 12 pieces which belong to the classic style of the later 17th century. There are some 29 which clearly belong to an earlier period, and there are plenty of La Barres to claim them too. The whole corpus is one of the biggest of the many which so annoyingly lack attributions to specific family members – most prominently, the Couperins.

Looking at those later 12, I was struck by a stylistic break. Eight appear only in Parville (including the prelude) and three only in Bauyn. One courante appears in both. The three Bauyn pieces (including two pairs of identical allemande/gigue doublets which count as the same piece) are stylistically unified, and five of the Parvilles (again including the prelude) match. They are from the world of Louis and Charles Couperin, if at a slightly lower level; fine counterpoint, unerring melodic sense, bold harmonies. They are all ascribed to Mr de la Barre, with the addition in one instance of Joseph. I think they can all be safely ascribed to him.

That leaves five pieces* – two allemandes, two courantes and a sarabande, all appearing only in Parville, which have a very different feel about them: lighter, less sure of hand, and, si j’ose dire, more feminine. They are all in the main hand, which is such an important source of Couperin pieces. Four are grouped close together from p. 30, and three of these appear as a suite in the slightly later Babell MS (1702). An interesting aspect is that their ascription omits the Mr.

The tie-in between the stylistic break and the presence or lack of Mr. leads me to the following unprovable hypothesis: a member of the Couperin family was teaching a daughter (or niece) of Joseph de la Barre how to play the harpsichord, and possibly how to compose. She was offered a large selection of the Couperin family fonds to practice, organized into suites (unlike the mostly archival arrangement in Bauyn) with a few Lully arrangements added as divertissements. She include her own very commendable efforts, and at the top of her book, a prelude by her father (or uncle) in its original form, after those by her teacher and a close relation of his.

The teacher could have been François Couperin (i), well-known in his capacity as such. But if I am correct regarding the anonymous prelude Parville 1, it was François (ii) le Grand. We know how the musical dynasties of the time stuck together helped each other when they could, and the presence of Joseph de la Barre in the retrospective Bauyn MS indicates contact between the two under discussion.

I don’t want to cast aspersions on François-le-Grand, but his marriage may have been an instance of socio-economic climbing (his wife’s connections were wealthy and influential), and we know from the story related by Pierre-Louis d' Aquin de Chateau-Lyon (cf. article 58) that he was something of a philanderer. The long, intense relationship between the copyist of Parville and – if it was indeed a young lady – her teacher – if there was indeed such a relationship – could have been the result of, or resulted in, something similar. Such things do happen.

July 17, 2022

*Numbers 32-35 and 39 in Gustavson/Wolf, Broude 1999)

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