article 68: 144

In Article 61 I offered some speculation as to the origin of the Parville MS, the second most important source for the music of “Monsieur Couperin” – whoever he/they was/were. Here I want to go into a Parvillian “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” *

Number 144, the last piece but 5 in the MS, is an anonymous prélude non mesuré in a unique and otherwise unknown hand, according to Bruce Gustafson’s still-definitive catalog of 1977. I remember it was called “poor stuff” by a major scholar of the period, but I have forgotten where and by whom. The valuable study by Paul Prévost (1987) is particularly scornful (“vastes dimensions”, “d’une écriture très lâche”,“maladroitment”).

The notation, although in the hand of what looks like a professional copyist, is indeed a particularly bad example of the chaos in most MS versions of these pieces (the great exception, proving the rule, being the d’Anglebert autograph): sloppy ties (often called tenues), confused vertical note alignment, wrong pitches, and likely missing notes. A tentative reconstruction, along the lines of my edition of the preludes by Mr. Couperin for Breitkopf & Härtel, is attached below, along with a sound clip of how I think it might be interpreted.

Commentators have noted that passages in the piece are near quotes from Bauyn 6 / Parville 45, the magnificent prelude (in my opinion by Charles (ii) Couperin) with a central fugue, entitled “à l’imitation de Mr. Froberger” in Parville. Gustafson’s catalog notes an “identical opening” to B6 / P45. That, however, is far from being all that is identical, or very similar. A careful comparison reveals that almost a quarter of P144 has close parallels to the larger work. In addition, two passages appear almost note for note in preludes in the relative major key of C: briefly in B10 / P58, and more extensively in B9. The latter “quote”, which covers no less than 1/8 of P144, is one of the most expressive passages in the entire corpus of Mr. Couperin preludes.

It is impossible to say with any certainty what the meaning of these relationships is...but followers of my contributions will not be surprised that I think I can explain them. P144 looks to me like the Ur-prelude, which was inserted at the end of Parville by someone who thought it was something important, something to be preserved. Far from being a botch, after a notational rescue effort it appears – as I hope the sound clip will demonstrate – as one of the finest large preludes from the early period of the form. It may even be by Louis Couperin himself, who remains in most circles the undisputed author of the entire Bauyn corpus; but see Article 1 on this website. Or it could be an early effort by Charles (ii), upon which he later drew for what jazz musicians call “licks” – pre-fabricated bits to be used as needed. In any case, everything about P144 – harmonies, gestures – seems to me to be of an earlier stage of development than B6 / P45.

We have no idea what the compositional process for these wonderful, poorly-understood pieces looked like. They are often called “written-out improvisations”, but I think that misses the point. They are in fact, as I argued in the article just mentioned, carefully crafted works of art, which give a typically baroque illusion of spontaneity. Did the composer of B6, B9 and B10 go back to the dog-eared original of P144 for inspiration, like Handel borrowing from himself? Or was it lodged in his subconscious, whence fragments came bubbling up when the time came for an hommage (a Tombeau, perhaps?) to a family friend, Mr. Froberger? Or was it after all, as is usually assumed, just a clever pastiche by an imitator?

We will never know. But I hope poor, despised P144 will get a little more respect in the future.

October 19, 2022

*Sic Churchill on the Soviet Union in 1939. Plus ça change...

click to listen (mp3 file)

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