article 72: “...einer Menge Orgelfugen”, or: More Couperin

Years ago I bought a copy of Vol. I of Ernst Ludwig Gerber’s Lexicon der Tonkünstler (Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig 1790). It was cheap because Vol. II was missing, but I wanted the entry on Bach, written by the son of a student of Sebastian’s. It never occurred to me until this evening to see what Gerber had to say about the Couperins. I was pleasantly surprised to find articles about all the musician members of the family, starting with the three brothers from Chaumes-en-Brie.

Gerber, besides being an organist, composer and teacher, was a tremendous collector, an activity which eventually led to his first Lexicon and later to expanded versions. He owned part of the library of J. G. Walther, his most important German predecessor as music lexicographer. Walther’s entry under “Couperin” is a brief reference to François (ii) “le Grand”, still living at the time of publication (1732). Gerber relied heavily on Walther, but all the information on the Couperins is clearly taken from Titon du Tillet (see Article 49).

Everything except one sentence:

“Außer verschiedenen Motteten, den Klageliedern Jeremiä, (Leçons de Ténebres) weltliche Cantaten, einem Conzert de Violes etc. und einer Menge Orgelfugen, die man nur in Handschriften von ihm hat, sind folgende Sachen von ihm in Kupferstich bekannt geworden.”

(Besides various motets, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, (Leçons de Ténebres) secular cantatas, a concert de Violes etc. and a mass of organ fugues which are only found in manuscripts, the following works of his have been made known through engravings on copper.)

I of course wanted to zero in on that “mass of organ fugues”. I don’t think “mass” is an exaggerated translation of Menge in this case; “quantity” might be less tendentious. It just happens to be in my interests that Gerber should have seen a large number of “organ fugues” allegedly by François (ii) Couperin. Only seven fugues are to be found in the Livre d’Orgue of 1690, which was distributed in manuscript under a printed title page. That hardly qualifies as a Menge. It is conceivable that Gerber lumped all the movements of both masses under the term Orgelfugen, but would that be characteristic of a careful, university-educated German lexicographer of the Enlightenment? Even less likely is the possibility that a considerable number of organ fugues by François (ii) have been lost.

Be that as it may, there is a manuscript containing a Menge Orgelfugen by a Couperin – Louis: the long-submerged and still mystery-shrouded “Oldham manuscript”. My disappointment in its contents when it was partially published started me on the research that eventually led to Article 1 on this website, edited by John Koster and published in Vol. 30 of the American “Early Keyboard Journal”. We know that copies of all Louis’ works were made for his brothers on his death. We don’t know if other copies were made from them or from the originals, nor what road Mr. Oldham’s manuscript took before he found it in a London bookstore. All I want to suggest is that E. L. Gerber may have seen one, and misattributed it to the best-known Couperin, whose pièces de clavecin “der große Seb. Bach besonders schätzte”. That would be an ironic reverse of the – in my view, at least – misattribution of all the 17th-century harpsichord works by “Monsieur Couperin” to Louis.

November 6, 2022

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