article 9:   A Tombeau de Charles Couperin by his son François Couperin le Grand?

(with sound clip)

The second most important source for the music of the 17th-century Couperins, whoever wrote it (see my article “The Other Mr. Couperin”), is the Parville MS, held at UC Berkeley. Its close connection to the family is obvious from the many concordances with the Bauyn MS, recently shown to have been copied for a neighbor and student of François “le Grand”, the son of Charles, to whom I attribute most of the music usually ascribed to his brother Louis.

The copyist of this important source is unknown, but was probably a member of the extensive de la Barre family. Indeed, the first three pieces are all préludes non mesurés in D minor, and the third - a brief work by a beginner, in mixed notation - is attributed to “Monsieur de la Barre”. The second is the well-known masterpiece by Charles Couperin (formerly attributed to Louis) with a fugal middle section.

The first prélude, a substantial and very beautiful piece, is anonymous. It was attributed to Louis Couperin by the pre-eminent scholar of the style, Bruce Gustavson, the reason being given that, at the time of writing of his catalogue of 17th-century French keyboard music, no other préludes with a mesuré middle section were known besides those then attributed to that member of the family.

But this piece is clearly by a different hand than that of Charles (“Louis”) Couperin. It is thinner in texture, lighter in its use of dissonance, more songlike and looser in gesture; and its middle section is hardly imitative at all; it feels much more like organ music of the time. Moreover, the whole work is easily resolved into mesuré music, like the préludes composed by François for L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin. When examining the manuscript some decades ago, I found small vertical dashes, absent from the only modern edition (by Alan Curtis), which clearly indicate metrical units.

I think, in fact, that this is an effort by the young François Couperin, whose first published works, the organ masses, contain passages that closely resemble the middle section of this prélude. It would be in keeping with the family tradition of obscure attributions for François to allow it to be entered in first place in a new collection anonymously - especially if, as I suspect, there was a very personal aspect to the work.

The piece bears all the attributes of a Tombeau: first of all, its pervading sense of melancholy. Then we have the classic structure of a funeral oration as described by Quintillian: initial sorrow and incomprehension, followed by rebellion against cruel fate (mainly in the mesuré section), terminating in resignation and acceptance. And its very lack of any superscription except Prelude en D La Re tells me that something is being concealed - possibly the very private grief of a family member.

If I am correct in these assumptions, who else would François Couperin have been thinking of, in his first known effort in this style, than his father Charles, its supreme master, who died so young?

Charles’ magnificent Pavane in F-sharp minor is clearly also a tombeau, in a form and key of the lutenists; perhaps for the “Paris” Gaultier...perhaps for his brother and mentor Louis.

Unless other sources turn up we will never know; but I offer this recording - speculatively, to be sure - as a Tombeau de Charles Couperin by his son, François.

click to listen (wav file)

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