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COUPERIN Family: "La Dynastie des Couperin"

André Isoir, organ

rec: 1987, Saint-Michel-en-Thiérache, Abbaye
Tempéraments - TEM 316043 (R) (© 2013) (62'42")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Armand-Louis COUPERIN (1727-1789): Dialogue entre le chalumeau et le basson avec accompagnement de flûtes au clavier d'en haut; François COUPERIN (1668-1733): Messe propre pour les Convents des Religieux et Religieuses [1]; Gervais-François COUPERIN (1759-1826): Louis XVIII ou le retour du bonheur en France, op. 14; Louis COUPERIN (1626-1661): Chaconne in g minor; Duo; Fantaisie (en basse); Fantaisie (en quatuor); Fantaisie sur la tierce du Grand Clavier avec le tremblant lent; Fantaisie, sur le Cromhorne

Source: [1] François Couperin, Pieces d’orgue consistantes en deux messes, 1690

In the history of music we meet several dynasties of performing musicians and/or composers. The Bach family is the most famous of them all, and also the largest. France had some musical dynasties of its own, such as the Hotteterre and Philidor families. The Couperins constituted another musical dynasty. From the mid-17th century until the first quarter of the 19th members of the Couperin family were active in the field of the arts, and several of them worked as organists. Charles, who died in 1660, was organist in the Church of the Abbey of Chaumes-en-Brie. He had three sons who became musicians; one of them was Louis who developed into one of the leading harpsichord composers under the guidance of Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, generally considered the father of the French harpsichord school.

He is best-known for his harpsichord oeuvre, but he also composed a considerable number of organ works. This can be explained from the fact that soon after his settlement in Paris he was appointed organist of Saint-Gervais. This position would remain firmly in the hands of members of the Couperin family until 1826. Louis was around 35 years of age when he died; as he didn't have any children he was succeeded as organist by his brother Charles, the father of François Couperin 'le Grand', the best-known composer of the dynasty. The reputation of the family was such at the time that when Charles died in 1671 the church council of St Gervais agreed that François - just ten years of age at the time - should inherit his father's job at his 18th birthday. Michel-Richard de Lalande was appointed as his substitute.

François' activities as organist resulted in the publication of a book with two organ masses. In September 1733 François died, and in December his son François was appointed his successor. No organ works from his pen are known. In July 1748 he died, and he was the first to be buried under the organ. He was succeeded by his son Armand-Louis who soon earned the reputation as one of the best organists of his time; especially his improvisations on the Te Deum brought him fame. Few pieces for the organ are known from him; one of these is the Dialogue entre le chalumeau et le basson. Another piece, La chasse, can be played either on the harpsichord or the organ. In 1773 the post of organist of St Gervais was taken by his son Pierre-Louis; he died only half a year after his father, in 1789. His brother Gervais-François succeeded him.

The latter experienced the changes which took place during the French Revolution and the following decades, and then the restoration of the monarchy. One could describe his attitude as either flexible or opportunistic, dependent on one's own opinion. In 1793 the two instruments of the théâtre des Arts (the Opera) were "played by two well-known artists, Citizens Séjan and Couperin, who interpreted variations of patriotic airs in duets", according to a contemporary account. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte took part in a banquet in the church of Saint-Sulpice, renamed Temple de la Gloire, while Couperin played the organ. In 1814 when the monarchy was restored, the same Couperin showed his appreciation by composing Louis XVIII, ou Le retour du bonheur en France op. 14. The German composer and writer on music Johann Friedrich Reichardt heard Couperin play in 1802 during a mass on St Cecilia's Day and judged him harshly: "An organist of that ilk has no business calling himself a Couperin (...)".

"For two centuries, the story of this family was intimately linked with the evolution of the pipe organ in France. At the mercy of esthetic movements and historical upheavals, the works of Louis, François, Armand-Louis and Gervais-François recorded here show this evolution in a striking overview, going from splendor to ruin", Jean-Michel Verneiges writes in the booklet. He describes the features of French organ music as follows: "Paraphrases of gregorian chant, a preponderance of sonorities and the assimilation of styles foreign to the instrument, such as dances or suites typical of the harpsichord (...)". The history of French organ music is often characterised as one of secularization and that is often connected to the influence of opera. But Verneiges sees the origin of this process in Louis' organ pieces as some of them are modelled after dances. I am not sure whether this could be used as an argument: dances were very much part of the music culture of those days and there was no strict separation between sacred and secular music anyway.

The same probably goes for the two organ masses by François. Verneiges gives several examples of elements which he sees as a demonstration of the secularization of organ music, but if one compares these masses with the organ works by some of his contemporaries one will notice that the secular influence here is rather limited. Others included operatic pieces in their organ oeuvre and the influence of the modern trio sonata in their works is also notable. It is especially in the music of Armand-Louis that the modern trends manifest themselves. The very title of the Dialogue entre le chalumeau et le basson is telling.

Verneiges certainly considers Gervais-François' piece recorded here as an example of "ruin". I don't disagree but we should not forget that this piece was not conceived as an organ work but rather written for the pianoforte. That in itself doesn't make it necessarily better. But if played on the organ it probably sounds more vulgar than on the instrument for which it was conceived. That is even more the case as André Isoir decided to "enhance certain effects, (...) filling chords more fully or deliberately changing some harmonies, relating the humor and quaintness which remain the only justifications for playing them". In my view that is the wrong approach to a piece like that. One can only assess this kind of repertoire if it is performed on the instrument and with the style of playing which the composer had in mind. In order to show the state of organ music from this time of decay Isoir should have chosen other pieces from Gervais-François' pen which have been preserved in a private collection and some of which date from 1802.

Fortunately this is the only part of the programme which gives reason for criticism. The performances of the earlier repertoire are very good. Especially the pieces by Louis Couperin are seldom played but are a valuable part of the repertoire. François' masses are available in various performances, but they are the only organ works he has left. Isoir can hold his own against the competition. I noted that the Offertoire is played in a rather fast tempo; I probably would prefer it a little slower.

Isoir plays an organ which is often used for recordings. It is a historical instrument from 1714 which miraculously has escaped some major disasters such as two fires and the First World War when the pipes of many organs were used for the construction of weapons. In 1980 it was restored to its original condition; the pitch is the same as in 1714, one tone below modern pitch, whereas the temperament is after Lambert Chaumont.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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