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Born in 1668, François Couperin was the only son of Charles Couperin, the harpsichordist and organist at the old Parisian Church of Saint-Gervais. There had been an organ at the church since the 14th century, and in the 16th century it had two. The organ at the church in 1668 (the fourth) had been built in 1601, and after several refurbishments and improvements, it was one of the finest instruments in the kingdom. François Couperin’s father had two brothers, François and the eldest, Louis, a brilliant musician, who very quickly earned a place as organist at Saint-Gervais, as well as several charges in the King’s Music. When he died in 1661, Charles succeeded him as organist at Saint-Gervais; he was married the following year and in 1668 his only child was born, the second François Couperin in the family, who would come to be known as Le Grand.


Additional Information


1. I Sonade (Gravement – Gayement – Gravement – Gayement –
Vivement – Gravement – Air. Gracieusement – Gayement) 6’48
2. II Allemande 3’33
3. III Premiere Courante 1’33
4. IV Seconde Courante 1’31
5. V Sarabande 2’39
6. VI Gigue 1’22
7. VII Chaconne ou Passacaille 3’04
8. VIII Gavotte 0’58
9. IX Menuet 1’27


10. I Sonade (Gravement, et mesuré – Vivement – Air. Affectueusement
Légérement – Gayement – Air tendre – Vivement, et marqué) 8’38
11. II Allemande 2’41
12. III Courante 1’44
13. IV Seconde Courante 1’52
14. V Sarabande 3’02
15. VI Gigue Lourée 2’36
16. VII Gavotte 1’06
17. VIII Rondeau 3’47
18. IX Bourée. Double de la Bourée Précédente 2’00
19. X Passacaille 4’53



1. I Sonade (Gravement – Vivement – Gravement, et marqué – Légérement
Rondement- Vivement) 10’46
2. II Allemande 2’22
3. III Courante 1’43
4. IV Seconde Courante 1’44
5. V Sarabande 3’08
6. VI Bourée 1’13
7. VII Gigue 1’07
8. VIII Rondeau 2’21
9. IX Chaconne 5’27
10. X Menuet 0’55


11. I Sonade (Gravement – Vivement – Gravement – Vivement et marqué
Air. Gracieusement – Second Air – Gravement, et marqué – Légérement) 9’03
12. II Allemande 2’37
13. III Courante 1’32
14. IV Seconde Courante 2’09
15. V Sarabande 4’01
16. VI Rondeau 2’36
17. VII Gigue 1’50

Enregistrement réalisé en la salle des États de Lorraine du Château de Fléville à
Fléville-devant-Nancy (France) en mai 1983, sous la direction de Michel Bernard

Remasterisation SACD : Manuel Mohino (Arsaltis)

Réedition 2018 : © & ℗ Sonjade, S.L. / Alia Vox


Catàleg complet, Heritage


François Couperin the Great


Born in 1668, François Couperin was the only son of Charles Couperin, the harpsichordist and organist at the old Parisian Church of Saint-Gervais. There had been an organ at the church since the 14th century, and in the 16th century it had two. The organ at the church in 1668 (the fourth) had been built in 1601, and after several refurbishments and improvements, it was one of the finest instruments in the kingdom. François Couperin’s father had two brothers, François and the eldest, Louis, a brilliant musician, who very quickly earned a place as organist at Saint-Gervais, as well as several charges in the King’s Music. When he died in 1661, Charles succeeded him as organist at Saint-Gervais; he was married the following year and in 1668 his only child was born, the second François Couperin in the family, who would come to be known as Le Grand.


As Pierre Citron tells us in his fine portrait of François Couperin, “The child’s early years unfolded on the street Monceau Saint-Gervais, at the old house reserved for the organist; but it was at the adjoining church itself that he was to spend most of his time. From infancy, the sound of the organ resonating beneath the church vaults was an inseparable part of him. His father would place the child’s hands on the keyboard even before he could speak; from the outset, he took pride in knowing that the solemn harmonies to which the congregation bowed during the church services issued from his father’s hands. Sitting in the organ loft above the priest in front of the altar, higher than the preacher in his pulpit, hidden from view during the service, all the more venerable because of his mysterious presence, his father must have seemed to him almost divine. In fact, religion and music were inseparable for the child; devoting his whole life to music must have been his first act of faith. It was therefore logical that his life’s goal was to be the organist of Saint-Gervais, like his uncle and his father before him.”


Like Mozart, he was a child prodigy, but without public recognition of his earliest achievements, because Couperin was sheltered from society; he played the harpsichord at home and the organ at church, always away from the public gaze. As with many musicians of his day, there is no record of his studies. At that time, a musician was a highly skilled specialist from childhood –as in the case of Lully and Lalande: there was no need for a broad general education. But in terms of music, his progress at the age of eleven was so remarkable that he was named as his father’s successor and the post was held open for him by notarial deed, “on condition that he took instruction”. Lalande, who at the age of twenty-two, was already organist at Petit Saint-Antoine, Saint-Louis des Jésuites and Saint-Jean en Grève, was hired to fill the post on an interim basis until François came of age. In the following years, Couperin perfected his skill.


In 1683, Lalande, aged 26, took part in an open competition for the appointment of four maîtres de musique at the chapel royal. Thanks to the personal intervention of Louis XIV, he won a place. Two years later, the 15-year-old François officially took up the position of organist at Saint-Gervais. As Pierre Citron speculates, it is likely that “His mother, having taken out loans to pay for her son’s musical training, must have been relieved to see him finally earn his living.” However, the official title came six years later, this time with a salary of four hundred pounds; and he married Marie-Anne Ansault, with whom he had a daughter in 1690. That same year, he published his first work –two organ masses– marking the culmination of his training and the beginning of his career.


In 1690, probably inspired by the work of Corelli, who had already published three books of trio sonatas (church sonatas, 1681 and 1689, chamber sonatas, 1685), he composed his first pieces of chamber music, a very fashionable genre in Paris at that time: six sonatas: five trio sonatas, La Pucelle, La Steinkerque, La Visionnaire, L’Astrée et La Superbe, and and one quartet sonata, La Sultane, which 36 years later would give rise to the collection Les Nations, with its different “sonades”, as he liked to call them, thus emphasizing his wish to naturalise into French the source of his inspiration from the other side of the Alps. La Pucelle became La Françoise; La Visionnaire, L’Espagnole; and L’Astrée, La Piémontaise.


In fact, in Couperin’s preface to this collection (1726), transcribed in full in Philippe Beaussant’s commentary included in this booklet, he tells us how he initially placed himself under the auspices of Corelli by signing his Sonade with the pseudonym of Francesco Coperuni. By remaining anonymous, he was able to cock a snook at snobbery while successfully launching his career.


The young Michelangelo did something similar. Annoyed that some art lovers valued his talent less highly than that of the sculptors of Antiquity, he buried one of his statues after having chipped one of the feet, and, when the statue was “discovered”, fooled those who had refused to recognize the perfection of his art. (A comparable subterfuge occurred in 1894, when the young poet Pierre Louÿs published a collection of prose poems entitled Les Chansons de Bilitis as a translation of a work by an Ancient Greek poetess born at the beginning of the 6th century BC, engraved on the walls of her tomb at Palaeo-Limesso. He attributed the discovery of the tomb to a fictional German scholar, one G. Heim, and provided a full, scholarly bibliography, which fooled everybody for a time, until the hoax was finally revealed.)


Royal recognition came three years later: “Today, 26th December, 1693, the King being at Versailles, and having heard several organists, to decide who was the best qualified to discharge the duties of organist of the King’s Chapel, left vacant after the death of Jacques Thomelin, His Majesty has chosen François Couperin as the one most experienced in this regard, and to this effect has retained and retains him in the said capacity and post as one of the organists of his Chapel, to serve in this capacity during the January  quarter and to enjoy the said position, honours and prerogatives attaching thereto with a salary of 600 pounds, rights, benefits and revenues, etc.”


Louis XIV never allowed anybody to choose his musicians. He presided over the jury of all the selection competitions, which meant that he was the sole judge. As Philippe Beaussant recalls, “Throughout history, there have been plenty of music-loving kings and, indeed, of kings who were musicians. Frederick II played the flute several times a day, interrupting his Council of Ministers when he felt the urge to play a sonata, and holding his little concert every evening at five o’clock. His appetite for sonatas verged on bulimia, but it was a passion that affected nobody but himself. Louis XIV’s passion for music was almost as great. According to Mme de Motteville, he too, at least in his youth, would abandon the Council to strum his guitar in an adjoining room, or talk over the details of a ballet. However, his relationship to music was different, in that it immediately acquired a role in royal protocol. Since the State was Louis, everything that concerned his person was a matter of State; and his passion for music became part of Court Etiquette. In any case, there is ample evidence that Louis XIV was a true musician. He was quite an accomplished guitarist: Lully would not have risked putting the king in an embarrassing position alongside the virtuoso Corbetta in the Ballet de la Galanterie du Temps if he had been a mere amateur. He had a good ear and an outstanding musical memory. Philidor relates that when the score for the Ballet du Temps was being reconstructed, Louis XIV sang from memory the Air de Pan, of which the music had been lost… the only performance of the work had been fifty-seven years earlier.


A quick perusal of the diary of Dangeau, Louis XIV’s valet de chambre, shows that music was Louis XIV’s single constant love, which he pursued with abiding enthusiasm and skill from childhood to the day he died.


It is difficult to imagine exactly what Couperin’s life at Versailles must have been, at least during his early years of service. Not only was he a musician of the King’s Chapel, but he also taught the royal children harpsichord and took part in the Sunday concerts. When he joined the Chapel Royal, his music was totally influenced by the Italian repertoire performed under Abbé Mathieu: Carissimi, Stradella, Legrenzi and Cavalli, who composed more for voice and much more for the Church, than for instruments. Thus, the earliest work we know to have been written by Couperin for the Chapel Royal (the motet Laudate pueri dominum) reveals a clear effort to adapt to the music that he found there. But, as Beaussant observes, “this constraint soon disappeared. Couperin immediately found his own style and would cease to make any concessions. That is because he also encountered there a climate that was remarkably in tune with his own sensibility and his art. Providence had arranged matters very nicely.”


Couperin soon became a harpsichord teacher. To be appointed teacher to the Duke of Burgundy in 1694 he must already have made a name for himself; moreover, in 1692 he was listed in the Livre d’Adresses, a register of established teachers. However, it was not until 1713 that he published his First Book of Harpsichord Pieces. This was quite late, as he was already forty-five years old. It is here that we find Couperin at his most personal, more so than in his chamber music compositions such as Les Nations, thanks to a deep rapport between the musician and the instrument. It is precisely in the bass continuo that he plays the major role of providing a unified texture and creating just the right atmosphere for each movement, thanks to a free and creative use of the figured bass.


King Louis XIV died in 1715; his influence had led to some immobilism in France, but now everything – people and ideas – was about to change. The Regency and the years that followed it were a period of which Valéry wrote: “Europe at that time was the best of possible worlds in which authority and opportunity were reconciled; truth kept within certain bounds; matter and energy did not govern directly; as yet, they did not reign supreme. Knowledge was already magnificent enough, and the arts were very exquisite; religion still existed. There was sufficient fantasy and enough discipline […] People were well-mannered even in the streets. Pedlars knew how to turn a phrase. The public treasury made its demands gracefully… The days were not crowded and hurried, but slow and free; timetables did not haunt one’s thoughts and did not make people slaves of time and one another…There were a number of eager and sensitive men whose intelligence disturbed Europe and heedlessly harassed everything, both sacred and otherwise.”


After the Second Book of Harpsichord Pieces, he composed no new music until 1722. Was it due to his increasingly frail health? After the Third Book of Harpsichord Piece and the Concerts Royaux, written seven or eight years earlier, from 1714 to 1725, came Les Goûts Réunis and Les Apothéoses and finally, in 1726, Les Nations, which consisted partly of sonatas composed more than thirty years earlier and partly of recently composed suites. It was a fruitful period which culminated in 1728 with the Pièces de Viole, a sublime homage to the viola da gamba and probably also to the great Marin Marais. Up to the time of his death in 1733 his reputation never ceased to grow, especially abroad, where he was increasingly acclaimed: Bach recommended him to his pupils. And yet, just as there had been setbacks to his official career, the height of his fame – at a time when he had renounced all honours, was marred by some obscure malicious detractors. As Pierre Citron speculates, “Could it be that in the Apothéose de Lulli, the Rumeur souterraine causée par les contemporains de Lulli were in fact the criticism that Couperin’s own contemporaries levelled against him? The preface to Les Nations suggests that this was the case: there are always detractors, more to be feared than genuine critics, who often, contrary to their intention, give salutary advice. The former are contemptible, and I settle their account in advance, with interest.’ It must have been a great sadness for Couperin to see the triumph of those who had attacked him in this way when he was at the peak of his art but at the end of his life.


Death was all around him; in 1723, his protector the Duke of Aumont died; in 1726, Lalande; in 1728, Marin Marais, the king’s violist; in 1730, Philidor the Elder, with whom he had played the Concerts Royaux; and in 1732, his rival Marchand, one year his junior. It was time for his swan’s song; in 1728 he wrote the two suites for viol, which reached the peak of perfection in the Pompe funèbre. In 1733, Couperin obtained a 10-year extension of his royal privilege to publish, more for his family’s sake than for himself; he felt stale, past all worldly ambition.

At the time of his death, he had composed nothing for five or six years. He died at home on 12th September, 1733.


The final preface written by the sixty-two-year-old Couperin, the “poet-musician par excellence,” is tinged with bitterness against his family and against life: “I hope that my family will find in my portfolios something which may cause my passing to be lamented, if indeed lamentations serve any purpose when life is over; but we must at least think so if we are to try to deserve that chimera of immortality to which almost all men aspire.”


We find similar sentiments expressed by another illustrious contemporary: At the age of sixty-three, La Fontaine “the musician-poet par excellence”, also vented with irony his resentment towards his adversaries (the satirical Le Florentin and his ballads against the Jesuits) and expresses a similar disenchantment, due to loneliness and disappointments with his family, when he writes:

Now that my Muse, as well as my days,

Is nearing the inevitable course of her decline

And the flame of my reason is about to be extinguished,

Shall I waste what remains on complaining,

And, recklessly spending a time owed to Fate,

Squander it regretting the time I have lost?


If the poetry of La Fontaine is encapsulated in this line from the poem Adonis:

And grace more beautiful than beauty itself…

The art of Couperin can be summed up in his phrase:

I confess that I far prefer what moves me to what surprises me.


Pierre Citron concludes with the following beautiful words: “For La Fontaine, beauty is arresting and commands admiration, while grace secretly penetrates the soul to strike a chord there. It is the distinction Couperin makes between “being moved” and “being surprised”. These key phrases distil the art of the two men: La Fontaine could well have written Couperin’s sentence, and Couperin could just as easily have formulated La Fontaine’s.”


The art of Couperin leads us to discover the mystery which tales place between music and the musicians at the moment they play the piece. It is a fleeting, immediate relationship, more thrill than expression, more excitement than feeling. As Philippe Beaussant says, “It is no longer enough merely to convey the purity or clarity of a musical line, to trace the curve of a song, to develop its ornamentation; we must suggest the frisson of a moment in time, reveal the heartbeat, the imperceptible vibration which, born of music, no longer appears as a distortion, but, on the contrary, as its essential manifestation.”



Budapest / Bellaterra, June, 2018

Translated by Jacqueline Minett




Post scriptum. The project to perform the four “orders” comprising the sonades and the corresponding suites using period instruments was born in the early 1980s.  In those days, I taught viola da gamba and chamber music at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel and collaborated with various ensembles that were pioneers in the rediscovery of the early music heritage: Michel Piguet’s Ensemble Ricercare in  Zurich, Trevor Pinnock’s  English Concert in London, La Petite Bande with Gustav Leonhardt, and the nucleus of musician friends with whom I recorded, beginning in 1975, for the EMI Electrola and Astrée labels: Hopkinson Smith and Ton Koopman, soon joined by Monica Huggett and Chiara Banchini, two wonderful baroque violinists, and an exceptional team of wind instruments: Stephen Preston (transverse flute), Michel Henry and Ku Ebbinge (oboe), and Claude Wassmer (bassoon). It was thanks to this true “Réunion des Goûts” that we were able to put together the ideal team for our project. Then came the intense rehearsals, the concerts, and finally the recording in the Salle des États de Lorraine at the Château de Fléville-devant-Nancy, for Michel Bernstein’s Astrée label in May, 1983. That was the seed which, six years later, would give birth to the ensemble Le Concert des Nations during the preparation of the concerts and the recording of the programme devoted to Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Canticum Beate Virgine.