The seventeenth century is mainly characterized by the lasting influence of the lute, which was, until the 1660s, the king of instruments. This influence is found both in the type of pieces (loosely arranged dance suites, often preceded by unmeasured preludes, and including allemandes, courantes, sarabandes and gigues), as well as in the style and ornementation. D'Anglebert includes several pieces by well-known lutenists, and Chambonnières pays homage to the famous lutenist Blancrocher in a tombeau.
By the time Couperin comes on the scene in the early 18th century, the harpsichord has matured into its own style of short, evocative character pieces, which owe less and less to the dance archetypes. And, while the works of the Grand Siècle are full or grandeur and solemn grace, the century of Louis XV is more inclined to elegance and lightness. In this, the music reflects the other arts, and one can think of the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon as perfect expressions of this contrast. Couperin has also expressed in two pieces of his 24th order, les Grands Seigneurs (appropriately, a sarabande) and les Jeunes Seigneurs. Nevertheless, the whole repertoire strikes me as imbued from beginning to end with a tendancy toward introspection and melancholy which makes gives it a unity and a beauty second to none.
Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (ca. 1597-1672) was the founder of the French harpsichord school. He was son and grandson of organists, and himself played the organ, but his fame came from his talents in writing as well as playing the harpsichord. In fact, he was the first one to succesfully perform as a soloist in recitals on this instrument. He was the first to hold the position of Harpsichordist of the King. He married the heiress to the land of Chambonnières, in the Brie region. He published two books of pieces in 1670, and a number of other pieces are in various manuscripts. He was also the teacher of the three Couperin brothers (Louis, François the elder and Charles), d'Anglebert, Lebègue, and the organists Cambert, Hardel and Nivers.
One day, while Chambonnières was entertaining guests at his country seat, three brothers from the nearby town of Chaume came to serenade him on their violins, standing at the door of the room where the party was. The diners were charmed by the music, and the host asked the musicians to come in and join them at the table. He asked if the music was their own, and they pointed to one of them, Louis Couperin (1626-1661), as the author. Chambonnières told him that he ought not to stay in the country, and that he must absolutely come with him to Paris, and thus started Louis Couperin's career. He eventually secured the position of organist at Saint-Gervais, which was to remain in his family until the 19th century. His harpsichord works were not published in his lifetime, Davitt Moroney produced a modern edition, used in the complete sets by him and Verlet.
The other two composers who represent the French 17th century are d'Anglebert and Lebègue. Nicolas Lebègue (1631-1702) seems better recorded as an organist. Jean Henri d'Anglebert (1635-91) succeeded Chambonnières as Harpsichordist of the King when the latter was fired for refusing to play basso continuo for Lully. He published his works in 1689. Scott Ross recorded all of it, along with organ fugues. Kenneth Gilbert recorded various excerpts of Lully's operas transcribed for harpsichord by d'Anglebert.
So little is known about Gaspard Le Roux that some have conjectured that it might be a pseudonym. He is thought of as the link between d'Anglebert and Couperin (his published work use d'Anglebert's table of ornaments), and combines the severity and grandeur of the Grand Siècle with the grace of the upcoming Régence. Rousset's recent recording is absolutely superb, on a beautiful 1751 Hemsch, perfectly recorded.
Another figure which has received increasing attention for her other works is Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1666-1729), who published her second book in 1707 (her first book of 1687 is lost).
Louis Marchand (1669-1732) was by far the best organist of his time, and was a much-demanded harpsichord teacher. Only his unruly behavior kept him from social and financial success. He succeeded Nivers as organist of the Royal Chapel but had to relinquish his post and spent time in various German courts. He declined a position in Dresden because of the intimidating presence of Bach, and returned to Paris to become organist at the Cordeliers, where his concerts attracted crowds (even when he played with one hand after having injured an arm). His harpsichord output consists in two small books (suites, really) published in 1699. Verlet's recording is complete, and is said to be superb, but amounts to less than 40mn of recorded music, whereas Grémy-Chauliac includes the complete output of Clérambault (1676-1749), better known for his cantatas, who published a book of harpsichord music in 1704 (but the miking is terribly close to the instrument).
The highest point is reached with François Couperin "le Grand" and Jean-Philippe Rameau (1684-1764).
François Couperin (1668-1733) was the son of Charles Couperin (1639-79), younger brother of Louis. He succeeded d'Anglebert as harpsichordist of the King, became organist of the Royal Chapel, and taught the harpsichord to Louis XIV's grandson. His younger daughter Marguerite-Antoinette was an accomplished performer; she succeeded her father as harpsichordist of the King and taught the instrument to Louis XV's daughters.
Couperin's music is arranged in 27 "Ordres", distributed through 4 books (published in 1713, 1717, 1722 and 1730). Some of his orchestral or chamber works, namely the Apothéoses of Corelli and Lully, the four Concerts Royaux and pieces from the Concerts des Nations, are also performed on one or two harpsichords. A total of 12 hours of music or so, it contains a microcosm of fantasy and characters. It is impossible not to think of his contemporary Watteau, whose impressionistic paintings show quiet revellers and strange comedia dell'arte figures drifting amidst vast gardens bathed in a subdued, melancholy light. Most pieces bear names suggesting moods, emotions, or traits of character, while some are programmatic, and some are simply mysterious. The whole forms a subtle and magical world.
There are several complete recordings of Couperin's output. I have not personally sampled all of them, but I can vouch for the brilliance and exquisite sound of Rousset's cycle. Beaumont's recording of book 4 is also excellent.
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) published a book in 1706, the Suites in 1724, the Nouvelles Suites in 1728, and five pieces as part of his chamber pieces of 1741. Rameau's pieces are more rare, and often more dramatic then Couperin ever is; they also show more audacity and inventiveness. To me, this is really the summum of the French harpsichord. Naturally, Rameau has attracted the greatest performers of our time.
Antoine Forqueray (1672-1745) was one of the best gambists of his time and the rival of Marin Marais. His viol pieces were published after his death by his son Jean-Baptiste Forqueray (1699-1782), who, perhaps realizing that the viol was in its death-throes, decided to transcribe the pieces for harpsichord to expand their audience (1747). The result is rather intriguing, unlike the other pieces of the time, and it takes a robust interpretation, such as that of Le Gaillard, to do these pieces justice. Leonhardt maintains a controlled energy, but Ton Koopman lets go completely.
It is quite clear that French harpsichord music reached its apex with Couperin and Rameau. Their followers, however, are not without interest. Much of the music fails to reach the exquisite feeling and melancholy depth of the Great Masters, but the Little Masters show the beauty of Rococo music at its finest. the pieces cease to be structured in dance suites, and the character pieces are more and more replaced by "dedicated" pieces (that is, pieces bearing the name of a friend or, more likely, a wealthy patron). These composers primarily aim to please, and they succeed.
Jean-François Dandrieu (1682-1738) follows closely in the footsteps of Couperin. As with all harpsichordists, he was primarily an organist. He left three books of harpsichord pieces, which have not been recorded in full.
Louis-Claude Daquin (1694-1772) belonged to a well-established family of scholars and medical doctors, descended from a 16th century Italian talmudist from Aquino, who converted and settled in Avignon. He was an extremely succesful organist: he beat Rameau in the competition for the position at the church of Saint-Paul in Paris, and later accumulated up to five positions, including Notre-Dame and the Royal Chapel.
Claude-Bénigne Balbastre (1727-99) was again a very well-known organist. He cumulated the organs of Notre-Dame and the Royal Chapel, and taught harpsichord playing to Marie-Antoinette and the duc de Chartres, future Philippe-Égalité. His performances at Mass in the church of Saint-Roch included gigues, hunting calls and other worldly intrusions which delighted or shocked the audience. He was also very interested in instrument-building, experimented with harpsichords, piano-fortes, and a combined piano/organ. At the end of his life, he adapted to the circumstances, and managed to save the organ of Notre-Dame by demonstrating its usefulness under the new order, by playing variations on Revolutionary marching songs.
Interestingly, Balbastre has attracted famous names in the 1970s: Gustav Leonhardt, Blandine Verlet, and a young William Christie all recorded selections on LPs. Anne Robert's complete recording of the 1st and only book of 1759 is excellent, and shows how Balbastre combined virtuosity, character and charm in a way which puts him above any dismissive labels. Ivète Piveteau presents a selection which includes later pieces on transitional harpsichords and piano-forte, including the Revolutionary pieces.
Jacques Duphly (1715-89) was perhaps the last great proponent of the harpsichord. He stuck to the instrument in contrast to Balbastre. Le Gaillard's complete recording is superb. Selections have been recorded by Mitzi Meyerson (Gaudeamus 108) and Gustav Leonhardt (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77924, with pieces by Le Roux, Rameau, Royer).
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