Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Couperin - Passacaille

The music of the Frenchman François Couperin was well-known and appreciated by many composers of his era, the most notable being J.S. Bach. He came from a very musical family and was called Couperin The Grand by his contemporaries to differentiate him from the rest of the family.  Couperin's influence spanned the centuries as Brahms and R. Strauss were also influenced by his music.

Couperin is best known for his works for solo harpsichord, published in Paris between 1713 -1730. There are over 200 pieces in four volumes, with pieces arranged similar to the Baroque dance suite, but Couperin called his sets of pieces ordres. The first and last pieces of these ordres were in the same key with the middle pieces in closely related keys. There are a total of 27 ordres in the four volumes of harpsichord pieces.

Couperin was a virtuoso keyboard performer and wrote a treatise called 'The Art Of Harpsichord Playing'  that remains a valuable source of information about performance practices of his time. Couperin delighted in giving some of his pieces descriptive titles that suited his music. He could be bold with his harmony for his time, and was fond of peppering his pieces with passing dissonances. Couperin was born in Paris and died there in 1733.

The Passacaille (French for passacaglia) was published in his second book of piano pieces, and was included with nine other pieces in the 8th ordre.  It is labeled a passaglia by the composer, the piece is also labeled rondeau in the music:


The first four bars of the piece are played and repeated. After these eight bars, there is an episode of different material, and the beginning eight bars return. The piece follows this pattern throughout. So is this piece really a passacaglia? In its simplest form, a  passacaglia  is a set of continuous variations played with a ground bass accompaniment throughout. This piece by Couperin is actually in a type of rondo form, as the variations are not accompanied by a ground bass, and Couperin says as much right before the music starts. But Couperin didn't use a musical form as a rigid form to pour their notes into, but as a tool to help express themselves, and they gave no thought to changing the form to fit the music. Perhaps the name is used because of the character of the piece, as passaglias are usually slow and serious. The repeating eight measures are certainly slow and serious. They return after each interlude (of varying moods themselves) with a plodding inevitability, as if there is no escaping whatever fate they represent .

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