“One of the greatest keyboard pieces ever written”—Wilfrid Mellers

Rebecca Pechefsky and Couperin

Around 1973 my first lute teacher, Frank Eyler, lent me Wilfrid Mellers’s classic study on François Couperin, whose music was then entering my life. It was one of the first books of musicology I’d ever read (though I confess I read it selectively) and introduced me to exciting new ideas about culture and interpretation.

About the same time, I bought the Vox Box of Couperin harpsichord suites performed by Alan Curtis—six long-playing sides that I listened to again and again, returning most frequently to the Huitième Ordre, the eighth suite, in B minor (1717). As it happens, Mellers singled out the Huitième for special praise: it was, he wrote, “almost uniformly serious, even tragic ... a good case can be made out for the eighth as the greatest individual ordre.” About the famous Passacaille, Mellers became positively effusive: “the climax of the ordre—unquestionably the greatest single piece in Couperin’s clavecin music and one of the greatest keyboard pieces ever written—is the terrific Passacaille.” Clearly I was not the only person who considered this a remarkable suite.

So it was with great joy that my wife, Rebecca Pechefsky, and I embarked on our latest project back in January: a video of the entire suite, played on a French double-manual instrument built by Yves Beaupré in 2010 that we purchased, at least in part, with a view to recording this work. We were able to use the wonderfully resonant and limpid space of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Marine Park, Brooklyn, thanks to the gracious and generous music director there, Michael Fontana; the fruit of our labor is now on YouTube:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmfgmJ1Vv1Q 
 

or can be directly accessed by clicking on the attached video below.

Of the ten movements, most have the dance titles you find in the standard eighteenth-century suite, though some have more colorful titles, which are characteristic of the French baroque. The grand opening allemande, for example, is simply called La Raphaéle. Which Raphael, though? The angel? The painter Raphael, as Jane Clark has plausibly suggested? Someone else altogether? We may never know. Same with the following allemande, which has the subtitle L’Ausoniéne, suggesting an Italian influence (“Ausonia was an ancient poetic name for Italy,” as Clark observes); fast, clipped, and forceful, it has a totally different mood from the first allemande, one more obviously dancelike. Two courantes follow the two allemandes, leading to an extraordinary Sarabande that opens with a brooding, intensely expressive first section before moving into new territory as two sudden outbursts, both marked vivement (“quickly”), interrupt the prevailing gravement (“solemnly”) tempo marking. The piece is aptly subtitled L’Unique, and I know no other sarabande from the period like it. A tender Gavotte and an electrifying Rondeau follow. Next is an expansive Gigue, which sounds to me like a Gallic precursor to the Gigue in Bach’s French Overture (1735)—and, for all I know, served as partial inspiration for it. Then comes what some view as the main course, the mighty Passacaille (more rondeau than standard passacaille), followed by an exquisite after-dinner liqueur titled La Morinéte, a delicate gigue possibly honoring the composer Jean Baptiste Morin, as Jane Clark suggests.

I will point out that Rebecca is going to play the whole suite in Princeton, New Jersey, at Christ Congregation on Friday, April 6, at 7:30. And in the fall, on November 10, 2018—Couperin’s 350th birthday—she will play it again in Cambridge, England, as part of a celebration of the composer’s life and works. She will also return to the Capriccio Baroque series next season, so check back for particulars!

Books mentioned:

Jane Clark and Derek Connon, The Mirror of Human Life: Reflections of François Couperin’s Pièces de Clavecin (2002; rev. ed., London: Keyword Press, 2011)

Wilfrid Mellers, François Couperin and the French Classical Tradition (1950; rev. ed., London: Faber and Faber, 1987)

 

Videos
Rebecca Pechefsky performs F. Couperin's Huitième Ordre

F. Couperin: Huitième Ordre (Rebecca Pechefsky)

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