Les Talens Lyriques
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Trois Lemons de tenebres Motets - Magnificat (Francois Couperin)
Francois Couperin was born in 1668 in Paris, where he lived and worked for most of his life, and where he became one of the central musical personalities both within court circles and outside. He was the most talented of an illustrious French musical dynasty whose sphere of activity embraced above all the church. His uncle, Louis Couperin, had been organist of St Gervais in Paris and his father, Charles, had held the same post since 1661. When Charles Couperin died in 1679 the young Francois was only ten years old, but the church authorities of St Gervais decided that on his eighteenth birthday he should inherit his father's post. During the interim, the duties of organist were carried out by Michel-Richard de Lalande; since Lalande was appointed one of four sous-maitres of the royal chapel in 1683, it is likely that Couperin shouldered at least some of the responsibilities for the provision of music at St Gervais well before he was eighteen years old. In 1693 he was appointed one of four organistes du roi at Versailles and in 1717 officially replaced D'Anglebert as ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du roi pour le clavecin, holding both posts until 1730.
Couperin's lifelong fascination with the blending of French and Italian styles is reflected not only in his instrumental chamber music, in some of whose titles there is a declared or at least implied "rapprochement", but also in much of his sacred vocal music. Italian church music was popular in Paris, and at Versailles the Italian style was considered by the king "a la mode". Most of Couperin's surviving vocal music is written for solo voices with continuo; the larger, elaborate form of the grand motet, developed by Lully, Dumont and Lalande seems not to have attracted him - or if it did, none has survived. Couperin, by contrast, preferred small-scale vocal forms of the kind favoured by Carissimi and which were being given wider currency in Paris by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who had studied in Rome and who may very well have been one of Carissimi's pupils. Scored for one, two or three voices and continuo, they have a strong Italianate bias; there are, nonetheless, modulations of a distinctly French character, and melodic ideas which reveal Couperin to have been fluent in a vernacular idiom which he applied most sensitively with the purpose of enlivening and colouring the literary text.
Very little of Couperin's church music was printed during his lifetime and it is probable that some has been lost. Most of what has survived is contained in two manuscripts copied, probably by the same hand, during Couperin's lifetime, and now preserved at Versailles. The Motet pour le jour de Paques, the Motet de saint Barthelemy and the Magnificat all written for two sopranos with basso continuo, are contained in those sources. Petits motets such as these, along with the grand motet, provided the principal musical element of the Low Mass services in the chapel at Versailles where Louis the Fourteenth's court transferred in 1682. Singers and instrumentalists were provided by the . permanent musicians of the royal chapel.
The motet Victoria! Christo resurgenti, as its French subtitle indicates, was written for Easter Day, and begins with fervent passages of vocal virtuosity whose florid inspiration is Italian born. More than in most of his motets Couperin perhaps wears his heart on his sleeve in the expressive brilliance of this piece; but, though some writers have found the effect superficial, Couperin underlines the joyful message of the Easter Festival with sensitivity and ornamental charm. Laetentur coeli et exultet terra was written for the Feast of St Bartholomew (24 August), one of the twelve Apostles. He was flayed alive, but the text provides reaction to rather than commentary upon the martyrdom, and Couperin colours it both delicately and compassionately. In the opening and closing sections the two voices celebrate Bartholomew's faith while a longer middle section ("Quidquid angit") full of poignant suspensions, calling to mind the Italian expressive means of Carissimi and Charpentier, reflects on the agony of the martyrdom.
The Magnificat like the Motet pour le jour de Paques, displays an immediate brilliance, yet throughout the setting effectively illuminates the liturgical Latin text. The piece is essentially tripartite in its use of key, the "Fecit potentiam" introducing the centrally placed major-key section. The opening is lyrical and dance-like, engaging the listener with an expressive intimacy and a rhythmic variety that pervade the entire work, and lend it a distinctive and enduring appeal.
While most of Couperin's petits motets probably date from the 1690s, his Trois Lecons de tenebres belong to a somewhat later period. They were printed between 1713 and 1717 and were among the very few sacred works to be published during his lifetime. During the grand siecle Tenebrae were sung on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings of Holy Week at services during which the candles were gradually extinguished. The words are drawn from the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet, but are interspersed with affective, ornamental melismatic phrases, inspired by letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which occur at the beginning of each section of the text. One of the first composers to give a distinctive French flavour to the form, which had been modelled on the Italian Lamentazioni, was Lully's father-in-law, Michel Lambert. In his nine Tenebrae lessons (c.1660) Lambert achieved a subtle blend of Italian monody and the form at which he was an acknowledged master, the French court air (air de cour). The synthesis was soon to find favour with Charpentier, Lalande, Couperin and others.
Although only three Lecons by Couperin have survived it is evident that he had composed more. In the preface to the surviving set he referred to the imminent issue of others and, in the preface to his second book of harpsichord pieces (1716-17) he makes further reference to nine Lecons. Couperin's three extant Lecons were designed for the Wednesday in Holy Week and, like those of the lost Good Friday set, may have been intended for the nuns of the abbey of Longchamp, outside Paris. For this recording, Christophe Rousset chose the ambience of the Abbey of St Antoine, Isere, with its Scherrer/Aubertin organ. Some of the most celebrated singers of the day could be heard at Tenebrae services, but a contemporary account by Lecerf de la Vieville suggests that performances at convents matched neither the solemnity of text and music, nor of the occasion: "Singers, who are placed behind a curtain that they draw apart from time to time to smile at friends among the listeners, are praised for singing a Lesson on Good Friday or a solo motet for Easter. One goes to hear them at an appointed convent: in their honour, the price paid at the door of the Opera is charged for a seat in church."
Couperin's first and second Lecons are written for a solo soprano, while the third is scored for two sopranos, allowing Couperin to extend himself, polyphonically, and to achieve an even greater degree of expressive fervour. Though notated in the soprano clef, the composer, in his preface, commends the music to singers with other vocal ranges, as well, "particularly since most persons who play accompaniments today know how to transpose".
Throughout the three settings Couperin demonstrates an acute sensibility in the art of vocal declamation as well as an imaginative feeling for word-painting. The brooding lament for the destruction of Jerusalem, "Plorans ploravit in nocte" in the first Lecon has sustained expressive poignancy, while the melodic contours with their sombre and portentous sevenths, through which Couperin so nobly depicts Jerusalem's dishonour in the second Lecon, "quoniam viderunt ignominiam ejus", are profoundly affecting. Among the many glorious virtues of the third Lecon are the enhanced expressive fervour which Couperin achieves by means of scintillating vocal counterpoint, and the fluent technique by which he engages ornament as an organic part of the melody. The music is rich in dissonance and chromaticism and, as in the two other remaining Lecons, Couperin conserves some of his most expressive writing for the concluding section, "Jerusalem, convertere".
- Nicholas Anderson