Pieces De Violes Avec La Basse Chiffre par Mr. F.C.
Recorded at the church of Saint Lambert des Bois, Yvelines, France, in December 1975.
Francois Couperin [ dit "le Grand"] - Pieces de violes avec la basse chiffre par Mr F.C. 
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Pieces de Violes, 1728
Francois Couperin's last compositions are still wrapped in a light veil of mystery. They were identified less than half a century ago by the musicologist Charles Bouvet who was the first to unearth the only extant copy in the Paris Bibliotheque Nationale. It bears the title Pieces de Violes avec la basse chifree par M. F. C, and the author seems to have thought it unnecessary to sign his name in full. The publication date (1728) came only five years before Couperin's death; he was yet to have his fourth and last Book of Pieces de Clavecin published in 1730, most of which, one is entitled to think, were probably composed some time before, whereas the Pieces de Violes must have been composed shortly before publication.
The 1720's were by fat the richest decade in Couperin's cereer in terms of new publications. During this period he brought out not only his third Book of Pieces de Clavecin (1722) but nearly all his known instrumental chamber music: the Concerts Royaux(1722) and their natural sequel, Les Gouts-reunis (1724), the two Apotheoses (1724 and 1725) and shortly after the important collection of Les Nations (1726), the Pieces de Violes which are the object of this recording. When almost sixty, the composer stricken in health and more than bearing the weight of his years, seemed desirous to make a synthesis of his best output in order to bring out an authorized text worth being passed on to posterity. He had already been obliged, on account of his health, to give up his various offices one after the other, though he still retained their re-numeration as a sign of esteem in which he still was held. But after his death, in his sixty-fifth year, on September 12,1733, the composer, who had lately been somewhat neglected, rapidly fell into oblivion. Indeed, despite the epithet the Great appended to his name in order to distinguish him from the numerous musicians of his family, he never knew "shining glory"; his character, that of his music, the very circumstances and the time in which he lived were against it.
The man was unassuming and if not modest, at least, discreet. In his art, all outward grandiloquence, all artificial flashiness were repellent to him and he made it a point of honour to reach grandeur through moderation and restraint and to achieve profundity through simplicity and playfulness. His great lesson is that one can be both light and profound, witty and moving. Francois Couperin was a quiet musician who, under a smile or a witticism, hid the treasures of a delicate and wholly spontaneous tenderness, an unaffected and secretly-wounded soul. Like Debussy he had a taste for sad clowns, illusory masquerades, the subtle bitterness of ended feasts. Though capable, when he was so inclined, of the intensest intellectual concentration, the most masterful architecture (L'lmperiale) or again the highest spirituality (Lecons de Tenebres), he seldom left the confidential regions where the mind is merely the faithful servant of the reconciled heart and senses. This pure classical genius was concerned above all with expressing direct human experience and hardly any other musician was ever less speculative or cerebral than he was. With little gift for abstraction and a mediocre cultural background (from what we may know is also as divinely natural as Jean de la Fontaine), self-conscious and shy in society, he was essentially sensitive - keeping in mind that this term contains the word "sense". For the delicate sensuousness of his music also ensures a place of honour for him in the specifically French tradition of impressionist musicians initiated with Janequin. The famous, often quoted and often misunderstood declaration, "I must own in good faith that I prefer what moves me to what surprises me", implies a whole aesthetic approach: one that gives primacy to natural expression and which, far from excluding research, raises it to the exacting service of the just expression. A most wholesome aesthetic approach, whose lesson seems to us more salutary than ever in that it will always refuse to subordinate the end to the means. Because of all this, Frangois Couperin's glory will undoubtedly remain delicate rather than resplendent, as was already the case in his lifetime. Avoiding the Lyrical Theatre and sacred music of the pompous sort, he stayed aloof from vocal and orchestral masses as his deeper affinities drew him towards the more intimate atmosphere of clavier and chamber music. Besides he had the misfortune to have been born at an inopportune moment: the years of his youthful creative drive coincided with the sullen austerity of the Sun King's old age. Under the Regency on the other hand, some younger musicians, more brilliant and artful than he was, eclipsed the creator now come to the full mastery of his art, but sick and aged. To this deeply disenchanted melancholy, the Pieces de Violes, more than any other compositions, bear a very moving testimony. When paying magnificent homage to Lully and Corelli through his two Apotheoses, Couperin designated the two poles of his aesthetic. A French musician and proud to be one, he nevertheless always refused to be confined by the uncompromising gallicism advocated by the Superintendent Lully. As early as the last decade of the XVIIth century, he introduced into France the Italian style of chamber music. The Italian manner vies with the French in all of Couperin's instrumental production and it can be found in the italianate Sonades (a word coined by the composer himself) in contrast to the French Concerts which were the more akin to the dance suite. In the Lully Apotheose, Les Nations and Les Gouts-reunis, he delighted in achieving the harmonious synthesis of the two manners or, as he said himself, "the reunion of tastes which must bring music to perfection".
When composing his Pieces de Violes, the ageing master was not approaching for the first time an instrument through which his countrymen had won especial renown. His numerous Concerts often welcome the viol and two of them, the twelfth and thirteenth, (Les Gouts-reunis), are specifically devised for two viols, with the possibility for the second viol part to be filled out, according as one pleases, with a figured bass realised by a harpsichord. The latter formula employed in the 1728 collection. Moreover, some pieces for harpsichord score an optional part for the viola da gamba (or the bass viol as it was called at the time) named contrepartie or middle part.
In the ancient and illustrious family of viols, the Bass Viol is conspicious by its singular fate. Whereas in the XVIIth century the other viols by the modern string instruments, from violin to double bass, the bass viol alone survived as a solo instrument, particularly in France. More husky and more discreet, but also warmer-toned were gradually supplanteand more intimate than its modern rival the cello, the bass viol was better suited to polyphonic play because of the less convex shape of its bridge and its greater number of strings, six, even seven on the French instruments from 1675 onwards - an innovation owed to one of the great viol virtuosi Sainte Colombe, who was the teacher of Marin Marais. After Sainte Colombe, four names stand out in the art of Bass Viol in France: those of Marin Marais, Louis Caix d'Hervelois, Antoine Forqueray and eventually Frangois Couperin, the only one who was not himself a virtuoso performer on the instrument. Notwithstanding this and despite the merits of its rivals, particularly Marais, whose collections abound in admirable pages, he wins a place at the summit of the literature for the viol with the pieces gathered in this recording. Isn't the concentration of their inspiration equal to that of a Johann-Sebastian Bach?
Marin Marais died at the age of seventy-two in 1728, three years after the publication of his fifth and last collection of Pieces de Violes. This circumstance, together with the fact that Couperin's collection, also published in the same year 1728, contains a moving Pompe funebre (Funeral Homage) somewhat reminiscent of Marais's style, has led certain musicologists to see in Couperin's whole book an homage to the memory of his illustrious rival and senior. A matter of one or two years makes this hypothesis rather unlikely. For Couperin must have spent at least a couple of years meditating over his collection, probably in view of a friendly "battle" on the only field where Marais could vie with him for supremacy. Although the funeral purpose may have been foreseen, these compositions are nonetheless of a grave, melancholy cast which stirs one deeply. Couperin's Pieces de Violes are composed of two Suites or Ordres. The first one, in e minor, is divided into seven pieces, the second, in A major, only into four. The work is scored for two viols, of which the second is provided with a figured bass. The first Suite presents the four traditional dances of the earlier suite laid out by Froberger, but preceded by a prelude and followed by an ample passacaille in addition to the gavotte, a ga-lanterie traditionally inserted between sarabande and gigue. On the other hand, the second Suite contains no choreographic pieces and the sequence of its four movements(slow-fast-slow-fast) with a fugal second movement, is clearly evocative of the Italian church sonata. It would seem that in this last chamber music collection Couperin meant once again to achieve a "marriage of tastes" by the juxtaposition of a Suite or Concert and a Sonade... The Suite in e minor is almost entirely pervaded by a dark elegiac mood which settles in right from the beginning in a Prelude of ample, majestic gait; its broad, soaring, elegiac movement is spangled with admirable retardations, highly expressive double stops, and sudden descending slides that are typically violistic effects. The Allemande legere (light Allemande) justifies its title, less by its climate which still remains grave and austere, than by its lively gait and the lightness and suppleness of its polyphony. The Courante in the French style subtly mingles the 3/2 and 6/4 metres while retaining the same spirit devoid of any wordly smugness, which shortly after will be magnified in the ample, serenity-aspiring and melancholy Sarabande grave (grave saraband). Nobility and distinction characterise the moderately paced Gavotte and Gigue, animated here and there by passages in semiquavers. The major mode asserts itself late in the very melodious Passacaille ou Chaconne which rounds off the whole. The atmosphere brightens up only to yield for the last time fleetin-gly to the minor shadows and chromaticisms of the middle part, but the whole end livens up with semiquavers, trills and buoyant arpeggios.
The Suits in A major, despite its brevity, surpasses its companion. The serene and nobly lyrical meditation of the Prelude opens with canonic entries and pours forth its melodic wealth in a profusion of ornaments tending to blur the metrical pulsation of the discourse which is fairly close to a moderately-paced allemande. The lively Fugueteon the contrary with its clotted rhythms, adopts the ternary gait of a courante. But the climax of the work-and indeed of the whole collection-is without any doubt the stately procession, in black mourning crepe, of the Pompe funebre tinted, despite the major modes, with ineffable melancholy. Shall we see in it, in anticipation, a self-wrought "Tombeau for Couperin"? Two centuries beforehand, this splendid page prefigures the funeral Andante of Faure's second Cello Sonata. The Suite is closed by the enigmatic Chemise blanche (The White Shirt), "a gay phantom following the solemn funeral" (Pierre Citron), whose uninterrupted flow of semiquavers and arpeggios climbs victoriously towards the treble of the instrument without ever disclosing the mysterious meaning of the title. Thus to take his leave on a note of secret irony and a pirouette, isn't it very much like Frangois Couperin, the ancestor and soul-mate of Debussy's Monsieur Croche?...
- Harry Halbreich