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Francois Couperin

Updated on December 23, 2010

1668-1733

Francois Couperin was a French composer, harpsichordist, and organist, known as Francois le Grand, who was the supreme master of the French school of harpsichord composition. He is most famous for his 27 ordres (suites) for harpsichord, which have influenced such composers as Debussy and Ravel.

Couperin was born in Paris on November 10, 1668, and was educated by his uncle Frangois and the organist Jacques Thomelin. He succeeded his father as organist of the Church of St. Gervais, taking up the duties in 1685. Two organ masses and some trio sonatas (his earliest surviving works) earned him an appointment as an organist of the royal chapel in 1693.

Couperin received the title of chevalier de I'ordre de Latran in 1702. In 1713 he was granted the right to publish his own music and brought out the first of the four volumes of Pieces de clavecin (1713-1730) that contain his famous ordres. In 1716 he published L'art de toucher le clavecin, a treatise on harpsichord playing that influenced J. S. Bach. He was made ordinaire de la musique in 1717, and in 1730 he became director of court music. In his last years Couperin continued to publish, but he suffered from poor health and died in Paris on September 12, 1733.

Couperin was preeminently a composer of harpsichord music, but he also wrote beautiful and important church music and chamber pieces. In his best-known pieces he envelops exquisitely tender or playful melodies in lacy texture and delicate ornamentation. Other works, above all the great allemande (La Raphaele) that opens and the passacaille that closes the 8th ordre, are powerful and profound.

His ordres, unlike Bach's suites, are program music rather than dances. These sets of genre pictures and character or mood studies include the "war" sequence (10th ordre) and the five burlesque "acts" (llth ordre) that celebrate the legal victory in 1695 of the Paris organists over the 300-year-old Guild of Minstrels. Couperin's chamber music includes his Concerts royaux (1714-1715) and his Apotheoses de Lully (1725). His best church music is in his Lecons des tenebres (1714-1715).

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