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Baroque: Adès & Couperin

Walt Disney Concert Hall

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About This Performance

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About the Program
by Howard Posner

Thomas Adès has remarked, “My ideal day would be staying at home and playing the harpsichord works of Couperin – new inspiration on every page.” Adès is not the first to think so highly of Couperin’s music, and in particular the 230 solo pieces in the four published books of Pièces de clavecin. By the time the first book came out in 1713 Couperin, whose career included posts as organist at a large Paris church and royal harpsichordist and organist at Versailles, was already known as “Couperin the Great.” Even after nearly all the French music of his age was forgotten, the elegance, congenial intelligence, and sophisticated inspiration of Couperin’s music made him a musician’s musician. Brahms performed his keyboard works on the piano and helped edit the first complete edition of them. In the generation after Brahms, Richard Strauss based several orchestral works, including Divertimento, on them, while Couperin’s music was a loose inspiration for Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin.

Couperin’s music is also the basis for Adès 2006 Three Studies from Couperin, each of which is based on, and incorporates melodic material from, the Couperin harpsichord piece from which it takes its name. Couperin, like many French composers of solo keyboard or lute music, gave his pieces colorful and evocative titles that are often mysterious at a remove of three centuries, and indeed were baffling, or annoying, or both, to contemporaries not in the know. A German lutenist writing in 1727 complained that French composers’ naming of pieces “smacked of charlatanry and affectation, as though the composer wanted to entertain with the name more than the music.” “Tours de Passe-passe” means “sleight of hand” and “L’Âme-en-Peine” translates as something like “the soul in torment” or (as in the usual English rendition of the Flotow opera of the same name) “the unquiet spirit.”

The most mystifying, and most discussed, Couperin title is attached to Les baricades mystérieuses, his best-known harpsichord piece. There have been lots of educated guesses – none of them useful – about what “mysterious barricades” means. The piece is a chain of harmonically and contrapuntally sophisticated suspensions and resolutions masquerading as simple arpeggio patterns of the sort that a player might improvise. In his 1994 quintet version, Adès keeps to the original notes in the original key, but when all the notes are sustained (instead of decaying as soon as they are sounded, as they do on the harpsichord), the harmonic and rhythmic push and pull is both gentler and more apparent than in the original.

Like his Three Studies, Adès’ Sonata da Caccia, written for the BBC in 1993, blends the melodic strains of the French Baroque with modern musical language, and includes a bit of 18th-century style and attitude. Couperin put charts of ornament signs in his harpsichord books so that his contemporaries, used to embellishing the written notes according to their own fancy, would know precisely what the composer wanted. Adès also uses ornament signs and also includes a chart in his score. He even includes instructions on playing “notes inégales,” a French Baroque style in which the first note in a pair is played longer than the following note, even though the two notes are written in equal lengths. This sort of swing was such an ingrained part of French Baroque style that there is never a sign of it on the 18th-century page.

The title (literally “sonata of the hunt”) presumably refers to the presence of the horn, which would have been only slightly more likely than an electric guitar to appear in an 18th-century French chamber work. The horn was called “corno da caccia” in most of 18th-century Europe. Adès wrote that “The combination of oboe, horn, and harpsichord was devised by Debussy for the fourth of his instrumental sonatas, which death prevented him from composing. This piece could be imagined as an ‘homage’ to Debussy and Couperin, in the manner of the latter’s L’Apothéose de Corelli or L’Apothéose de Lully.”

Couperin’s “Apotheosis of Lully” was more than just an homage. It was also an artistic and political statement. By 1725, when it was published, Italian music had been a battlefront in French society for three generations. The Italian and French styles were drastically different in ways that are not so obvious to modern ears. Italians were louder, their playing and singing was more outgoing, and they prized virtuosity and extremes of expression. The more reserved French sought elegance and refinement. The French raised their eyebrows while Italians raised the roof. Italian music attracted French devotees not only because of its intensity, but because the French power structure disapproved of it. In a society as closed and repressed as the ancien régime, Italian music became a way of expressing dissatisfaction, if not dissent, and lining up with the counterculture. Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) in 1700s France was a bit like rock and roll in 1960s America.

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), the giant among the forces of French musical reaction whose influence was still strong half a century after his death, was himself a transplanted Italian who became a noted violinist, dancer, and composer in France. He led the forces of national purity in keeping the Italian menace out of French opera houses and chapels, bolstered by a convert’s zeal and Louis XIV’s favor, which gave him a near-dictatorial power over French opera that he used to promote his own artistic and financial interests.

Couperin, who was 18 when Lully died, never wrote an opera, and achieved his own measure of royal favor early in his career, had been relatively untouched by Lully’s stultifying musical jingoism and professional tyranny. But he was both appalled and amused at the provincialism of the French musical establishment, and frequently composed works in what he called les gouts réunis – the “united styles,” incorporating French and Italian elements.

In L’apothéose de Lully, Lully arrives at the Elysian Fields and plays a concert in the Lullian style with the “lyric shades.” In scenes that could have come from a Lully opera, the god Mercury arrives to herald the coming of Apollo, who thereupon descends, to some stately deus ex machina music, and honors Lully. Composers contemporary with Lully literally turn over in their graves at this, and then lament piteously over it. (It is evidently French composers – perhaps those who had felt Lully’s heavy boots barring them from the Paris Opera – doing the lamenting, since the violin parts are written in French clefs. French and Italians used different treble clefs and different ornament signs, and in L’apothéose Couperin uses French notation in the parts for Lully and the French muses, and Italian notation for Corelli and the Italian muses. He even indicates page turns with “tournés tres viste” in the “French” sections and “Volti Subito” in the “Italian” ones. He uses both “Lully” and “Lulli,” the original Italian spelling, in titling the individual pieces.) Lully is then elevated to Parnassus, the home of the greatest artists, only to find Corelli already there. Corelli and the Italian muses welcome Lully with a piece built on a typically Corellian walking bass. In the piece that follows, Lully thanks Apollo (but not Corelli).

Apollo persuades the composers that the French and Italian styles joined will lead to true perfection in music. They respond by launching into a French overture, then playing duets, each in his own style – Corelli’s typical running accompaniment figures, for example, and Lully’s French ornamentation. Then they switch parts. Finally, they reach the “Peace of Parnassus” with a compromise worthy of Solomon: Italian forms like the sonata and cantata should be adopted in France, but given French pronunciations.

Couperin died eight years after L’apothéose, and while the debate over French and Italian styles did not completely die away, French music was dominated by composers like Rameau, Leclair, and Mondonville, who had studied in Italy and believed in the gouts réunis that he advocated.

Tenebrae (Latin for “darkness” or “shadows”) services are part of Catholic Holy Week observances for the evenings of the three days before Easter. Because, according to the Gospels, these are the days Jesus lay in his tomb before being resurrected, the services have a funereal quality, with the church becoming progressively darker as candles are extinguished one by one as Tenebrae goes on. Its Biblical readings include the book of Lamentations (traditionally, if improbably, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah), meditations on the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem 2,600 years ago. The Hebrew text is an acrostic, each verse beginning the succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The effect is lost in Latin translation, but the Catholic liturgy nonetheless retained the initial Hebrew letters (“Yod,” “Caph,” “Lamed,” “Mem,” and “Nun” in the Troisième leçon de ténèbres) as part of the Latin text. Because these letters carry no meaning that has to be conveyed in music, composers were free to set them as they wished, and Couperin makes them the most elaborate and melodic part of his Third Lesson. The Lamentation texts themselves are set less fancifully; indeed, Couperin marks most of the actual text settings as “recitatives.” The concluding sentence “Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God” is not from Lamentations, or indeed anywhere else in Scripture, but is a traditional addition for Tenebrae.

Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.

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