<< -- 2 -- Rex Harley MUSICAL RICHES
Even metre and tempo, he suggests, are felt in this way, and conveyed to the performer by instructions such as tendrement and vivement. Further, each key conveyed implicitly a certain mood or state of mind. Charpentier had earlier itemised them meticulously. E minor is grave et dévot; G minor sévère et magnifique; A major joyeux et champêtre; C minor obscur et triste, etc. For Couperin too, though not always in identical terms, key connotes mood.
The most exquisite manipulation of mood, however, operates through the device which reached its apogee in the music of the French Baroque: ornamentation. In vocal works, it produces moments of almost unbearable poignancy and, for Couperin, nothing was left to chance, or to the improvisational skills of his soloists. We have it on record!
'I am always surprised to hear people who have learned my pieces without truly submitting themselves to my instructions. It is an unpardonable negligence to place the ornaments arbitrarily how they wish. I declare that my pieces must be performed in the way I have marked, and that they will never make a true impression on people of real taste if one does not observe to the letter all that I have indicated, neither more nor less.'
He is no less precise about which fingers a keyboard player should use:
'The manner of fingering contributes much to good playing ... It is clear that a certain melody or a certain passage, if played in a certain way, produces a different effect to the ear of a person of good taste -- (la personne de goût).'
As one commentator has observed, with wry understatement: 'Couperin does not make it easy for the performer'!
Good taste, fastidiousness, the delicate balance of form and emotional content -- such concerns may strike the modern ear as quaint, yet these are precisely the concerns of the greatest poets also. And that is, in effect, what François Couperin is: a poet who speaks through the idiom of music.
Copyright © 25 January 2004
Rex Harley, Cardiff UK