François Couperin (1668-1733) wrote a large number of keyboard pieces (pièces de clavecin) and in doing so ensured the popularity of the "genre piece" in France. Such pieces were intended as descriptive, portrait-like numbers. So a piece like the rondeux Les Amusemens ('Amusements') paints a sound-portrait of people amusing themselves, with more than a suggestion of wistfulness at the transitory nature of human pleasures. Les Tours de Passe-passe ('Sleights of Hand') is intended to convey the idea of a conjuring trick by artfully passing ideas between the hands, after lulling you into thinking that the left-hand is doing nothing particularly interesting. L'âme-en peine ('The Soul in Pain') uses dissonances and drawn-out rhythms to suggest the aching of the tormented soul. The style here is typical of what French music was like at that time, with melodic coherence attaining ever greater importance yet still retaining all those myriad small ornaments which give the French Baroque its distinctive character.
These three pieces were arranged for chamber orchestra a few years ago by Britain's very own Thomas Adès (b. 1971). His Three Studies from Couperin are more arrangements than actual studies but they are full of the composer's own beguiling ear for orchestral colour and his ability to add little extra touches here and there which add an extra-specialness to the music. Tom's take on Les Amusemens is to bring out its veil of wistfulness with muted strings and brass. Those 'sleights of hand' in Les Tours de passe-passe are re-imagined as ideas being passed cunningly between various instruments. L’Âme-en-peine enhances the ache of its dissonances of the soul by slightly smearing them. The composer appears to love these Couperin pieces and the warmth of his orchestrations seems to be winning a lot of affection from audiences in return.
Thomas Adès's orchestrations of Couperin, despite their 'of-our-timeness', still retain much of the essence of Couperin's originals. Richard Strauss's lush Divertimento Op.68, by way of contrast, keeps the notes of Couperin's originals but floods them with a late-Romantic opulence which, despite the presence of a harpsichord, is a world away from the Baroque and from neo-Classicism, not to mention several galaxies away from the requirements of 'authentic performance' practice. None of which stops it from being a pleasure to hear, albeit not one of its composer's best pieces. For an immediate point of comparison, please try Strauss's ear-tickling, confectionery take on our friend Le Tours de Passe-passe, one of the work's most engaging movements. There are eight movements in all, which I'll list below and add links to the originals wherever I can:
5. La Trophée, L`Anguille, Les jeunes Seigneurs, La Linotte effarouchée
8. Les Brimborions, La Badine
What of that most famous of all tributes to Couperin, Maurice Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin? Well, for starters, it's not a tribute to Couperin specifically, being more of a general tribute to the spirit of French Baroque keyboard music, written to commemorate his friends who had been killed during the First World War. The original piano version takes the form of a Baroque keyboard suite - Prelude, Fugue, Forlane, Rigaudon, Menuet and Toccata.
The Fugue and Toccata may not be familiar to you if you only know the familiar orchestral version of the piece. The former is not as bad a piece as some critics might have you believe, though it's not up to the very high standards of the four famous movements - or the fine Toccata. If you do fancy hearing orchestrations of these too, please take a listen then to the more-complete-than-complete performance of Le Tombeau de Couperin from Zoltán Kocsis, who orchestrated both movements to fit in seamlessly with the original Ravel orchestrations. Mr. Kocsis scores the Fugue for winds only, and the Toccata for a larger-than-Ravel orchestra.
There are so many lovely things in the familiar orchestral version of Le Tombeau de Couperin - the ending of the Prelude with its trills across all the notes of a tonic triad as crossed by a swooshing glissando from the harp; the Forlane's grace, bitter-sweet dissonances and enchanting woodwind solos; the Minuet's gorgeous woodwind-led melody and bagpipe-style trio; and the Rigaudon's brilliance (including some striking trumpet writing) and coquettish flute-led central passage.
Always a favourite piece, Le Tombeau de Couperin.