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François Couperin & Bach

Bach and Couperin

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 12, 2004):
I wrote:
<< Personally, I believe it's more likely that Bach and Couperin did some exchanges of technical shop talk (in their letters that ended up as jam-pot lids), more than Bach and Handel doing so. But that's drifting off topic.<<
A critic slammed it: < It certainly is and it is also a wild speculation which you personally wish to hold onto. >
I respond:

Wild? No. The evidence is pretty decent, in fact. (And, serious musicology IS about evidence, of course!)

- Someone in the Bach family copied a published piece of Couperin's into the Anna Magdalena book (i.e. the family knew that music), with a different notational style. Any performance-practice implications here are very important for harpsichord students, as to understanding Bach's keyboard notation elsewhere as to "overheld" notes in textures that look like a single line. [And this would a terrific point on which Bach and Couperin could correspond, on issues of notation and performance...along with general issues of harpsichord pedagogy, as both men wrote books about harpsichord pedagogy.]

- The French features and techniques in Bach's harpsichord music make it obvious that he knew French harpsichord style very well; he wasn't just a dabbler at it. Similarly, Bach's music responds well to the playing techniques taught in Couperin's treatise. (And why would Bach not be interested in the official harpsichord method coming from the court of France, to better himself in musical understanding of style?)

- It's documented that the two men did exchange letters that ended up as jam-pot lids. It's not known what the contents of those letters were.

- Less than ten years after Bach wrote down his explicit keyboard temperament, Couperin wrote (and published) pieces whose use of enharmonic equivalences in tuning go far beyond anything Couperin had published before. Indeed, these pieces of his work OK only in Bach's tuning or one other one that is close to it--but that other one is explicitly an organ tuning, and Couperin's are harpsichord pieces. Couperin's previous music worked well in the typically French type of modified meantone, but these late pieces of his don't. Either Couperin got convinced by the Rameauists to go swinging off toward equal temperament (where issues of enharmonics become moot), or he got hold of Bach's method (which wouldn't have been difficult, especially as they corresponded), or some of both. Under whatever influence(s), Couperin's music changed during that decade as to becoming much more harmonically daring; and he labelled one of those pieces "The Visionary". Some 20th century experts have written that these pieces by Couperin require equal temperament; but it just isn't so, as the following of Bach's instructions reveals.

Therefore, I conclude tentatively, it's plausible that Bach and Couperin corresponded about matters of harpsichord pedagogy, including tuning. Two top professionals of that field (harpsichord playing), exchanging ideas as colleagues.

=====

N.B. The critic in trying to knock down my point presented no evidence (musical, historical, or otherwise) for calling my assertion a "wild speculation". I take this as merely a personal attack by him, upon me, trying to tell me what I "personally wish" (as if!), and trying to smear my professional reputation in this field of understanding the harpsichord.

In that same message: http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/11160
he also chided me:
>>Here we go again. Was there any good reason to launch into this type of facetiousness when the subject matter here is rather serious? This type of attitude should be set aside in discussing Bach and his music.<<
I thought we were all here to discuss Bach's music, in ways that take expert work seriously. Alas, the attacks against expertise still have not ceased. Nor have the occasions of telling list members to set aside "attitudes" that supposedly are harmful to the music!

I do agree with his next sentence, which was:
>>This type of entertainment (indirectly trying to prove one's own superiority) at the expense of another list member should and must be curtailed!<<
I respectfully request that list members who presume to discuss musicological points do so in ways that do not insult the intelligence or the presumed motives of members here who do have musicological training. Thank you.

Perhaps some will perceive this as an over-reaction by me. But I'm just REALLY REALLY tired of seeing this guy try to shoot down my work in my field of specialty. It never stops. I take the subject matter absolutely seriously, even when I express myself with levity on occasion. I ask, consistently, for evidence to support claims that have been made, so that we can get to reasonable points of truth. And yet, he insinuates that I do not take my own field seriously. WHAT NERVE, telling me what "attitude" I should bring to this!

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 12, 2004):
< (...)
- The French features and techniques in Bach's harpsichord music make it obvious that he knew French harpsichord style very well; he wasn't just a dabbler at it. Similarly, Bach's music responds well to the playing techniques taught in Couperin's treatise. (And why would Bach not be interested in the official harpsichord method coming from the court of France, to better himself in musical understanding of style?)
- It's documented that the two men did exchange letters that ended up as jam-pot lids. It's not known what the contents of those letters were.
(...)
Therefore, I conclude tentatively, it's plausible that Bach and Couperin corresponded about matters of harpsichord pedagogy, including tuning. Two top professionals of that field (harpsichord playing), exchanging ideas as colleagues. >
From p12 of Francois Couperin by Wilfrid Mellers (1987 edition):

"We have little direct evidence as to the kind of man the great Francois was. No correspondence survives--a regrettable fact since we know that Couperin had a long correspondence about musical matters with Bach; the letters not unnaturally disappeared after being used as lids for jam-pots. We know that Bach copied out several of Couperin's scores for himself and Anna Magdalena, and admired him above all French composers for 'l'elegance et la melancolie voluptueuse de certains motifs, la precision et la noblesse dans le rythme, enfin une sobriete qui n'est pas toujours forcee, mais temoigne parfois d'une louable discretion (Pirro)'. From his prefaces and other writings one gathers that Couperin was, as one might expect, habitually courteous and urbane though capable of an acidulated irony. Clearly he suffered fools, but did not suffer them gladly."

The footnote about the jam-pots says: "This story was related to Charles Bouvet by Mme Arlette Taskin, who claimed that it was handed down in her family from an ancestor who was a relative of Couperin."

As for Bach's opinion about Couperin's music, the reference "(Pirro)" is to Pirro's book Les Clavecinistes, 1924.

Thomas Braatz wrote (December 12, 2004):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
>>Personally, I believe it's more likely that Bach and Couperin did some exchanges of technical shop talk (in their letters that ended up as jam-pot lids), more than Bach and Handel doing so.<<
>>It's documented that the two men did exchange letters that ended up as jam-pot lids. It's not known what the contents of those letters were.<<
>>[From p12 of Francois Couperin by Wilfrid Mellers (1987 edition): No correspondence survives--a regrettable fact since we know that Couperin had a long correspondence about musical matters with Bach; the letters not unnaturally disappeared after being used as lids for jam-pots..The footnote about the jam-pots says: "This story was related to Charles Bouvet by Mme Arlette Taskin, who claimed that it was handed down in her family from an ancestor who was a relative of Couperin."<<
My comments:

1. It is of great importance that the above information can be traced to its source and the validity of this source carefully scrutinand corroborating evidence sought if possible. I am grateful that Brad has offered to share the precise source upon which the idea that Bach and Couperin actually corresponded with each other is based, otherwise this discussion could not easily be continued in an objective manner.

2. The idea that all this important correspondence would have ended up being used as lids for jam-pots is not so far-fetched, if one considers that for many years an anecdote circulated about Bach's own score for the Brandenburg Concertos having at one time been sold for a pittance (just a few Groschen-Schillings) and subsequently used for wrapping up grocery products (meat, I believe I read in my first biograph of Bach written for younger readers.) In the late Middle Ages, manuscript copies no longer deemed important enough to keep were used as scrap material for pasting together the covers of books [incunabula] (some interesting historical material has been recovered by slowly ungluing all the paper fragments in the book cover.)

How much of this is fact or fiction? The evidence regarding the latter, i.e., the reuse of manuscripts being cut up and used to paste together book covers is absolutely true. The evidence concerning the fate of Bach's autograph copy of the Brandenburg Concertos is true only in regard to the actual first sale which, as an indication of its value, was considered as being almost worthless. However, it never was used as grocerty wrapping paper. That part is definitely fiction.

This leaves the question as to the veracity of the claim made for the 'jam-pot-lids' connection to the supposed Bach-Couperin correspondence. It is always very important to consider the source: in this case a very late descendent of an illustrious family of musicians. The fact is that there is practically nothing in the form of any correspondence by Couperin whatsoever or personal notes that would shed further light on Couperin's personality and his more private thoughts and beliefs. This vacuum wants to be filled with something, even if this evidence can not be resurrected for inspection. What we have is a Charles-René-Clément Bouvet (1858-1935), who from 1903-1911 was the director of the Fondation J. S. Bach, which promoted the performances of Bach's works in Paris, France where he was also a member, since its inception in 1916, of the Société française de musicologie and was its secretary from 1920-1927. Bouvet elicits from a Mme. Arlette Taskin, a claim that a relative of Couperin had witnessed at some undisclosed time this mutilation/misuse of important documents that would shed light on a much closer connection between Bach and Couperin, a fact which would truly help to cement Bouvet's musical interests in both Bach and French music as well as enhancing the family history of the Couperins and making them feel more important.

I am looking at a translation of a biography of François Couperin by Philippe Beaussant published in 1990 by Amadeus Press. This biography, with its 423 pages focused entirely on Couperin and his music, makes no mention of any possibility of correspondence between Bach and Couperin. No reference to the old 'jam-pot-lids theory emanating very likely from the early 20th century is included at all.

A check of both the Grove Music Online [Oxford University Press, 2004] and the MGG [Bärenreiter, 1986] likewise indicates that this supposed letter-writing connection between Bach and Couperin is seriously called into question by most Bach and Couperin experts.

As far as Couperin's interest making connections with other musicians is concerned, what about the fact that for 11 years Couperin lived within walking distance of Rameau, but never made the effort to take up contact with this fellow musician/composer? Why should there be any special interest in striking up a long-distance correspondence with a fellow musician/composer in a different country with a different language [Spitta claims that Bach really did not know French that well and enlisted the help of a courtier when preparing the dedication page to the Brandenburg Concertos]?

2. Another point regarding the general connection between these composers that I find interesting is Bach allowed AMB to copy Couperin's Rondeau, BWV Anh. 183, without having her indicate the name of the composer. It would appear that the only value to this piece by Couperin was merely didactic and did not represent the notion: "Now here is true greatness! Let's at least show our deference by acknowledging that he composed this." The identification of this piece as being Couperin's was only made as late as 1900. It should also be pointed out that the correct identification of other composers in the AMB Notebook is likewise lax, again pointing to the specific teaching/learning purpose of these notebooks (which CPE and JC very likely also completed under Bach's direction.)

3. As far as more specific influences of Couperin's music on Bach's style of which there are a few, there are also some clear differences here as well that should be mentioned:

a) David Schulenberg, in his article on trills in the Grove Music Online [Oxford University Press, 2004, acc. 12/12/04] states:

>>Few German composers before 1750 followed Couperin in specifying any chromatic alteration of the auxiliary notes in trills or other ornaments.<<

>>Thus J.S. Bach's table for W.F. Bach employs a sign for the Accent (appoggiatura) shaped like a half-circle or small letter 'c', similar to that used by d'Anglebert and Rameau for the 'port de voix.' But Bach's sign for the mordent resembles that of François Couperin's 'pincé', and his table shows several signs that are absent from French sources.<<

b) Common ground between Couperin and Bach is found in the emphasis upon meticulously notating their intentions wherever possible, particularly in their printed works.

Kah-Ming Ng in the Grove Music Online (same reference as above) states:

>>François Couperin had less confidence in his readers' taste; in the preface to the third book of his 'Piéces de clavecin' (1722), he declared that his ornaments and music were indissolubly linked:
I am always surprised, after the pains I have taken to indicate the agrémens which suit my pieces, and of which I have given separately a quite intelligible explanation in a particular méthode known as 'L'art de toucher le clavecin,' to hear people who have learnt them without following my instructions. This negligence is unpardonable, the more so since it is not at all an arbitrary matter to introduce such ornaments as one wishes. I declare that my pieces must be executed as I have marked them, and that they will never make much of an impression on persons of true taste unless everything I have indicated is observed to the letter, without adding or subtracting anything.<<

[This sounds almost like what Bach would say.]

Further testimony comes from David Fuller and Edward Higgenbottom in the Grove Music Online (see above) where an interesting twist is injected - Couperin beginning to approach the level of Bach's mature keyboard style, not vice versa:

>>The textures Couperin used in his harpsichord pieces are no less important than the formal structures. Pride of place goes to the 'style luthé.' Some of his best pieces are built exclusively on this 'broken style': 'Les idées heureuses' (no.2), 'Les charmes' (no.9), 'La Mézangére' (no.10) and of course 'Les baricades mistérieuses' (no.6). It is also the predominant stylistic feature of many of his allemande-type movements. The technique is finally sublimated in such pieces as 'La convalescente' (no.26). This texture played an important role in the formation of Bach's mature keyboard style; Couperin came closest to Bach in his keyboard writing when he supported the 'luthé' style with firm contrapuntal lines.<<

>>Couperin's art comes from several sources. His early training as an organist equipped him above all with solid contrapuntal skills, and although he was never to equal Bach or Handel as a contrapuntist - such an idea would in any case have been abhorrent to French taste - his competence contributed sigto the firm linear qualities in much of his writing.<<

>>According to Titon du Tillet, Couperin's harpsichord music was well known abroad, in Italy, England and Germany. Gerber claimed that in his playing Bach used many of Couperin's mannerisms; Bach certainly knew Couperin's music, as may be judged from his copy of Les bergeries (ordre no.6) in Anna Magdalena's notebook and (if authentic) his arrangement for organ of the F major rondeau from L'impériale (BWV587).<<

[Note here "Gerber claimed" and 'if authentic'! This has not been corroborated elsewhere as yet.]

c) The great battle between the 'right' and the 'left' regarding the question of Bach's use/performance practice of 'notes inégales' is described very aptly by David Fuller [same reference as above]:

>>(It is worth noting, however, that when Bach and Walther copied Grigny, Le Roux, Dieupart and Clérambault, they did not translate 'notes inégales' into dotted notation.) The French overture became an obsession; Telemann is estimated to have composed some 1000 overture-suites. Yet although Printz (1678) recommended inequality as a device to keep the tempo under control, and C.P.E. Bach (1753-62) as a way to treat two semiquavers following a quaver in the accompaniment of an adagio, only one German writer besides Muffat treated the convention in terms approaching those of the French, that is, as a normal way of playing a substantial amount of music; this was Quantz (1752). As he did not say that his remarks applied only to French music - indeed they include no mention of French music at all - his passage has acquired a kind of scriptural status for those who wish to alter even rhythms in Bach, and it has become a principal target of attack by the right. But even the most subtle exegesis cannot make Quantz say that Bach wanted his rhythms to be altered in performance; the most that can be concluded is that Quantz himself might have played Bach that way, and perhaps that the trio sonata from 'The Musical Offering' was subjected to inequality when (or if) it was played at Potsdam. On the other hand the best efforts of a Frederick Neumann can produce nothing but silence to prove that Bach did not want alteration.

The ubiquity of 'notes inégales' in French performance of the 17th and 18th centuries is beyond dispute, yet at the end of the 20th century there was still, even among the most brilliant and historically informed specialists, a reluctance to apply them with anything resembling the frequency with which all the evidence indicates that they were applied in earlier times. The visceral revulsion felt by the great musicologist Charles Van den Borren (1936) when he declared himself 'literally overwhelmed at the thought that anyone could reconcile the finicky requirements that Muffat [1695] enumerates with the style, so simple so sober, so genuinely inspired by the 'grand siècle,' that Lully offers us throughout his work', and in particular, at 'that deformity, devoid of logic, which consists in the unequal performance of equal quavers' (a revulsion that informed the researches of the indefatigable Frederick Neumann) still inhibits efforts to discover the elixir of vitality that must have enlivened the old performances. The favourite recipe in recent years has been sheer velocity. The secret must lie elsewhere, however: in the subtlety and variability that is only hinted at in the verbal descriptions but is made more concrete, if crudely, in automatic instruments. As noted below, something comparable may be heard today in jazz, but the incorporation of 'notes inégales' into the performance of early music can only be accomplished by experimentation, and specifically through practice in executing ratios of long to short that are less or much less than the 3:1 of strict dotting and then in varying these ratios in response to the expression. Sharper inequality should not be neglected, but it is much easier.

Modern discussions of inequality in Baroque music often conclude with an appeal to 'good taste' as the final arbiter in good performance. The idea comes directly from innumerable similar appeals by 18th-century French writers, and is dangerously misleading. It is indeed taste that decides, but the taste of the period when the music was written. Alien taste is laboriously acquired, and never completely so except by imitation; one need only imagine with what degree of authenticity some future musician might succeed in reproducing the 'taste' of a Charlie Parker from written documents alone. Taste is the most inconstant of values, and it was a conflict of taste far more than of objective findings which lay at the root of the inequality controversy of the 1960s and fuelled its partisan zeal.<<

In a well-researched and reasoned statement such as this, Fuller helps us to understand better some of the performance-practice problems that need to be addressed and reconsidered each time when Bach is to be performed and/or recorded. What is 'good taste'? How do we define it, how do we achieve it? Will 'sheer velocity' reveal the true beauty of Bach's music? Will 'sharper inequality' help us reach the ideal response among all listeners? How do we discover the 'elixir of vitality' to enliven performances using 'subtlety' and 'variability' without indulging in exaggerated mannerisms in order to appeal to the public at large?

Charles Francis wrote (December 13, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehman] I missed Bradley's answer regarding the primary source for the Bach/Couperin connection. Does he really expect others to take the pronouncments of modern scholars on faith?

 

François Couperin: Short Biography | François Couperin & Bach

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