Couperin: Pièces d’Orgue

François Couperin (1668-1733)
Pièces d’Orgue (1609)
Ed. Jon Baxendale
161 pages • ISMN 979-0-706670-00-3 (Hardback) • 979-0-706670-21-8 (Wire)
Lyrebird Music. LBMP–001

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This is a very welcome new edition of François Couperin’s 1690 Pièces d’Orgue. It is a revised version of the edition published by Cantando Musikkforlag in 2018, but is now issued under the Lyrebird Music label. There are several improvements on the layout of the earlier version,. which remains the only commercially available critical edition. One of the problems with Couperin’s Pièces d’Orgue is that it was not printed, but published in manuscript form. There is only one surviving copy of that original manuscript, but four other sources of it, with varying degrees of accuracy. Editor Jon Baxendale has revisited the five known sources to discover which is the most accurate.

Couperin is well-known to organists, although many will not know much about his non-organ compositions. He is also known to non-organist music lovers, although many of them will not know much about his organ music. Like many organist composers, Couperin’s organ works were published very early in his musical career, before his move into court circles and a compositional career mostly devoted to harpsichord, chamber and sacred vocal music.

Couperin’s father, Charles, was the organist at the church of Saint-Gervais in Paris. He succeeded his brother Louis, the founder of the Couperin musical dynasty and a distinguished composer and performer. Charles died when François was about 11, specifying François as his successor. As Jon Baxendale discusses in his excellent Background Notes, this was the result of the practice of survivance, where an organist was able to specify his own successor, leading to such ‘family business’ situations. In the case of the Couperin family, the role remained in the family well into the 19th-century. François formally succeeded to the post when he reached the age of 18, the intervening years being taken up by increasingly intense training for his forthcoming role, during which he was paid a proportion of the stipend by the church authorities.

The Pieces d’orgue is a collection of liturgical organ works datings from 1690, when Couperin was just 22. It consists of two Mass settings, with examples of the organ pieces that would have been played during the Latin Mass, most of them to be played in alternatim with the choir. One setting is intended for use in parish churches (à l’usage ordinaire des Paroisses Pour les Fêtes Solemnelles), the second for convents or abbey churches (Convents de Religieux et Religieuses). The latter setting is less complex than the first, and was written for a smaller organ, an indication that musical standards would have been higher in the parish churches, with a professional organist, than in the convents where the organ was played by one of the inmates.

Jon Baxendale’s extensive background notes (in English and French) explore the background to the composition, existing and lost source material, and performance practice including ornamentation, registration and a brave attempt at explaining the all-important concept of notes inégales, an aspect of rhythmic flexibility that is key to performance. The specification of the Saint-Gervais organ is included in its 1714 four-manual state – it was later enlarged to five manuals, with the addition of a Bombarde division. As well as representing Couperin’s own organ at the time of composition, it also acts as an example of a classic French organ in an important Parish or city church. There is also a conjectural two-manual specification suitable for the Messe pour les Convents. 

The appropriate chant settings are also included in the alternatim verses, in chant notation, before each piece, allowing for performance within a liturgical context. Detailed information about registrations includes tables of comparative examples for each separate piece, including comments from the period on the appropriate playing style for each registration. One performance aspect that isn’t discussed (or one that I have missed) is the very large left-hand stretches in some of the pieces.

One of the reasons this new critical edition is so important is that includes a serious look at the sources, a major issue with the Pieces d’orgue. With only one surviving copy of the original, secondary sources become important as a check against inaccuracies. There are other four known sources and two that are lost. Included in the Notes is a useful flowchart showing the possible links between the various sources. At the back of the volume is a lengthy list of all the textural differences between the sources.

The layout of the music and the paper quality is excellent and the print is clear, although perhaps not as large as in some organ music editions. It is available in two formats, hardback and ring-bound. I found the hardback fine for playing from, with no real problems with getting the pages to lay flat. It is in landscape format, always useful for organists.

This is an important addition to the organ literature.  It is available direct from Lyrebird Music. You can view sample pages here. Shipping is from a UK warehouse.

[This is an update of a now-deleted 2018 review (Couperin’s 350th anniversary year) of the edition published by Cantando Musikkforlag. It reflects a considerably improved and updated edition from a new publisher. The minor quibbles with the earlier edition have been successfully resolved