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Fit for a King: Francois Crouperin: Concerts royaux

The MHS Review 405, VOL. 12, NO.9• 1988

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William Zagorski

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For me French music was an acquired taste, and, like so many of the acquired tastes in my life, it has become a more than slightly uncontrollable obsession. Given the genetically guided convolutions twisted into my brain during my brief career as an embryo, I've always found the Germanic and Slavic composers naturally kindred spirits. Their music always spoke directly to me without the need for an in­tellectual translation, and still does.


As a mere lad deep in the throes of discovering Beethoven, Wagner, Dvorak, Mussorgsky--strong, thrilling, virile stuff--I found French music vague, vapid, devoid of point, and frequently too "precious" to be enjoyed without the fear of being caught at it. I held these truths to be self-evident all through my youth and far into my not-so-youth, and yet, despite my conscious resistance, French music had all along been gradually and unconscious­ly infiltrating my subconscious.


In those years I was a regular listener to a Saturday night FM broadcast of the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch. I hated both the Franco-Russian sound of that orchestra and the largely Gallic reper­toire of its conductor. Yet week after week I listened, with a smirk, as Munch dished out large doses of Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel, Ibert, and Poulenc. Of course, in those days I didn't have the perspicacity to explore exactly why I was regularly listening to this trash. Could it have been that I actually lik­ed it? Well, that kind of revelation is the stuff that great fees for analysts are made of, and I didn't have to ask such inwardly probing questions. I knew everything about everything already.


The great turning point came some years later while I was trying to escape studying history at a major university. I fled to a us­ed book store in a run-down part of town and came upon two volumes by Hector Berlioz: Memoirs, and Evenings in the Or­chestra. As I read them and found myself admiring his verve, his irony, his wonder­ful sense of comedic timing, his precision of language, I thought ruefully: "Isn't it a shame his music isn't nearly as good as his writing?" Curiosity eventually drove me to reassess this whole "French Question," and in doing so my unconscious mind clearly showed its conscious counterpart how unconscionably unconscious it had been all along.


For me French music was an acquired taste, and, like so many of the acquired tastes in my life, it has become a more than slightly uncontrollable obsession. Given the genetically guided convolutions twisted into my brain during my brief career as an embryo, I've always found the Germanic and Slavic composers naturally kindred spirits. Their music always spoke directly to me without the need for an in­tellectual translation, and still does.

As a mere lad deep in the throes of discovering Beethoven, Wagner, Dvo1ak, Mussorgsky-strong, thrilling, virile stuff-I found French music vague, vapid, devoid of point, and frequently too "precious" to be enjoyed without the fear of being caught at it. I held these truths to be self-evident all through my youth and far into my not-so-youth, and yet, despite my conscious resistance, French music had all along been gradually and unconscious­ly infiltrating my subconscious.

In those years I was a regular listener to a Saturday night FM broadcast of the Boston Symphony under Charles For me French music was an acquired taste, and, like so many of the acquired tastes in my life, it has become a more than slightly uncontrollable obsession. Given the genetically guided convolutions twisted into my brain during my brief career as an embryo, I've always found the Germanic and Slavic composers naturally kindred spirFor me French music was an acquired taste, and, like so many of the acquired tastes in my life, it has become a more than slightly uncontrollable obsession. Given the genetically guided convolutions twisted into my brain during my brief career as an embryo, I've always found the Germanic and Slavic composers naturally kindred spirits. Their music always spoke directly to me without the need for an in­tellectual translation, and still does.

As a mere lad deep in the throes of discovering Beethoven, Wagner, Dvo1ak, Mussorgsky-strong, thrilling, virile stuff-I found French music vague, vapid, devoid of point, and frequently too "precious" to be enjoyed without the fear of being caught at it. I held these truths to be self-evident all through my youth and far into my not-so-youth, and yet, despite my conscious resistance, French music had all along been gradually and unconscious­ly infiltrating my subconscious.

In those years I was a regular listener to a Saturday night FM broadcast of the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch. I hated both the Franco-Russian sound of that orchestra and the largely Gallic reper­toire of its conductor. Yet week after week I listened, with a smirk, as Munch dished out large doses of Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel, lbert, and Poulenc. Of course, in those days I didn't have the perspicacity to explore exactly why I was regularly listening to this trash. Could it have been that I actually lik­ed it? Well, that kind of revelation is the stuff that great fees for analysts are made of, and I didn't have to ask such inwardly probing questions. I knew everything about everything already.

The great turning point came some years later while I was trying to escape studying history at a major university. I fled to a us­ed book store in a run-down part of town and came upon two volumes by Hector Berlioz: Memoirs, and Evenings in the Or­chestra. As I read them and found myself admiring his verve, his irony, his wonder­ful sense of comedic timing, his precision of language, I thought ruefully: "Isn't it a shame his music isn't nearly as good as his writing?" Curiosity eventually drove me to reassess this whole "French Question," and in doing so my unconscious mind clearly showed its conscious counterpart how unconscionably unconscious it had been all along.


There is a common thread running through all the best French music, from the composers of the 12th-century school of Notre Dame through the most arcane works of Pierre Boulez: an uncanny pose which defies analysis. Passion is balanced with reticence, gravity with wit, vulgari­ty with elegance, the dance impulse with intellectual interest, prolixity with economy, and sensual beauty of sound with architectural soundness.


I scrawled that last sentence while hap­pily under the influence of these Concerts royaux, a set of four suites Couperin published in 1722, but composed eight years earlier for the delectation and enter­tainment of his aging patron, a somewhat faded Sun King, Louis XIV. As such, these pieces are direct, melodious, and, despite the rustic simplicity of many of the themes, always graceful and elegant. In them, Couperin suppressed his formidable con­trapuntal skills, no doubt to avoid taxing the Royal Intellect. As a result, these pieces are seemingly all "surface"-but what a surface! (And also what depth, if one cares to look.)


Francois Couperin "Le Grand," like J.S. Bach, represents the apex of a formidable musical dynasty spanning many genera­tions. He occupies a musical niche between that avatar of French style, Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1685, incidentally an Italian), and Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). Lully's operas influenced Couperin's in­strumental works as did the contrapuntal music of another great Italian, Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), whom Couperin venerated, and studied thoroughly, thereby creating a quintessentially French music not at all like its Italian influences.


Couperin stated that these Concerts royaux (generally written on two staves) could be realized on either a harpsichord, violin, viol, flute, oboe, or bassoon. This release features a realization on violin and viol with continuo, done in "proper" vibrato-less baroque period style by three brilliant instrumentalists who offer us not the didactic musicological treatise we might expect, but living, vibrant perfor­mances which clearly show how sensual­ly satisfying baroque instrumental conven­tions can be. In every way, performances fit for a king.


Review for Francois Crouperin: Concerts royaux page 51

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