Classical: The master miniaturist of the Baroque

For three centuries the intimate and ingenious works of Francois Couperin have been held in the highest regard by his fellow composers. This weekend the Aldeburgh Festival presents three concerts celebrating his keyboard, church and chamber music.
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AMONG HIS younger contemporaries, he was especially admired by JS Bach, who studied his keyboard method and copied out some of his pieces. In the 19th century, he was arranged by Berlioz and edited by Brahms. By 1900, his music had become an article of faith to Debussy and Ravel as a pristine source of French tradition. Later, his decorative techniques would fascinate Messiaen, while Richard Strauss was to base two lavish orchestral suites on his harpsichord pieces.

A composers' composer, then? At least that, for now the ubiquitous Thomas Ades tells us. "My ideal day would be staying at home and playing the harpsichord works of Couperin - a new inspiration on every page". And, as a token of his enthusiasm, Ades has planned three Couperin concerts - taking place today and tomorrow - for this final weekend of the first Aldeburgh Festival under his artistic direction.

Any decent history or dictionary of music is likely to include a substantial section on Francois Couperin (1668-1733), explaining that he was known as "le Grand" to show his pre-eminence in an entire dynasty of musical Couperins, extending from the late 16th to the mid 19th century, occupying the organ loft of St Gervais in Paris for 173 consecutive years, and including at least one other fine composer in Louis Couperin (1626-1661), uncle of Francois. It is also likely to bracket him with the older Marc- Antoine Charpentier and the younger Jean-Philippe Rameau as representing the very zenith of French Baroque music.

Yet, to many a genuine music-lover, he probably signifies as no more than the composer of a handful of sweetly pretty keyboard pieces with curious titles, belatedly memorialised in the orchestral suite Ravel entitled Le Tombeau de Couperin. And a glance at his work list will suggest why. Couperin left no grand cantatas or oratorios like Charpentier, no operas to anticipate the magnificent sequence Rameau began to compose in the very year of Couperin's death. Nor did he ever write for orchestra, unless Peter Holman is correct in arguing that the eighth of the chamber suites Couperin published under the title Les gouts reunis is really a cut-down orchestral selection from some lost ballet or opera we know nothing about.

What we do find is a body of church music comprising two so-called organ masses and a succession of motets and litanies for solo voices and continuo, though virtually nothing for choir. Then there are four collections of chamber suites for two to four players, plus a couple of chamber "apotheoses" in homage to two of Couperin's most admired masters, Lully and Corelli. Not least, there are some 240 short harpsichord pieces, arranged in 27 sequences, or ordres as Couperin called them, and published in four books between 1713 and 1730, together with a practical manual on how to play them entitled L'art de toucher le clavecin, itself including nine more teaching pieces. And, apart from a few additional chamber pieces and some secular songs, that is all.

The overwhelming impression of this catalogue is that it comprises private rather than public music. True, the first of the organ masses was composed to punctuate services in parish churches, but the bulk of the sacred music sounds more appropriate to private chapels and closed orders. Much of the chamber music appears to have been intended in the first place for the ageing ears of Louis XIV himself, who had long since retreated from the Lully-resounding public splendours of Versailles to the more domestic comforts of his private apartments where he would summon Couperin and a handful of fellow musicians on Sunday after Sunday to beguile him with sad sarabandes and gracious gavottes. And while the harpsichord music would undoubtedly have been performed to circles of connoisseurs, as has been suggested, it only yields its full significance through the fingers of the solitary player.

What we know of Couperin's life tends to support this impression. He appears to have suffered little in the way of material struggle or public exposure. Assured by family tradition of the position at St Gervais, he was soon enough appointed organist to the king and found himself in ceaseless demand as music teacher to the aristocracy and participant in the royal chamber music. Widely admired among his contemporaries, he appears to have made little effort to get his work into print before his forties, redoubling his efforts only after Louis XIV's death in 1715, and as his own health began to give way.

The one controversy that did exercise Couperin was the great aesthetic issue of the day - how far to stand by the conservative French musical tradition, with its emphasis on simplicity, dignity and ease, and how far to endorse the passion and virtuosity of the latest Italian developments. Early on, Couperin was enamoured enough of Corelli's recent publications to attempt some Italianate sonatas of his own - though he took the precaution of circulating them under a cod- Italian alias.

But the declared aim of Couperin's maturity was to reunite the two styles, and while the whole issue might by now appear merely academic, there can be little doubt that the waywardness and the complex tensions that define many of Couperin's pieces sprang directly from his efforts to synthesise what were virtually two different concepts of music - never more so than in the amusing section of the Lully Apotheose in which Couperin imagines Corelli receiving Lully on Parnassus and each composer accompanying the other in his respective style.

There is, of course, a particular difficulty in getting to grips with composers whose essence is to be found not so much in a succession of large masterpieces, but in a myriad of miniatures, and in this, Couperin could be likened to two later composers whose short forms and decorative surfaces encapsulated whole worlds of allusion and feeling - Chopin and Faure. It helps the non-playing listener that most of Couperin is now available on disk - notably in complete recordings of the harpsichord books by Kenneth Gilbert and Christophe Rousset. Listened to closely and often, these will gradually reveal not only a dazzling range of individual character and social reference, but a mixture, a complex ambiguity of nuance and mood perhaps unsurpassed until Mozart. It would help, too, if Wilfrid Mellers' classic study of Couperin could be restored to print.

Meanwhile, there is Aldeburgh. This afternoon at 3pm in Orford Church, the distinguished harpsichordist Skip Sempe will be performing a range of pieces, from the bucolic naivety of Les Bergeries to the teasing syncopations of Les Baricades misterieuses, from the Watteau-esque frivolity of L'Arlequine to the sombre grandeur of the Allemande la Tenebreuse. Then tonight, at 10.30pm, Aldeburgh Parish Church will resonate to the fine-spun lines and plangent suspensions of Couperin's greatest sacred work, Les Lecons de Tenebres, three settings for voices and continuo from the Lamentations of Jeremiah of a transfixing poignancy - and much admired, incidentally, by Stravinsky in his later years. And tomorrow at 3pm in Blythburgh Church, the four period-instrument players of Capriccio Stravagante will be offering the complete Lully Apotheose in a programme opening with the "Pompe Funebre" from Couperin's late Pieces de Violes, composed possibly in memory of the great French viol virtuoso Marin Marais, possibly in anticipation of his own death.

Would it were possible to recommend forthcoming relays of these concerts on Radio 3 for those out of reach of Aldeburgh. Sadly, it appears that the BBC has decided to miss out on this well-planned tribute to a by no means over-exposed composer who wrote some of the most affectingly cultivated music ever.

Aldeburgh Festival Box Office: 01728 453543