Louis Couperin authorship

Since we have many Louis Couperin specialists here I’d like to ask the following question. At one point not so long ago there was doubt expressed about the Louis Couperin harpsichord works, that he did not write them, but he did write the organ works bearing his name. What is the current musicological view on this?

I am not a Louis Couperin specialist. I just have read some musicology. I quote from a recent article of mine dealing mainly with other composers:

“A Measured Approach to J.S. Bach’s Stylus Phantasticus”, published in Harpsichord & fortepiano in 2017. Recently I have uploaded it to Academia.edu:

Blockquote (PDF) A Measured Approach to J.S. Bach’s Stylus Phantasticus, 2017 | Claudio Di Veroli - Academia.edu

I reproduce below footnote 14 from the above paper:

“G. Wilson. CD record liner notes to his recording of L. Couperin’s harpsichord pieces, Naxos 8.555936. http://www.naxos.com/sharedfiles/blurb/8.555936rev.pdf. This essay shows interesting indirect evidence, although it also includes two major inconsistencies. On p. 2 we read “…the Tombeau de Blancrocher, which presumably could be dated close to the lutenist’s death in 1662…”: this is implied to be contradictory with Louis Couperin’s death in 1661, but it is not, because Blancrocher actually died in 1652 (when Charles was just 13). On the same page Wilson also states that at least one piece “ … appeared to be an arrangement with double of a Rigaudon from Lully’s Acis et Galathée from 1686 - a quarter century after Louis death.”: if so, however, the arrangement cannot be the work of Charles Couperin either, because he had died seven years earlier in 1679.”

It is apparent that the above errors largely invalidate Wilson’s argument: there is no way the significantly younger Charles could have composed the pieces we today attribute to Louis.

Please note that more recently Wilson has published an updated version of his article.

(Haven’t read anything on the organ works also attributed to Louis. It has been noted that the style is quite different from his harpsichord works, but the same can be said of J.S. Bach’s organ Toccatas compared to his earlier harpsichord Toccatas. )

I am not an expert in 17-C French music, but it does strike me as odd that no original L. C. mss have survived (unless the organ pieces have been established as by him), This would imply some sort of calamitous disaster. How is it that the copies have survived but not the mss from which they have been copied?

Or were music mss preferred for wrapping fish and chips in or lighting fires?


Indeed, David. But it is not an isolated case. Let us take F. Couperin for example. Surely before having his huge corpus of harpsichord music engraved, he first wrote drafts, then fair copies, then somebody in his milieu had them copied. Yet of all those hundreds of pages not a single one is extant! The handful of handwritten contemporary copies of F. Couperin’s pieces are not from his milieu and/or differ significantly from the versions the composer had printed (see for example Les Bergeries, famously included in Anna Magdalena Bach Clavierbüchlein of 1725).
Edit: there is a single complete MS copy, but is dated c1750. (see Kenneth Gilbert’s Introduction to his edition). It appears to be a copy from the engraved edition, not from original MSs.

(Wasn’t it Mendelssohn who was horrified to find large collection of Bach’s manuscripts being indeed used as wrapping paper? What about harpsichords used as firewood in Napoleonic times?)

Edit 2: What about harpsichords? There were surely many thousand harpsichords in French, German and Italian lands in the 17th century. Dozens (hundreds?) Italian ones are extant. Just a handful of French, most likely because they were lately rebuilt (“ravalés”). But what about the German ones? This was already noted decades ago, and variously attributed to the ravages of 17th c. wars…

I’ve written a long rebuttal of Glen Wilson’s conjecture but don’t have time to explain it right now. In short, he’s arguing for the existence of something because it is absent. That and the fact that Charles Couperin was 12 when Blancrocher took his infamous tumble.

I don’t really know what possessed an otherwise respected musicologist to go down a musical conspiracy theory since it undoes so much Other good work.

Part of Wilson’s argument lies in Titon du Tillet’s biography of the Couperin. The problem is that this doesn’t appear until the 1732 revision of his Le Parnasse françois, and that was 70 years after LC popped his clogs. And Titon du Tillet was prone to fantasy, which is clear from a number of other biographies of musicians he had clearly never met.

I doubt the veracity of the Couperin-Chambonnières story and, if Chambonnières was like other 17th-century musicians in the employment of the king, it was probably more a story of jealousy, back-stabbing and bitching.

I cannot prove this since T de T and Le Gallois is all we have, though it is more likely that the Couperin made their own way to Paris and made sure they were introduced to the court in their own way.

The problem as I see it, is that we all expect of grand Siècle musicians a certain dignity and honour. It was nothing of the sort and the profession was as mean and dark as it is today. There were few gentlemen musicians: as late as 1692 they were classed as artisans and placed on the 18th tax bracket (out of 22). Thus, they were only three rungs above pesants. Most were illiterate, which is demonstrated in the confused manner in which most organ prefaces were written, and few had the time or money to be able to publish. And they were banned from doing so until 1660!

I think this was the fate of Charles Couperin. If he did compose music, it is lost (one would have expected something since he held the Saint-Gervais job for a decade more than his brother but there are countless performers we know of whose music is also lost). Conversely, he might have been a rubbish composer and none thought to preserve his music.

I’m any scenario, the attribution of one composer’s music to another does both a disservice. It’s all a little Shakespeare and Francis Bacon, another attention-grabbing conspiracy theory.

And how we love those!

Gotta go! I’m due for a pizza with the Clintons :wink: