The ‘air of mystery’ in François Couperin’s Pièces de violes (1728) 4
published the pieces. It is equally possible that Couperin had composed additional works for one or more viols but that, for whatever reason, he did not publish them. From his own statement in the preface to the Concerts Royaux (1722), we know that he had composed a quantity of pieces similar to the ones in this collection that he intended to publish at a later time.5 His plan was unfortunately never realised. After the 1728 Pièces de violes, Couperin brought out only one more collection two years later – his fourth book for solo harpsichord – prior to his death in 1733. Today his Pièces de violes are less well-known than his other chamber music, but they are works of great beauty and interest that exploit the viol’s special capacity for chordal playing in a way that his other chamber music for viols does not. Why, then, have they not been accorded the attention they deserve?
5. ‘J’en ay suffisament pour en donner dans la suite quelques volumes complets’, Preface, n.p. The pieces in Les Goûts-réünis (1724) may have included some of those to which he refers, but very likely he had more, enough to fill ‘several volumes’. 6. Louis-Hector Huë (1699?– 1768) was apprenticed to Henri Baussen from 1711 and active in Paris as a master engraver from 1715 to 1768. He engraved several collections for Couperin. Further on his work, see
Rediscovery of the Pièces de violes The most obvious reason for the neglect of Couperin’s Pièces de violes arises from the unusual circumstances regarding their publication and dissemination. Most notably, Couperin’s full name is missing. The title page (fig.1) bears only the initials ‘Mr.F.C.’ (‘Mr’evidentlystandingfor‘Monsieur’). More typical of Couperin’s practice is the title page for Les nations (fig.2), which includes his full surname, address and details about his employment. In other ways, the two pages exhibit several similarities: both bear the name of the engraver L. Huë,6 and they also provide the address of the shop where the music was sold, its price and the year it was printed. Both title pages also indicate that the publication adheres to the terms of a royal privilège. The full ‘Privilège general’ that is appended to each of these collections shows that the dates and terms are identical: the privilège was granted to the composer in 1713 and remained in effect for 20 years. However, the copy within Les nations describes him fully as ‘François Couperin, composer and organist of our Chapel Royal and formerly harpsichord teacher to our very dear and beloved dauphin, the Duc de Bourgogne ’,7 whereas the privilège in the Pièces de violes refers to him only as ‘F.C.’ Hiding one ’s identity was not entirely unknown in the 18th century, but in the context of Couperin’s reputation and stature, it seems highly unusual. Davitt Moroney: ‘Couperin et les contradicteurs, la révision de L’Art de toucher le Clavecin’, in François Couperin, nouveaux regards, actes des rencontres de Villecroze 4 au 7 octobre 1995 (hereafter Les rencontres de Villecroze), ed. O. Memed (Paris, 1998), pp.174–75.
7. The privilège is appended to the basse chifrée partbook for Les nations, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département de la Musique (hereafter F-Pn), Vm71155. Couperin began teaching harpsichord to the duc de Bourgogne in 1700; the duc became dauphin in
1711 but fell ill and died the following year. See François Couperin: Pièces de clavecin Premier livre (1713), ed. Denis Herlin (Kassel, 2016), Preface, p.xviii, and Lucinde Braun: ‘À la recherche de François Couperin’, in Revue de musicologie vol.95 no.1 (2009), p.49.