The ‘air of mystery’ in François Couperin’s Pièces de violes (1728) 6
12. François Couperin: Pièces de clavecin Premier livre (1713), ed. Denis Herlin, Critical Commentary, p.116. 13. ‘Nouvelles Litteraires des Beaux Arts, &c [...] Œuvres de M. Couperin, Compositeur de la Chapelle du Roi, & Ordinaire de la Musique de la Chambre de S.M. pour le Clavecin, donnez au Public jusqu’à cette année 1729’, pp.737–38. 14. ‘Pieces for two viols, one [part] of which is figured, 1725, 6 livres’, in Mercure de France, April 1729, p.737. Bouvet incorrectly cites the August issue rather than April. 15. Couperin: Pièces de clavecin Premier livre, ed. Herlin, p.116. 16. The copy in F-Pn is unique; its current shelf number is Rés. Vmb-19. 17. Pièces pour violoncelle et piano, retrouvées, annotées et révisées par Charles Bouvet (Paris, 1924–25). For a recent modern edition, see Œuvres complètes de François Couperin, vol. 4: Musique de
Bouvet also drew attention to two important documents that add to our knowledge about the early history of the Pièces de violes and provide support for the attribution to Couperin. One of them is a chronological list of Couperin’s engraved works added to certain re-issues of his harpsichord works, which includes an entry for Pièces de violes avec la basse chifrée. As Denis Herlin has recently observed, this list was added to copies assembled on or after 28 July 1728.12 Another document also clearly indicates Couperin as the composer of the Pièces de violes; it appeared in the Mercure de France for April 1729 in the monthly notice of ‘Literary news in the fine arts’, which included a list of ‘Works by Couperin, composer of the Chapel Royal, published up to this year 1729’.13 The list cites Couperin’s engraved collections in chronological order beginning with his first harpsichord book in 1713. After ‘Les Trios’ (Les nations, 1726), the following entry reads: ‘Pièces pour deux Violles, dont l’une est chifrée, 1725, 6 liv.’ 14 As Herlin indicates, the unusual date of 1725 also appears at the top of Couperin’s list of works that was included in several of his collections,15 but the 1728 date on the title page nevertheless appears to be the correct one.
The two historical documents together with the privilège, the composer’s initials and stylistic features allowed Bouvet to attribute the work with confidence to François Couperin.16 He also published an edition of the two suites for cello and continuo, bringing the works to the attention of performers for the first time since the composer’s death.17
Why Couperin chose to publish his viol suites without his full name on the title page remains unknown. Musicologists have speculated that he may have wished to avoid comparison with prominent masters of the viol such as Marin Marais, whose fifth collection of solo music for viol and continuo had appeared in 1725. Given the special conventions of notation and interpretation associated with the viol, it may well be, as Laurence Dreyfus suggested, that Couperin ‘felt somewhat humbled by his first and only attempt to enter the hermetic world of the solo bass viol’ and therefore unwilling to identify himself on the title page.18 Bouvet’s observations remain the foundation of our present knowledge about the Pièces de violes, but a number of questions still remain unresolved.
Two suites and an ‘air of mystery’ The Pièces de violes comprise a total of eleven movements divided into two suites.They were printed from engraved plates in two separate partbooks: one for the solo viol labelled ‘Sujet ’ and the other for the continuo labelled chambre, ed. Kenneth Gilbert & Davitt Moroney (Monaco, ). 18. Laurence Dreyfus: ‘Idiomatic betrayals: François Couperin as composer for the viol’, in Les rencontres de Villecroze, ed. Memed, p.220.