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François spent most of his musical life in the service of the French court as a harpsichordist and organist, composing sacred music and chamber works for the royal pleasure of King Louis XIV.
The most prominent representative (thus ‘Le Grand’) of a famous family of musicians whose dynasty began in the 1620s and expired when the last male Couperin died two centuries later – French rivals to the German Bachs. François spent most of his musical life in the service of the French court as a harpsichordist and organist, composing sacred music and chamber works for the royal pleasure of King Louis XIV.
The field in which he achieved his most lasting success was the extraordinary harpsichord works he composed towards the end of his life. Between 1713 and 1730 he published four volumes of his Pièces de clavecin. These amount to 230 pieces in 27 ordres (Couperin’s name for suites), each ordre a series of dances. They all have whimsical, witty or descriptive titles like ‘The Little Windmills’, ‘The Knitters’, etc, and many that defy translation because of their reference to topical subjects (‘Le tic-toc-choc’, for instance, which described the work of Mme Guillotine). The Romantics were keen on this kind of thing and, later, Debussy and Satie recalled it in their piano pieces. They are musical postcards of the court, sketches of Couperin’s life and personality.
His book L’art de toucher le clavecin (1716) had an enormous influence on succeeding generations of keyboard players. Alfred Einstein wrote perceptively that ‘in Couperin we see the beginnings of the French musical predilection for the exquisite, for studied brilliance, emotional discretion and roguish charm extending to sly wit’. It was not for nothing that Ravel wrote his Le tombeau de Couperin in tribute 200 years later.
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