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ClassicsOnline Home » COUPERIN, F.: Organ Masses
Jean-François Couperin’s organ masses are summits of elder French Organ Music. Depending on the situation the pieces could be used during a liturgical act or between the texts of the service. They are varied – from more intimate parts to extraordinarily magnificent ones, whereas the second mass is a little bit more restrained due to its dedication. (For abbreviation I refer to the “Messe à l'usage ordinaire des paroisses pour les fêtes solemnelles” as “1st mass” and to the “Messe propre pour les couvents de religieux et religieuses” as “2nd mass”).
The organ of the Poitiers Cathedral is built by François-Henri Cliquot. It belongs to the very best organs of France. It possesses excellent stops of reeds – listen to the second part of the Kyrie of the 1st mass (“Fugue sur les jeux d’anches”). In order to find out the huge spectrum of sounds of this organ, listen to the “Offertoire sur les grands jeux” of the same mass.
Jean-Baptiste Robin, who is one of the two organists of the cathedral, masters the masses in a splendid manor. Listen again to to the “Offertoire sur les grands jeux” of the 1st mass. In my opinion this is the summit of the whole recording. It’s remarkable, how Robin establishes and then maintains the tension over the whole nearly 9 minutes of this part.
I should not forget to mention the booklet which - while small - contains all the necessary information on the two masses, the organ, the interpreter, and the recording. Its main part is written by Jean-Baptiste Robin himself. It’s added in the form of a pdf file.more....
By John Kitchen
Weinberger's Bach recording offers early versions and variants of well-known pieces. To give an example, the G major Prelude and Fugue BWV541 is separated by the slow movement of the fourth trio sonata, as it appears in some contemporary copies. These variants may surprise and even irritate us, but we must remember that some received versions, often established in 19th-century printed editions, are no more authentic than others. Weinberger plays authoritatively on two fine 18th-century German organs, although I find some of his playing too dettache, particularly in the pedal.
Terje Winge's imaginatively�planned recording intersperses Grigny's five organ hymns with four Bach works. Playing on a modern organ (1996) in 18th-century French style, he delivers the music in a clipped and rather literal style, and the inegalite is a little inflexible. The sound of the organ doesn't seduce and lacksgravitas.
It is of course unfair to compare it with the stunning sonorities of the celebrated Clicquot at Poitiers, with its bold colours and roaring reeds; it is on this organ, of which he is now titulaire, that Jean-Baptiste Robin has recorded the Couperin masses on two CDs. What a sound! Robin's playing is highly informed and stylish in a 'contained' sort of way. The organ versets are here given without the accompanying plainchant.
Born in Paris on 10th November 1668, François
Couperin was the son of Charles Couperin, organist at
the Church of St Gervais since 1661. Charles naturally
introduced his son to the organ and the harpsichord,
before his premature death in 1679, leaving his son an
orphan at the age of eleven. Nevertheless the
administrators of St Gervais were so eager to retain the
services of the third Couperin in succession that they
managed to secure the support of Michel-Richard de
Lalande, future master of the Chapel Royal, who agreed
to hold the position provisionally until François
Couperin came of age. During this time the latter
completed his training with the royal organist Jacques
Thomelin. With him he studied polyphony based on
plainchant themes, the ricercari of Frescobaldi,
chaconnes and secular works such as dances and songs.
In 1685 François Couperin was installed as
organist at St Gervais where he received his full title in
1689. Benefiting from the splendour of the many
ceremonies there, he came across Bossuet and his art of
funeral oration, Madame de Sévigné, doubtless Racine
and other famous writers and artists.
On 2nd September 1690, at the age of 22, François
Couperin was authorised by royal privilege to publish
copies of his Pièces d’orgue, consisting of two Masses,
one for ordinary parish use for solemn feasts, the other
proper for convents of monks and nuns. Lalande praised
his protégé’s work as follows: ‘I certify that I have
examined the present organ pieces of Sieur Couperin ...
which I have found very fine and worthy of being
offered to the public’. This work marked the beginning
of the successful career of a composer who was to
become one of the most famous teachers and composers
in the country.
The two Masses by Couperin do not deviate from
the style and form elaborated by his contemporaries. At
this period the organist followed the Parisian
Ceremonial of 1662 that lays down some rules for the
performance of religious offices and the place of the
organ in each of them. The organ, the choir and the
celebrant alternate or combine their contributions to the
liturgy. Each organ piece is short and functional: it can
serve to illustrate a verse or fill a space in the service.
When the organ replaces a verse, this verse is not
spoken and the text of the Mass is incomplete. It was the
tradition then for the text to be spoken in a low voice by
the choir, or in an intelligible voice by a single speaker.
The music then illustrates the meaning and character of
the text, while it is recited. This practice of musical
illustration, sometimes treated metaphorically and with
symbols, is common to other European countries: with
Bach, for example, the text of the chorale is played by
the organ, verse by verse, through the language of
musical rhetoric. Thus Couperin uses a clearly rising
theme (chromatic in parishes and diatonic in convents)
to represent in music the texts of the two Elevations.
There is a similar example in the Dialogue en trio of
cornet and tierce for parishes, where the idea of ‘very
high’ is suggested by a c´´´´´ with the highest organ stop.
Without forgetting the importance of the sense of
each part of the office, we have here chosen to offer the
organ pieces independently from the alternating
plainchant. As is happily done for the chorale preludes
of a Buxtehude or Bach, also influenced by religious
texts, we have preferred to highlight the purely musical
content rather than attempt a liturgical reconstruction,
hazardous in the case of the Mass for convents, where
no known plainchant is given.
The two Masses include 21 pieces that follow the
same order: Kyrie (5), Gloria (9), Offertory (1), Sanctus
and Benedictus (3), Agnus Dei (2) and Deo gratias (1).
Written for a large instrument of three manuals and
pedals, the Parish Mass follows the order of tones of the
Mass Cunctipotens Genitor Deus, namely: D minor
(Tone I), A minor (Tone IV), C major (Tone V) and
F major (Tone VI). The plainchant there is clearly
identifiable as is shown in the passages for full organ,
where, on a bass or tenor on the reeds, the cantus firmus
is given in long notes, interspersed with skilful
polyphonic and harmonic textures.
Less solemn and more intimate, the Convent Mass
is relatively more concise and easy to perform. It is
intended for a modest instrument with two manuals,
perhaps with a simple pedal coupler. The clear sound of
G major (Tone VIII) offers music that is concise and has
a remarkable freshness of inspiration. In all these pieces
the ease of modulation, the ornamentation, the imitative
writing, canons, fugues and dissonant effects reveal
The composer, however, does not content himself
with traditional practice and writing for four voices: he
makes way for the new practices of ballet and opera in
the tradition of Lully. There are da capo arias, tender
airs, duets, trios and dialogues notably inspired by the
motets. Furthermore, like his contemporaries François
Couperin considered the organ as an instrument that
offered a synthesis, representing a ‘society of heaven
and earth’, rather like the theatre. Thus the majority of
the mixture of stops is mimetic, evoking nature or the
feelings of the human soul. For example the crumhorn
imitates the singer’s voice, the tierce en taille suggests
the viol, and ‘characters’ can be distinguished, lively
(the cornet or basse de trompette), or calm and nostalgic
(the voix humaine). The composer also introduces into
the church dance rhythms: there are minuets (the cornet
in the Messe des Couvents), sarabandes (dialogue on the
voix humaine), gavottes (duo on the tierces) or Italian
gigues (duo on the tierces in the Messe des paroisses).
With the offertories in these two Masses Couperin
took the opportunity to create larger musical structures
in the form of triptychs. The offertory in the Messe des
paroisses begins with a French overture in C major,
followed by a combination of trios and dialogues. The
second movement is slow, chromatic, and the harmonic
encounters are sometimes very dissonant. A final
section follows in the form of a gigue on the three
manuals. As in the case of the Prelude and Fugue in
E flat major, BWV 552, of J.S. Bach, it is usual today to
see in this offertory a tribute to the Trinity: the majesty
of the Father, the suffering of the Son, the speaking of
the Spirit. The offertory in the Messe des couvents,
more Italian in character, at first offers a series of free
variations on a melody accented in the manner of a
passepied. The second part, in G minor, offers a fugato
meditation in duple rhythm, and the last panel of the
triptych is built on a popular song, Louez le Dieu
puissant (Praise powerful God). The rhythm tightens
gradually and gives way to a serious and majestic
English version by Keith Anderson
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COUPERIN, F.: Organ Masses