Italian Infiltrators at the Court of Versailles

Couperin's music is charming like these little flowers. © Charles Thibo
Couperin’s music is charming like these little flowers. © Charles Thibo

Have I told you about my enthusiasm for Arcangelo Corelli’s music? And about the French Baroque ensemble Gli Incogniti led by the violinist Amandine Beyer? I think so, last year in a post in October. Well, Gli Incogniti has made another wonderful recording: a collection of works written by François Couperin, French grandmaster of the harpsichord and composer of the French Royal Court under Louis XIV. In 1724, Couperin published an Italian style sonata whose subject precisely is Corelli: “Le Parnasse, ou l’Apothéose de Corelli” (Mount Parnassus or the Apotheosis of Corelli).

Corelli at Mount Parnassus

The piece is written in seven movements illustrating Corelli’s prayer to the Muses at Mount Parnassus, his joy over the warm welcome, Corelli drinking from the Hippocrene source, his enthusiasm caused by the enchanted water, Corelli’s sleep, Corelli being awakened by the Muses and led to Apollo. The piece closes with Corelli’s expression of gratitude. Thus Couperin is paying his respect to a fellow composer and to Europe’s cultural heritage.

François Couperin was born in 1668 in Paris and promised the organist’s post at St. Gervais, a church in the center of Paris, at the age of ten upon his father’s death. He was a musically precocious child and, as an appointed organist, started to write masses. He became Royal Organist on Christmas Day in 1693 at the age of 25. Around that time, he started to experiment clandestinely with Italian style music, while assuming his duty at the court. He would compose chamber music for Madame de Maintenon’s sunday concerts at Versailles, but mostly small pieces of church music for the French king’s private services. Louis XIV was a musician too, but he saw the use of music strictly as part of the Royal protocol.

Glory and seduction

However, Couperin was in love with beautiful melodies and gradually let the Italian style infiltrate his works of sacred music. Here is how The Oxford Companion to Music puts it: “The mixture of Italian and French Style results in a delicate sensuousness quite unlike anything else in the history of church music.” The Baroque king did not mind: At that time, spirituality had two faces. On the one hand, since the Council of Trent (see the post on Cavalieri), Arts were supposed to participate in the renewed glorification of God and his church. On the other hand, Arts were also supposed to seduce ordinary folks and attract them to church. Glory and seduction, those were the Catholic weapons to reclaim its territory after Martin Luther had proclaimed a new approach to Christian faith – Protestantism – and met an unexpected success.

Gli Incogniti presents on this recording another charming work, dedicated this time to his predecessor as a composer for the Royal Court, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Lully’s own apotheosis: “Concert Instrumental sur le titre d’Apothéose à la mémoire immortelle de l’incomparable Monsieur Lully”. It was published under this pompous title in 1725. Lully was almost considered a saint by many in France. In their eyes, only Lully with his pure style – free of any decadent, elaborate, that is Italian elements – could be considered as the true exponent of French music. Couperin had to be careful with his love for Italian music – there was a line traced in the sand of Versailles: Trespassing the line could well mean falling from grace. Unthinkable for a Royal Composer!

© Charles Thibo

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