Harpsichord News

March 7, 2017


Lessons from Couperin

It was not until my first academic sabbatical semester in the late 1970s that I took the time to learn all eight of the preludes published in the remarkable method, L’Art de toucher le Clavecin (1716–1717) by François Couperin “le Grand,” organist, harpsichordist, and Ordinaire de la Musique at the Court of France’s Louis XIV. My scholastic harpsichord study had not been lengthy: a year of intense lessons with Isolde Ahlgrimm (with as much practice as possible) at the Salzburg Mozarteum (1958–59) followed by two of the revelatory three-week summer courses with Gustav Leonhardt in Haarlem (1964 and 1967) comprised the sum total of formal guidance at the instrument.

Ahlgrimm was an inspiring mentor: fluent in many languages, at the time learning baroque dance from Vienna State Opera ballerina Rikki Raab, and fresh from her path-breaking Bach cycle for Philips, the Dutch recording company. My first repertoire assignments from her included a few pieces by the English Virginalists, several short selections by the Austrian composer Paul Hofhaymer (rushed into the schedule when I was tagged on extremely short notice to fill in as harpsichordist for a 500th anniversary celebration in Radstadt, the composer’s birthplace), and signature pieces by Couperin (Les Baricades mistérieuses and B-minor Passacaille), plus, for the year’s finale concert, Bach’s A-minor English Suite. The Mozarteum’s harpsichord was a tank-like Maendler-Schramm double, joined at the end of the year by a new Sperrhake, its size, as Frau Ahlgrimm noted, larger than many of the rooms in which she had slept!1

Leonhardt’s seminars covered more repertoire: multiple suites by Louis Couperin and Johann Jakob Froberger, plus the big Bach masterpieces, as well as other German and Dutch pieces, all offered with a great deal of mind-changing ideas about number symbolism, rare manuscript variants, and the valuable lessons gained from his Martin Skowroneck two-manual harpsichord, my first encounter with an historic copy instrument, an experience that determined my future preferences and resulted in my first William Dowd instrument, completed in December 1968.

By the time of that first sabbatical leave I had moved to Dallas to take over the harpsichord program begun by James Tallis (who, sadly, died in 1969 at the beginning of his second year on the Southern Methodist University faculty). Our harpsichord class had blossomed: students were legion; majors and minors filled my load, which also included teaching ten organ majors. Organist colleague Robert Anderson had a full studio of twenty major students. As I look back at those years of vibrant organ and harpsichord enrollments I reflect on the irony of it all: while trying to hone my teaching skills I was besieged with candidates, but by the time I was experienced and, hopefully, had something valuable to teach them, the number of students in these majors had begun its national downward trajectory.

During the years when organists made up the majority of harpsichord students (two semesters of harpsichord study were required for the master’s degree in organ) one could expect some level of knowledge about Baroque performance practice, legato playing, and other organistic skills. With the decline in number of majors, but aided by the welcome encouragement of my colleague, superb pianist Joaquin Achúcarro (who encouraged his brilliant piano students to study harpsichord and/or organ, thus following the Maxims of the composer Robert Schumann), one was required to introduce most basic Baroque stylistic concepts and techniques, and here we arrive at the discussion of these remarkable Couperin examples.

I adopted the eight preludes as the required foundation for harpsichord study. Every subsequent harpsichord student began with Prelude One (C major). Many of the advanced players found it extremely difficult to make music of something they regarded as a simple exercise. Couperin’s fingerings, promoting his new-found style of finger substitution as a basis for producing a fine legato, are relevant today, although getting a contemporary player to forego the constant use of a pivotal thumb is a difficult task for both student and teacher. (I do not forbid thumb use, but make its use less “ordinary.”) 

Prelude Two (D minor) seems light years advanced in difficulty. (I continually wonder how Couperin’s students fared? Probably they had a better teacher!). So, instead of assigning it next, I move to Prelude Four (F major), which seems a more logical successor to Prelude One. (It even begins with the same mordent and follows that with a similar bass note one octave lower). This piece, however, adds a wonderful introduction to the sliding of the second finger from A-flat to A-natural (as in the penultimate measure’s bass line).

I then move back to the Third Prelude (G minor), which provides a lesson in listening. There is one totally wrong note in the original engraving of this piece, a note not corrected in the 1717 second printing. It is the unique rare example in which one can prove that the note is incorrect! (I had, in my devotion to the text, played it wrong for quite a long time before I was led to the truth at a Bernard Lagacé masterclass.) The proof that the bass B-flat on beat four of measure 16 should be C, a whole step higher, is shown by the guide note in the original print which clearly indicates a C. Perhaps this is the reason that the composer and engraver did not bother to change it in the subsequent edition? Engraving another whole copper plate, after all, would have been extremely tedious and expensive.

But what a lesson this makes: nearly all of us are far too bound by the printed notes in a score. It is rare, in my experience, that any piece of music is totally accurate. Printing errors, human errors—they do exist. So, by using this splendid example during lessons, I assign the piece and wait to hear what will ensue. Will the student hear an ugly sound on that beat, note the sequence deviation in the bass pattern, and at least question it? Or not?

Usually “or not” wins! And what a teaching moment that becomes, when I can simply say, “Use your ears! If it sounds wrong, it probably IS wrong, especially for music of this tonal style!” Having the original printed error to buttress the argument (and sometimes it did turn into an argument: “How could you be sure?” “Change a note in the score? How awful,” et cetera)—that was both valuable and necessary. Then we point out the offending measure and bless the fact that the incorrect note came at the change of staves (quite possibly because of this change, in fact). Lesson learned: listen and be vigilant, even when playing from Ur- or Ur-Urtexts!

Finally, in the ordering of the first half of these eight pieces, the Second Prelude in D minor provides a triumphant conclusion and a well-earned sense of achievement when its technical challenges are mastered.

Usually from that point on I leave it up to the student to select an order for the “final four” pieces, having often wondered why Couperin put them in his chosen printed sequence? The pieces do increase in difficulty, but my reaction to the order of the final two usually leads me to play Number Eight (E minor) before Number Seven (a stately French Ouverture Prelude in B-flat Major), especially if I am programming all of the pieces and interspersing them with quotations from the lively dialogues the composer has provided in his Observations. Of these bon-mots my absolute favorite is typical: “A reflection: Men who wish to attain a certain degree of perfection at the harpsichord should never do any rough work with their hands. Women’s hands, on the contrary, are generally better for harpsichord playing . . . .”

What a wonderful response should your significant other try to shame you into doing yard work or other (non-practicing) manual labor!

About editions: I prefer the Alfred Masterwork Edition, edited by Margery Halford. It provides the full text in French with an English translation in a printing that has no obvious errors (save for Couperin’s, as noted above), and one that is refreshingly both “Made in America” and inexpensive. Performance suggestions, printed in light gray, may be helpful for some ornaments, but Mrs. Halford and I have had a long-term disagreement about the performance of the so called “passing appoggiatura”—basically a passing note, especially in the figure of the descending third. The editor once admitted that she likes my interpretation of these petite notes as unaccented passing tones, but asserted that there was no documentary evidence for performing them in that manner (i.e., before the beat, not on it).

About the time that I was learning these pieces, that is, the late 1970s, a number of players, independently, began treating these notes as passing tones. Among them were Leonhardt (several years after the classes with him) and other luminaries; all of us just happened to start doing it independently. I am pleased to share with our readers that the world did not come to an end (at that juncture), and that Robert Donington, in the second revised edition of his The Interpretation of Early Music (W. W. Norton, 1992) clarified the “passing-ness” of those little notes with his Postscript to Chapter 18 (page 228), as well as his citing of Leopold Mozart and a French writer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Dictionaire de musique, Paris, 1768), who clinches the argument with his native authority (page 227). 

Other than that, and not warning of the wrong note in one of her many footnotes, the Halford edition is a fine one. A caution: one to avoid is the 1930s German Breitkopf edition of L’Art (edited by Anna Linde), in which many of the fast note groupings have been changed to reflect correct mathematically barred patterns, but thereby lose their graphic, semi-improvisatory visual invitations to “play fast, and fit them in as you are able.” If you want a true 18th-century feeling, choose one of several facsimile editions, but only if you wish to deal with soprano and alto C-clefs. Both Broude Brothers and Fuzeau have published reprints of the original 18th-century copper engravings.

I continue to love Couperin’s exceptional contributions to harpsichord pedagogy and frequently play them as the warm-up musical pieces they were intended to be. In retirement from academe, I continue to instruct several mature students; even those who are currently teaching music themselves are required to traverse François-le-Grand’s stylistic and basic introduction to their new and unfamiliar instrument. Only after they have learned to control these beautiful sounds are they permitted to proceed on to other Baroque and subsequent pieces that drew them to the harpsichord in the first place.


In Memoriam: Paul Wolfe 


The last of Wanda Landowska’s American students passed away in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Christmas Day. I am gathering material for a more detailed memoir of this gentle man and fine musician. If any reader has information, vignettes, or pictures of Paul, I would appreciate receiving your contributions for a memorial tribute to be published next month.



1. For more information on Ahlgrimm’s teaching, see Kim Kasling: “Harpsichord Lessons for the Beginner,” The Diapason, March 1977 (also reprinted in Peter
Watchorn’s fine book, Isolde Ahlgrimm, Vienna and the Early Music Revival, Ashgate Publishing, Burlington, Vermont, 2007).

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