Louis Couperin, de Grigny, and Bach

Matthew J. Hall, organ

“In the art of the organ, he took the works of Bruhns, Reincken, Buxtehude, and several good French organists as models.” So wrote Johann Friedrich Agricola and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in 1754 in Johann Sebastian Bach’s obituary. C. P. E. Bach reiterated this in 1775 when he wrote to Johann Nicolaus Forkel that his father had “heard and studied…some old and good Frenchmen.”

Who were these Frenchmen? Jacques Boyvin’s two organ books (1689 and 1700) are transmitted in the hand of Bach’s apprentice Johann Caspar Vogler. Bach copied de Grigny’s organ book (1699), as well as the harpsichord collections of Charles Dieupart (1701) and Jean-Henri d’Anglebert (1689); the latter volume includes six organ pieces. In addition, there are historical hints that Bach may have had more personal engagement with French musicians: the encounter with Louis Marchard in Dresden in 1717 is well known, though what exactly actually transpired is less clear. Even more foggily, a nineteenth-century member of the Couperin family stated that her ancestor François Couperin had exchanged letters with Bach, but that Bach’s letters had been used to cover jam pots.

How did French music influence Bach? In some cases, we know that Bach adopted French repertory. One of François Couperin’s pieces was copied into the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. Jakob Adlung remembered hearing Bach “play the pieces of Marchand from memory in his own way, that is, briskly and ingeniously.” There are also examples of clear, direct influence of specific French pieces on Bach’s compositions: Boyvin’s Grand plein jeu continu seems to be the basis for the middle section of Bach’s Pièce d’orgue BWV 572. Bach arranged a trio from François Couperin’s Les Nations for organ as the Aria BWV 587; some of the obbligato pedal writing in this arrangement reappears in Bach’s trio sonatas. Some scholars believe that d’Anglebert’s five organ fugues, all on the same subject and each exploring a different contrapuntal procedure and rhythmic cast, was a source of inspiration for Bach’s Art of Fugue.

Such influences are easiest to trace, but ultimately are not those that I am exploring on this recital. Instead, consider the similarities between Bach’s music and what I will call Couperin’s “narrative” sense and de Grigny’s “mystical” sense.

The influence of the North German organ school is so central to Bach’s organ music that its influence on other organ traditions is easily overshadowed. Such is the case with Louis Couperin. Louis Couperin’s connection with German repertory and techniques comes through Johann Jakob Froberger, whom he met in 1651–2. Although the influence is best known through the free unmeasured Prélude à l’imitation de M. Froberger, Froberger, who studied counterpoint with Johann Ulrich Steigleder (him of the Tabulaturbuch das Vater Unser) and Samuel Scheidt, also influenced Couperin in the strict style. Figural elaborations of a cantus firmus in polyphonic style like the Cantus firmus en alto on Pange Lingua recall the music of Scheidt and Steigleder. Couperin’s Trio on Pange Lingua is in a mixed style: the texture and imitative technique is typical of the North German school, but the written-out ornamentation recalls Froberger’s assimilation of Italian models. Like Louis Couperin’s music, Bach’s Fuga sopra il Magnificat BWV 733 is in a mixed style. The harmonies and treatment of the cantus firmus in the pedal recall French models; the systematic layout of canonic cantus firmus entries is indebted to North German models.

Couperin’s use of dissonance in durezze e ligature movements like the Fantaisie Duretez seems to me to be aiming for more than the cheap thrills that often characterize such movements. Instead of, “Hey, listen to these whacky chords,” or “Watch me paint myself into a corner and then get out if it,” the techniques take a back seat to the unfolding of a musical-emotional narrative: dissonant, angular melodies and false relations are tempered by smooth sequences, and intermediate crests lead inexorably to a point of maximal passion. Surprisingly, the ultimate climax is relatively consonant, high, and thinner in texture. I hear in this a musical depiction of a psychological drama of mounting confusion, anxiety, and fevered thinking that is relieved in an instant by serendipitous but fleeting insight. Such is the drama that I hear also in Bach’s setting of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 659, particularly at the line where “the Virgin’s child is recognized as the Savior, and the whole world wonders.” There is no evidence that Bach knew Louis Couperin’s music; instead, it is a question of two masters working in shared rhetorical forms — though in different musical genres.

With de Grigny, however, the influence was direct. Bach could not have failed to notice de Grigny’s contrapuntal sophistication, particularly the skillful and frequent use of five-part texture, when he copied out de Grigny’s organ book. The Fantasia in C minor BWV 562 — in de Grigny’s organistic SATTB, not Bach’s more Italianate SSATB configuration — is the work most clearly influenced by de Grigny. But again, the influence extends beyond technical aspects: Bach adopted de Grigny’s aesthetic sensibility as well. De Grigny’s five-part fugues are all severe treatments of severe subjects, with sudden changes of texture and rhythm. Unlike the stringing together of sections in North German ricercars or the short-breathed quality fugues of other French Classical composers, the “scenes” in de Grigny’s fugues organize an architecture of the whole. In each section of the fugue on the Eucharistic hymn Pange Lingua, a climactic note, a striking harmony, or an ornamental flourish is achieved and then held, as if out of time, meter, and harmony; as the sections accumulate, the ear and mind are drawn to ever deeper contemplation. Likewise in Bach’s Fantasia, the counterpoint is larded with dissonances and ornaments; the sequential episodes in triple counterpoint, although in a thinner texture, intensify the discourse with ever harsher cross relations and wilder modulations. The heart of the Fantasia, a quiescent pedal point on E-flat, is balanced (or rather countered) by the final, tortured pedal point on C, in which painful dissonance is maintained until the last possible moment before dissolving ecstatically to a major chord. The brilliant coloraturas over the pedal point in this work and at the end of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland are borrowed — practically lifted verbatim — from de Grigny, and are deployed, it seems to me, for a similar transcedent effect.

In this recital I try to use different colors of the Cornell Baroque Organ than are ordinarily heard. I am experimenting with registrations on a 16-foot basis, inspired by the 16-foot Montre and Bourdon manual stops that characterize so many French organs. (To do this, I am frequently playing higher-pitched stops at lower octaves.) I also omit the use of the plenum. In such dark, passionate music as I offer today, and as we brace for winter, these shadowy colors reflect my inner mind’s ear.