Couperin’s Mass for the Parishes

François Couperin, 1668-1733

François Couperin, 1668-1733

This Sunday, I will be playing selections from François Couperin’s (1668-1733) Mass for the Parishes (Messe des paroisses pour les fêtes solennelles), written when the composer was 21 years old. He had inherited the position of  organist at St. Gervais at age 11 when his father died, but did not formally take the position until he reached age 18. When he was 28, he was appointed principal organist and court organist for Louis XIV, and he held positions at both St. Gervais and the court until his retirement. Today we find it incredible to have such longevity in a job!

During this time of the French Baroque, the use of the organ was strictly regulated in the church, and the organist played couplets in alternation with the chants sung by the choir (schola) for the main parts of the service: Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. We can tell from the titles of the pieces that the color of the organ was foremost, because the titles tell what registration (stops) were to be used. For example, for the prelude I’ll be playing the 8th Couplet for the Tu solus altissimus with the subtitle “Dialogue en trio du cornet et de la tierce,” which refers to the organ stops to be used.

During communion, I’ll be playing “Tierce en taille” (Third in the tenor) which again refers to a certain organ stop. This piece was in fact requested by organbuilder Rudolf von Beckerath at the dedication of our organ in 1975, which was played by Carl Crosier. Then when we received news of Herr von Beckerath’s death in 1976, I played this piece in his memory at the Sunday service following the news. It therefore become a very special piece for us as a couple, so I played it for our wedding in 1977 at the communion.

For the postlude, I’ll play the 2nd Couplet, Fugue sur les grands jeux, which refers to full organ.

When we were in Paris two years ago, we went to St. Gervais to hear an organ recital. What was most surprising to us was that the performer played the Star Spangled Banner! We happened to be there on the weekend of the Fourth of July, but I found it strange to hear American music in Couperin’s church!

I took a picture of the choir rehearsal last night at St. Andrew’s Cathedral to remind you about the Joint Evensong this Sunday night, May 6th at 5:30 pm.

Joint Evensong Rehearsal at St. Andrew's Cathedral

Joint Evensong Rehearsal at St. Andrew's Cathedral

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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2 Responses to Couperin’s Mass for the Parishes

  1. I am intrigued by the use of ‘inherited’ since my recent research into the genesis of Couperin’s organ masses suggests this is exactly what happened. Charles Couperin probably left the position to his son under the practice of survivance, when an outgoing organist could bequeath his position to someone else. I have taken the liberty of adding a quote from the preface to my forthcoming edition of the organ masses in the hope it is something of interest to readers. It has not gone through proofreading yet, so apologies if there are a few typos:

    So much literature has been devoted to François Couperin, that little else remains to be said. He was born in 1668 to an organist father, Charles, who occupied the tribune at Saint-Gervais in Paris, a position that had previously been held by his brother, Louis. Charles Couperin died in 1679 and his position at the church was reserved for François until he reached the age of 18 when he could begin professional activities. At first glance, this appears to be a generous and altruistic move on the part of a church that, indebted to the service of the Couperin brothers and realising the potential the young François displayed, wanted the Couperin presence to be maintained for the foreseeable future. The reality, however, is possibly quite different. A contract drawn up on 26 February 1679 between the Conseil de Fabrique de la Paroisse Saint-Gervais and Couperin’s mother, Marie Guérin, defers to the service of both Charles and Louis and stipulates that François would eventually assume his father’s position. In exchange, François would receive a quarter of his father’s annual income of 400 livres and both he and his mother would be able to maintain their church residence ‘prés saint Germain’. While there are few doubts that Couperin displayed a prodigious talent, the church nevertheless required an organist who could play about 400 services per year, including attendance at five or six masses on major feast days and an interregnum of seven or eight years must have been an unsatisfactory solution for everyone other than the Couperin family. Why the church should go to such measures to maintain the Couperin legacy might, however, be explained by the practice of survivance, which allowed an organist to name his successor, usually a family member, and this probably means that Charles bequeathed his position to his son and, possibly much to their chagrin, the church’s hands were bound. This was, no doubt, the means by which Charles succeeded Louis on his death in 1661 and was most likely the reason why successive generations of Couperin would serve at Saint-Gervais until well into the nineteenth century. There are several recorded instances where churches went against the practice, most notably when Louis Marchand was passed over for the position at Saint-Merri on the death of Nicholas Lebègue in 1702. The position was to be awarded by contest and Marchand won the first and third rounds, but Lebègue had willed the position to a cousin, Henri Mahieux, who was organist at Saint-Landry, a church of lower status in the then fourth arrondissement. The leader of the Saint-Merri conseil was, however, in favour of Marchand’s appointment, whom he attempted to install. The ensuing conflict required the intervention of the Archbishop of Paris, solicited by the Princesse de Conti, for Mahieux to prevail (Pirro, 1903, p. 550). The incident underlines how importantly the practice of survivance was considered and it was possibly in fear of a scandal that the church agreed to maintain the status quo by keeping open the position for the organist apparent.
    There is another curious aspect to the contract since mentions the appointment of Michel Richard Delalande for the interregnum, who would receive the balance of Charles Couperin’s salary with an additional payment for suitable lodgings. Why Delalande should be paid considerably less than his predecessor might indicate that he was unable or unwilling to undertake Charles’s duties at Saint-Gervais in toto. By that part of his career, Delalande was already serving at Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis and, in the ensuing few years, his work was combined with his activities as a composer and tutor to several princesses at the court of Louis XIV. Examining this in light of the conseil’s generosity, it is possible to surmise that more was expected of François than the contract stipulates and it is likely that he was expected to assist in increasing degrees until he was able to assume the organist’s mantle in its entirety. This thesis is supported by an arrêt of the council on 1 November 1685, which increased Couperin’s stipend to 300 livres annually. This suggests that, by that time, Delalande had withdrawn from the position at Saint-Gervais in its entirety, leaving Couperin to assume the mantle nearly a year before he reached his majority. A further increase followed on 3 July 1689, several months after his marriage to Marie-Anne Ansault, when his salary rose to 400 livres. It is probable, therefore, that the interregnum years were akin to an indented apprenticeship, during which Couperin learned his craft and for which he was properly remunerated. Such an arrangement would not have been unusual and there should be few doubts that, had Charles Couperin survived, François would have been increasingly called upon to provide assistance as he matured. Similar schooling would have been commonplace for other musicians: Louis Marchand, for example, appears to have been working alongside his father, possibly in a similar capacity, from at least the age of 15 (Baffert, 1985, pp. 297–298). Whether or not Delalande’s role during these formative years included an involvement in Couperin’s musical education cannot be said with any certainty, but there are few reasons to suggest otherwise. Unfortunately, our only knowledge away from the few minutes of the Saint-Gervais church council comes in the form of anecdotal evidence in Évrard Titon du Tillet’s Le Parnassus françois, which informs us:

    [The] young Couperin found in [Jacques] Thomelin, organist of the Church of Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie, a man very celebrated for his art, a second father who was pleased to perfect in him [his skills at] the organ, harpsichord and in composition.

    We should, though, approach this account with a degree of circumspection since Tillet was prone to inaccuracies and exaggeration and some of his biographies are fanciful to the extent that his validity as a source should be questioned in its entirety. Indeed, we know that during the years until Couperin had reached his majority, Guérin had engages a number of ‘different music masters of the clavecin and organ’ in order for Couperin to become proficient enough to ‘fill the place of organist’ at Saint-Gervais (Hardouin, 1955, pp. 115–116). We must also consider Delalande’s role at Saint-Gervais. If the apprentice thesis is correct, then there are few reasons to doubt his role would not have been influential in developing Couperin’s abilities as a liturgical musician as he prepared to take on the full responsibilities at Saint-Gervais.

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