Couperin Preludes

I’m a big fan of French unmeasured preludes, as I’ve mentioned before. I always have a blast trying to interpret all the little ambiguous notes, and trying to make them musical. They’re also such exquisite pieces of pure harpsichord music! (of course, unmeasured preludes exist for other instruments as well, but they they’re idiomatic for those instruments instead!)

Fran├žois Couperin wrote a series of 8 preludes in his L’Art de toucher le clavecin which are particularly intriguing because, while he suggests they be played freely, they are very precise in their rhythmic notation as well, so there’s always a question of how much you can step outside of those rhythms, and how you do so.

A few weeks ago, Thomas Dent posted a recording of the first prelude to the harpsichord mailing list that were quite striking in how he moves individual 8th notes around in a fairly systematic way, but keeps the overall rhythm fairly strict. Personally, I feel that maybe this is a little bit backwards – to me, small changes within a stable beat characterize not an unmeasured piece, but just a typical baroque, and especially French baroque, approach to meter and rhythm. What makes the unmeasured pieces special, to me, isn’t that the small notes are flexible, but that the big beats don’t have to have the structured regularity that most French music, with its basis in dances, always seems to have.

With that in mind, I made a few recordings of my own of the first prelude, trying to emphasize different things. First of all, I tried to do the opposite of Thomas, just to see if I could! This version keeps the eighth notes fairly regular, but speeds up and slows down and stops on a few big beats. I think this is more or less the way I used to play this.

Then I tried adding in the sort of 8th note flexibility that Thomas talks about, while still thinking about the bigger beats. I think it’s quite successful, though I could stand to spend a bit more time on it, for sure! I found that, even though the notated rhythm is very similar from bar to bar, there are many different ways that Couperin uses the syncopated notes. Sometimes they are suspensions, sometimes they’re anticipations, etc..

Finally, I just bashed through, half-way ignoring the page, and making up my own sorts of things. Great fun! It’s not just pointless silliness though, by any stretch: I find it very useful, when trying to find out what little notes mean, to try improvising similar patterns. When improvising, I won’t play something ‘just because it’s there’ (because it isn’t!) but rather, I play things because it makes sense for where I’m taking the music. Doing this with this particular piece gave me a better sense of where the harmonies move, and what each syncopation is really trying to accomplish. Definitely a useful exercise!

So what conclusions are to be drawn? Mainly that there are many ways to interpret any piece as free as a prelude, measured or not. I think it’s important to keep in mind the underlying harmonies though, and to find a reason for every note to be where it is. Without that figured out, it’s nearly impossible to play the piece in a way that will hang together.

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