Guy Oldham plays organ works of Louis Couperin

A review of a concert at First Congregational Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan, on 12 July 1989.

Louis Couperin (1626-1661) is best known as one the great founders of the French school of harpsichord composers, and as the first of his family to be introduced to Parisian musical life. He brought the unmeasured prelude to an early perfection; these, along with his stylish and harmonically daring dance pieces, were published (from manuscript sources) only in the twentieth century. During his own time, however, he was widely known as organist of St. Gervais from 1653 until his untimely death, and as a composer who showed a high contrapuntal artifice. The lack of availability of his organ works has kept organists from playing his music, and has kept historians from recognizing his crucial importance in the development of French baroque organ music.

All but a few of Couperin’s surviving organ works are found in a manuscript, owned by Guy Oldham since the late 1950s, and described by David Fuller as “one of the most important discoveries for the history of keyboard music made in this century.” The manuscript contains works by several composers, copied by several hands; the largest section includes some seventy-nine pieces by Louis Couperin—a few pieces for harpsichord and for instrumental ensemble, but mostly organ pieces, many of them with precise dates (between 1650 and 1659) and other annotations. So far Mr. Oldham has been rather reticent with the music: he has edited for publication only two pieces for shawm band, and allowed a selection of organ and ensemble works to be recorded (the organ works by Michel Chapuis, DGG ARC 73261), but has declined to allow the harpsichord works to be included in Davitt Moroney’s 1985 edition of Couperin’s Pièces de Clavecin.

The public performance of roughly a third of Louis Couperin’s surviving organ works is a major event. Marilyn Mason, chairman of the University of Michigan’s organ department, is to be commended for persuading Mr. Oldham to bring this music across the Atlantic for the first time as part of the International Organ and Church Music Institute (also co-sponsored by the Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s French Bicentennial Music Series). The concert took place on 12 July 1989 on the 1984 Karl Wilhelm organ of the First Congregational Church, where a rather sparse summer audience suddenly found itself under the spell of an extraordinary genius. The twenty-two organ pieces were selected to afford a representative sampling of the formal and stylistic range of the music. There were examples of several forms developed by later Parisian organists: plainsong pieces, mostly hymns, with the melody heard in various voices and registrations (including a surprising ornamented plainsong récit de tierce); a variety of fugues, some with remarkably specific performance directions (“Fugue quil fault Jouer d’un mouvement fort lent sur la tierce du Grand Clavier avec le tremblant lent”); and free compositions, including a slow plein jeu Prelude (1654) and a Fantaisie (1656) with divisions for the basse de trompette. An impressive early work was a Fantaisie in two movements, dated Nov. 8 and Nov. 15, 1650. The first, subtitled “duretez fantaisie” (Italian durezze) features “harsh” or irregularly resolved suspensions, much in the Frescobaldian manner, and was played upon the plein jeu; this is followed by a fine fugue à la gigue, which finally gives way to a return of the slow, exploratory textures of the opening movement.

As a change of pace and sonority, the program included a few harpsichord pieces; in addition, one of the plainsong hymns was provided with alternatim chant renditions by Robert Breault, a University of Michigan doctoral student. Oldham’s performance, and his interspersed remarks, showed his knowledge and love of the music; his registrations were especially ingenious and faithful to the spirit of the music: he resisted the temptation to add extraneous pedal, and he projected the music well on an instrument that is adequate but not ideal for this repertory. Among the many organists in the audience one could sense mouths watering and fingers itching to get their hands on the music. We are assured that Mr. Oldham intends to publish both an edition and a facsimile in the coming year. If this promise is fulfilled, the organ music of Louis Couperin will soon be studied, performed, admired and loved throughout the world.

Afterword: Fourteen years after this concert, the promise was at last fulfilled. In 1995 Davitt Moroney issued a recording of Louis Couperin’s complete organ works on three compact disks (Radio-France: Collection Tempéraments TEM 316001-2-3). Finally, on 30 September 2003, the l’Oiseau-Lyre edition was released, and Louis Couperin's organ works are finally available for performance and study.

David Warren Steel
University of Mississippi

Copyright © 1989 by D.W. Steel

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