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Early Music, Music Feature

Part 2 of 5

February 26, 2014 - most recently updated on January 2, 2017, Easthampton, MA:

Second of Five Parts

Suites or Collections?

Most of the clavecinistes did not, in fact, arrange their pièces de clavecin in suites as we understand them, like those of J.S. Bach, but rather issued them in collections called "Livre(s)" under the heading Pièces de clavecin en… followed by their key signature. In some cases, they were grouped in suite-like order by dance rhythm, and the order was never entirely random. In other cases, subsequent editors/publishers sub-divided them and called them "suites," and some performers have also played and recorded them that way. A good example is those of Rameau, who published three books, the first entitled, Premier livre de pièces de clavecin in 1706, the second, Pièces de clavessin avec une Méthode pour la mechanique [sic] des doigts; Où l'on enseigne les moyens de se procurer une parfaite éxecution [sic] sur cet instrument, in 1724, and the third, Nouvelles suites de clavecin, in 1728. The confusion caused by these titles is readily understood; nowhere in any of them is the word 'suite' ever used. Some editors and performers completely ignored the 1706 set: for example, William Christie recorded only the second two sets, subdividing them into two suites each, even though they are not so divided in the original editions. Christophe Rousset performs all three collections as sets (See Appendix C: for details). Kenneth Gilbert's excellent 1978 edition of the complete Rameau harpsichord music includes all three books with facsimile reproductions of their title pages, prefaces, and all other textual material (other than the privilèges), including a "Table des agréments," for those which have any. See Appendix B: Clavecinistes' Compositional Output for details of other clavecinistes' organization of their pièces.

Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (1601/11-1672) is considered to be the founder of the French harpsichord school and to have established the types of dance rhythms used and the order in which they were arranged, generally ouverture, allemande, courante, sarabande, gavotte, menuet, and gigue. This selection and order of dance rhythms, that which J.S. Bach (1685-1750; his life dates need to be recalled as points of reference, and it should also be recalled that most of his music in these forms was written 1713-1723, before he went to Leipzig, so he was not familiar with the clavecinistes' character/genre pieces when writing his own) used in the majority of his keyboard works (others were in Italian forms, such as the capriccio), is far from the universal practice that is often assumed in consequence of the nature and universal knowledge and popularity of his suites. Some substitutions (or additions), often called galanteries, particularly for the later movements in this sequence, were also fairly common with various composers, and include the passepied and rondeau, for example, and the bourée, gaillarde, and canari(e)s, rhythms popular with lute composers, and occasionally the chaconne and passacaille; a few have airs.

Chambonnières' first two collections, Les Pièces de Clavessin de Monsieur de Chambonnieres, Livre I, and Livre II were published in 1670 (and 1672?; it has no date, and some believe both were published in 1670, but they are two separate publications with totally different title-page designs, although by the same printer, and it was clearly published before his death). In both the books and the manuscript of the unpublished pièces ("Bauyn MS, BNF, Music Dept., Réserve Vm7 674-675, dated 1660-1670?; not an autograph by the composer), the works are arranged according to key signature and are never called "suites," indeed they do not have any labels, but some editors and performers have called them "suites." Within each book and in the manuscript, many of the pièces are in the standard order, with allemandes first, courantes second, etc., but with several allemandes and several courantes grouped together, for example, so they are more like compilations catalogued by key signature and would certainly never have been performed this way. The works of Louis Couperin were never published, and are primarily found in two manuscripts, neither in the composer's hand, the oldest the Bauyn, the same one that contains the works of Chambonnières; the second is the Parville MS, UC Berkeley, Music Lib., MS 778, dated 1670-1690?. The préludes (See below) are all grouped together as well. It is pretty clear that it was assumed by the writer of the manuscript that performers would choose from the pièces and assemble a group that worked well together to perform. It can only be assumed that the writer of the manuscript was copying from ones written by the composers. Virtually none of their pièces were character/genre works. Some composers grouped large numbers of pièces, even 20 or more, together in a set, including François Couperin whose Premier and Quatrième Ordres have 18 each and his Second Ordre 22; they certainly would not have all been performed in a single recital or sitting. The Ordres in his first two books contain greater numbers of individual pièces while those in the second pair contain relatively few, another inherent and self-evident clue to his performance intentions.

Generally speaking, the arrangement of pièces under the heading "Suite" came with the later clavecinistes, although Nicolas Le Bègue did so as early as 1687 in his Pièces de clavessin Livre II. However, the word appears to be used more as a descriptive term than a title, since, for the first two, it appears not at the head of the set, but at the end of the opening allemande, written between the treble and bass staves, and it is always followed by the name of the key signature, for example: "Suitte en g ré sol b" (Suite in G D G B). It is written in the same form when it appears above the first treble stave of a set beginning with the third, when "Allemande" is written between the staves. For the fifth and sixth, "Allemande" appears above the first treble stave and "Suitte En f Ut f a" and "Suitte En g ré sol #" respectively on the far right above the stave. The word "Suitte" is also written at the top of every page which is the continuation of the score on the preceding page. All this makes it quite clear that the term was not then perceived as a title in the way that we view it.

Other than Le Bègue's publication, it was at a considerably later time that the concept that a set needed to be played in its entirety and in the published order took hold more firmly. Dieupart's of c. 1701 (See below) were like this, but he was living in London where the concept took hold earlier. Prior to the third decade of the 18th century, it was assumed, and occasionally even stated, that the pièces could be played not only in any order, but also with any one or several selected from the collection without the others being offered in a given performance, and even combined with appropriate pièces (in the same key, for example, or of the same type in a different key) by other composers in a single set once they were available in publications, some of which were collections of pièces by several composers. This holds true both for the dance-rhythm named and character/genre pieces, and even for the earlier works of François Couperin in his first two Livres (1707, 1716/17), until the later "Ordres" in the second two Livres (1723, 1727), which are clearly designed to be performed in order and as wholes. So it is perfectly acceptable for a present-day harpsichordist to offer a single pièce. S/He could also easily select a group of pièces in the same key or of the same type by a single or a group of composers as a segment of a program, for example, without having any need to feel that the composer's/composers' wishes were being violated. This is likely the way the clavecinsites played them themselves, although they were rarely playing those by their colleagues for reasons already mentioned. Indeed, some pièces, such as Rameau's magnificent "La Poule," are so individually creative, stunning, and unique in their concept and realization, that they veritably demand performance as stand-alones, and undoubtedly were in their day.

François (or Charles?; His biographer used the latter, which a couple documents also record, but his scores are all signed "F.") Dieupart followed the standard order in his Six Suites Pour Clavessin published without a date, but probably before 1701, in Amsterdam. He was living in England by 1700, perhaps somewhat earlier. The score says that they may also be played on the violin or flute with a bass viol or archlute, and they have been recorded this way (See Appendix C below). J.S. Bach clearly knew these works because a manuscript in Berlin (Staatsbibliothek MS pr.8561) in his hand contains copies of Nos. 1 and 6, and several movements in his English suites, as well as in one of his partitas and the Italian Concerto, show close similarities with some of the movements in Dieupart's Suites. It has been speculated that this connection may be the origin/source of the name "English Suites," to distinguish them from those resembling more closely the works of composers living in France. Dieupart's title is undoubtedly influenced by his country of residence, however, even if the works themselves reflect his country of origin. His title may also be the source of Bach's usage of the term. Other later German composers also admired the clavecinistes: for example, Johannes Brahms edited the works of François Couperin in 1888.

A number of the collections of pièces by various composers, beginning with Chambonnières, have movements entitled "Double," numbering from a single one to as many as six, with one, two or three being the most common occurrences. These are not repeats, which are marked "reprise," but rather variations on the preceding pièce, and they have nothing to do with the doublé agrément (See below). This was the French claveciniste equivalent of an air with variation(s), but they are also different from that genre in other traditions, such as Beethoven's "Diabelli Varaitions" or Brahms' "Haydn Variations," since the original is a part of a set rather than a separate composition being used as the basis for an entire work. In both cases, the "double" and the "reprise," however, the music represents an embellished version of the preceding pièce. Sometimes the "double(s)" are considered to be a continuation but integral part of the preceding pièce, as those of Chambonnières seem to be; other times they are treated as separate pièces. Some of them are written on separate pages in scores, as in Le Bègue's Pièces de clavessin of 1677, adding to the confusion about what constitutes a continuation of a pièce or a separate pièce both in manuscripts and published scores. It is not always easy to determine which is the case for either a given composer or publication. The term does not to my knowledge occur in any works by any composer in any other country, however.

Ornamentation: « Les agrémens »

The heavy use of ornamentation originated in and grew out of the inability of the harpsichord to produce much variety in dynamics – it could not play 'piano' and 'forte' – and because of the almost immediate decay of the sound produced by the plucked rather than struck string. The ornaments were methods devised and developed to increase and prolong the sound and to embellish it. Many of the clavecinistes wrote instructions in prefaces to their scores and developed tables for ornamentation ("agrémen(t)s") also printed with their scores. In his preface to Livre II, François Couperin provides two tables of signs for specific ornamentations, "agrémens" in French. Many other clavecinistes provided tables in their publications; d'Anglebert's was one of the most complete. See Appendix D for a book, unfortunately never translated into English, that compiles all of these instructions and tables. They did not view the ornamentation as something discretionary, something additional to be added which the performer could use or not as s/he wished, or as an improvisatory element, which the performer could invent on the spot, like a cadenza, but rather as a specified integral part of the instructions for playing, a part of its composition, just as a dynamic marking would be today.

The primary « agrémens » are:

Tremblement (& variations thereof/combinations with other agréments) = Trembling, a trill; the symbol in French scores is a horizontal squiggly mark over the note to receive the treatment, which always begins on the note above the note written

Cadence = A trill; this term is also used by some clavecinistes as a synonym of Tremblement; several symbols are therefore used for it: the tremblement one, the one for pincé (See below) above the note, and a close parentheses following the note to receive the treatment

Pincé (& variations thereof/combinations with other agréments) = mordent, a rapid repeat of the same note; the symbol is a small cross with bars of equal length above the note to receive the treatment

Port de voix = a grace note on the half tone rising to the next note, an appoggiatura; the symbol is a 'V' above the note to receive the treatment

Coulé = a grace note descending to a note a third below, a slur, the inverse of the Port de voix; the symbol is an open parentheses

Chute (& variations thereof) = a grace note on the half tone descending to the next note, similar to an appoggiatura, used only by some composers; the symbol is an 'A' above the note to receive the treatment, but sometimes on a score line or between score lines adjacent to it

Doublé = gruppetto; the symbol is a horizontal or vertical one resembling the figure '8' over the note to receive the treatment

Aspiration = a detached note; the symbol is a comma above the note

Suspension = a slight retard in beginning the note; the symbol is an arc with a loop at its summit above the note

(H)Arpège(ment) = Arpeggiation, apreggio; the symbol is a set of vertical dots alongside the notes of the chord

Liaisons ou notes liées = Tied notes

Tierce coulé = arpeggiating a gap between the two notes of a third; the symbol is a diagonal line between the two notes, its orientation indicating rising or descending

Guidons = indicates the beginning of a reprise; the symbol is a sort of squiggly check mark

Coups de canon = cannon fire; the symbol is a series of vertical dots between the top & bottom notes of the chord – used primarily in music imitating battle

As can be readily seen, this can be very confusing and is anything but a standardized system, so one must examine and understand the agréments objectively and then determine how each composer is using and indicating/notating them. They are essential to the expression of the music and to its appeal. It is also easy to understand why most American harpsichordists, who are trained primarily in the German and English traditions which do not use these agréments, steer clear of the French works, since the information about them is also not available in English. The Harvard Dictionary of Music does have entries for some of them and a fine 5.5-page entry on 'Ornamentation.'

A quote from the note by Davitt Moroney in the booklet (p. 3) accompanying a CD of music by Clérambault and others (See Appendix C below), referring to a phrase in d'Anglebert's Gaillarde that arches down and back up to a climax over 8 bars, sums all this up nicely: "In this phrase is encapsulated much of the art and beauty of late 17th-century French harpsichord music: elaborate ornamentation, always at the service of the melody; delight in the instrument's splendid sonority; the pleasures of the unexpected; and a virtuosity which is taken for granted. For all that, this is a quite simple little phrase compared with what follows." It advanced and progressed on steroids in the 18th century. It is all part of the goal of having continuous sound, "de toujours maintenir une corde en vibration" (of always having a string vibrating, i.e., sounding or ringing; the translator of the notes makes it appear to say that the same string is always vibrating), as Christophe Rousset says in his note in the booklet accompanying his Marchand, Rameau CD (See Appendix C below). This also relates to a difference pointed out by Moroney, quoting Jean-Philippe Rameau in his Traité de l'Harmonie of 1722, in his Introduction to his re-edition of the works of Louis Couperin (See below), between playing a chord on the harpsichord and on the organ:

Il faut que le doigt qui frappe le premier, parte toujours avec la Basse, & que les autres se suivent, de façon qu'il semble que le tout soit ensemble ; quoique cela doive former une espece [sic, & for all spelling variants from modern French] d'Harpegement, comme quand on fait passer trois ou quatre triples Croches l'une après l'autre avec vitesse.

The finger [of the right hand] which first strikes a note must play always at the same time as the bass, and the other fingers must follow in such a way that it seems that everything is together, although in fact it should form a sort of arpeggio, such as when one plays three of four demisemiquavers quickly, one after the other. (p. 13; trans. Davitt Moroney)

Le Bègue wrote in the introductory paragraph to his Pièces de Clavecin [Premier Livre, 1777]:

J'ay taché de mettre les préludes avec toute la facilité possible tant pour la Conformité que pour le toucher du clavecin, dont la manière est de Séparer et de rebattre plus tost les accords que de les tenir ensemble comme à l'orgue[. …]

I have attempted to write the preludes with all the ease possible both for conformity and for the manner of playing the harpsichord, which is to separate and repeat sooner the [notes of the] chords rather than playing them all together as on the organ.

This arpeggiated manner of playing chords is called “le style brisé” (broken style), and its heavy use is another feature distinguishing French harpsichord playing style from that of other traditions.

On the subject of ornamentation, Elena Letňanová wrote, in her Piano Interpretation in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; A Study of Theory and Practice Using Original Documents, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991, pp. 18-19:

"[…] unlike present-day notation, the musical text as printed did not provide a precise and detailed elaboration of the composition, but rather established only a ‘framework’ within which the improvisational art of the musician found its true expression. To execute the notation itself then means to complete the melody in all its aspects, that is, to elaborate the ornamentation in conformity with specific rules, realize the figured bass and assume individual responsibility for the nature of the tempo, selection of the dynamics and the agogics, and everything having to do with phrasing and articulation. To the contemporary interpreter, these aspects of interpretation were so clear and easily grasped that the composer could leave them wholly or partly to the performer’s taste and discretion."

Letňanová translates « tremblement » as “shake”; it is, in fact, the attempt to produce on a harpsichord the effect of vibrato on a stringed instrument; they are sometimes marked legato (« lié »), or sometimes « détaché » (separated/staccato); neither is easy to execute (p. 24). Her text is a presentation and explanation, rather than a translation, of Couperin’s 47-page L’Art de toucher le clavecin, which she breaks down its major focuses into nutshells, reproducing some sample scores with ornamentation symbols, and tells how many are the exact opposite of today’s way of representing them.

Needless to say, none of this type of performance is the way a present-day pianist would expect to perform these works on a modern piano from a modern score, most of which do not show the ornamentation symbols, so s/he can easily get it all wrong. S/He must learn this on her/his own, if s/he wants to learn to play them on a harpsichord; because it doesn’t work like this on a modern instrument, they are no longer taught as students to do any of this.

As the potentials of the pianoforte developed, instruments changed and improved, and as composers and performers became familiar with and accustomed to them, the "agrémens" slowly disappeared. Many could not be produced on the piano; some even became unpleasant when executed on the piano, exaggerating something rather than rendering it more attractive, and so were avoided; others became superfluous because they were replaced by something different that the piano offered. Consequently, pianists today are completely unfamiliar with them, and since most harpsichordists began their training as piano students, many of them are equally unfamiliar with them unless they have pursued studies specifically related to the French clavecinistes or in France. It is not at all certain that even Bach knew them, or how to read and interpret the symbols, which are not reproduced in his copies of the works, because they were not a part of any other harpsichord tradition and he never traveled to France. He certainly did not use them even in any of the works that he incorporated or imitated. Scarlatti apparently did not know them.


All of the French clavecinistes were, like J. S. Bach, also organists; indeed, most of them, like François Couperin, were organists before they were harpsichordists; the title page of his 1716 L'Art de toucher le clavecin identifies him as "Organiste du Roi, etc."; and that of jean-Philippe Rameau's 1706 Premier Livre de Pièces de clavecin identifies him as "Organiste des RR-PP Jésuistes de la Rue St. Jacques, et des RR-PP de la Mercy." [RR-PP = Révérands Pères; Holy Fathers]. Some of their compositions were marked for performance on either organ or harpsichord. Organists who played music before the mass or offices began played Preludes, but unlike Bach's, they were not based on the tunes of chorales or hymns to be used in the service, because France was a Roman Catholic, not a Protestant country, so those pieces were more improvisatory and generally based on original or traditional melodies. They are also not unrelated to preludes for the lute, whose origin lay in checking out and testing the instrument to verify that it was properly tuned, and signaling as well, as did organ preludes, that the main event was about to begin, to encourage the audience to settle down.

They later began to use Préludes as the opening work of groups, sets, or suites of dance pieces for the harpsichord. Many are not written out completely; the notes are placed on score lines, but there are no bar lines, so are called "non-mesuré," and do not have any meter indication, so the performer must deduce the rhythm from the music itself. The first part of Rameau's very first harpsichord piece for his 1706 Pièces de clavecin is an example, as are Clérambault's Préludes in his two 1704 suites. The second part of Rameau's has bar lines, making it a hybrid; some of those by Louis Couperin and of Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre's in her 1687 Premier Livre de Pièces de clavecin are hybrids in a different way, having long sections that are non-mesuré interrupted by mesuré stretches in which specific note values are to be observed, and then reverting to non-mesuré to conclude. Some of those by Jean-Henry d'Anglebert in his Pièces de clavecin of 1689 also switch back and forth between the two. Chambonnières, the very first composer of Pièces de clavessin, whose first book published in 1670 (but written over many years beginning in the 1650s or perhaps even earlier) contained no préludes, may nevertheless have written some anonymous ones that are found in manuscripts – the attribution is not absolutely certain, nor can they be dated precisely – and some of those are non-mesuré while others are mesuré.

The very first prélude non-mesuré that can be dated with some degree of certainty was written by Louis Couperin in the 1650s: he wrote at least 16, 14 of which can be found online. These come from the aforementioned Bauyn manuscript; 2 others have been identified in the Parville manuscript (See Tilney in Appendix D below). The very last was written by Claude-Bénigne Balbastre in 1777, but it was extremely late, so Nicolas Siret's of 1719 is often said to have been the last (Tilney does not include Balbastre's), although there were a few others in the 1730s. Davitt Moroney says in his entry for the prelude non mesuré in the New Grove Dictionary of Music that over 50 were composed in all.

Looking at one of these scores in manuscript, particularly some of those by Louis Couperin and d'Anglebert, is an eye-opening experience, almost having the feel of looking at a work of calligraphic art; it also brings to mind the curving lines of some works by some early modern painters. Published versions, even the period ones, such as Le Bègue's mentioned above and d'Anglebert's, offer a more conventional and standardized format, but no single standardized format was ever developed. Moroney also points this out in his Introduction to Louis Couperin's Harpsichord music, p. 15. Listening to one of them skillfully executed (See Appendix C.) is an ear-opening experience: it is like having keyboard musical development over 350 to 400 years of history suddenly audibly revealed and made clear. One can easily understand how they derived from organ preludes, albeit not formally or compositionally, and led to Frédéric Chopin's Préludes, and from there, when combined with the character/genre piece concept (Some of Chopin's suggest this, but the titles, such as "Raindrop," given to them were not his.), directly on to those of Claude Debussy, such as his La Cathédrale engloutie or La Fille aux cheveux de lin, and even to some of his other works such as his Estampes and sets of Images. There is even something of a resemblance in some of his scores with those of this period, with the curved tie lines that do not connect to anything, meaning that the notes are simply held until they die. One can also appreciate the beauty of this particular variety and perceive its step along the path, and make one wish that they could be heard live in concert!

Lebègue's in his 1677 Pièces de clavessin are non-mesuré, but some of them have slanted lines (higher on the right than on the left end) across only the middle score lines, suggesting some fluidity or hesitations if not complete breaks; see pp. 27-28, 49-50, 63-64, and 81-82 in this online score for examples. Those which are written out are sometimes marked "mesuré" by some clavecinistes as well.

In 1684, Le Bègue received a letter (no longer extant) from an Englishman, William Dundass, who had purchased his Pièces de clavessin, and was not able to figure out how to play the préludes non-mesurés, asking for advice. Le Bègue replied:

Le Prélude n'est autre chose qu'une préparation pour jouer les pieces [sic, & for all spelling variants from modern French] d'un Ton, ainsi il n'est que pour tater le clavier devant de toucher les pieces, et se promener dans le ton que l'on veut joüer, c'est pourquoi je ne me suis point arresté a les separer par mesure comme les pieces, parcequ'il n'y a rien de determine.

Or pour donner quelque eclaircissement pour toucher regulierement les preludes, il faut sçavoir premierement qu'il faut toucher toutes les nottes les unes apres les autres – c'est a dire celles qui paroissent les premieres a la veüe, ou des lignes d'en bas, ou des lignes d'en haut les toucher les premieres, les autres apres.

2o, Le petit cercle qui prend de la notte d'en bas et qui contenüe jusqu'a celle d'en haut, signifie qu'il faut tenir toutes les nottes que ledit cercle entoure sans en quitter pas une apres que vous les avez touche, et cela pour conserver l'harmonie.

3o, Quand apres un grand accord vous trouverez des tenües ou cercles, qu'une autre partie roulera et se promenera, C'est à dire qu'il faut toujours tenir le dit accord pendant cela.

The Prelude is nothing more than a preparation for playing the pieces in a key, as well as only for touching/trying out the keyboard before playing the pieces, and to proceed in the key in which one is going to play; that is why I did not divide them into measures as in the pieces because nothing is determined.

Thus in order to clarify somewhat how to play preludes appropriately, one must know first of all that you must play all the notes one after the other – that is to say, those appearing first on the bottom [bass] lines or on the top [treble] lines and the others afterwards.

2nd The little circle that begins on the note in the bass and stretches up to the treble one, means that you must hold all the notes that circle encloses without releasing any after you have played all of them, in order to preserve the harmony.

3rd When after a great chord you find the ties (apparently referring to the aforementioned slanted straight lines) or circles that another part rolls or proceeds on, that means that you must always hold that chord through that forward movement.

(The letter is found on the front end paper of a copy of the 1677 book in the Yale Univ. [New Haven, CT] John Herrick Jackson Music Lib., Mc 20 L 49b. See also Bruce Gustafson, "A Letter from Mr. Lebegue Concerning his Preludes," Recherches sur la musique française classique, 17 (1977), 7-14, quote on p. 9. There is an English translation, dated July 3, 1684, in a 2nd column on the fly leaf, reproduced in Gustafson, that I have not used because the reader might need a translation of it.)

It is interesting to note that J.S. Bach also knew Le Bègues's pièces, and had all of those from this book copied (Berlin Staatsbibliothek Ms pr 40644), in every instance omitting the Prélude. He must not have understood the notation or how they were to be played, even though on its first page, Le Bègue had written a paragraph about them:

Jay [sic, & for all spelling variants from modern French] taché de mettre les préludes avec toute la facilité possible tant pour la Conformité que pour le toucher du Clavecin, dont la maniere est de Separer et de rebattre plus tost les accords que de les tenir ensemble comme a l'Orgue si quelque chose s'y rencontre un peu difficile et obscure Je prie Mess.rs les intelligents de vouloir suppleer aux deffaux en considerant la grande difficulté de rendre cette methode de Préluder assé intelligible a un chacun.

I have attempted to write these préludes with all the ease possible both for the conformity as for the playing of the harpsichord, whose manner is to separate and to re-strike the chords rather than to hold them together as on the organ[.] If anything is found in them somewhat difficult and obscure, I ask the learned gentlemen to be willing to forgive the defects by considering the great difficulty of rendering préluding understandable enough to everyone.

This clearly didn't help or satisfy J.S. Bach any more than it did William Dundass. Le Bègue's letter doesn't make it crystal clear, either. It was obviously a skill that needed direct contact and personal coaching to learn, not easily achieved for a harpsichordist today, since no clavecinsite is around to demonstrate or coach. Le Bègue did not include any préludes in his 1687 Livre second!

In his 1768 Dictionnaire de musique, Jean-Jacques Rousseau includes an entry: "Preluder" (p. 389) in which he writes:

C'est en général chanter ou jouer quelque trait de fantaisie irrégulier & assez court, mais passant par les Cordes essentielles du Ton, fait pour l'établir, soit pour disposer sa Voix ou bien poser sa main sur un Instrument, avant de commencer une Pièce de Musique.

Mais sur l'Orgue & sur le Clavecin l'Art de Préluder est plus considérable. C'est composer & jouer impromptu des Pièces chargées de tout ce que la Composition a de plus savant en Dessein, en Fugue, en Imitation, en Méditation & en Harmonie. C'est sur-tout [sic] en Préludant que les grands Musiciens, exempts de cet extrême asservissement aux règles que l'œil des critiques leur impose sur le papier, font briller ces Transitions savantes qui ravissent les Auditeurs. C'est là qu'il ne suffit pas d'être bon Compositeur, ni de bien posséder son Clavier, ni d'avoir la main bonne & bien exercée, mais qu'il faut encore abonder de ce feu de génie & de cet esprit inventif qui font trouver & traiter sur le champ les sujets les plus favorables à l'Harmonie & les plus flatteurs à l'oreille. C'est par ce grand Art de Préluder que brillent en France les excellens [sic] Organistes, tels que sont maintenant les Sieurs Calvière & Daquin,[…].

Generally, it is to sing or play some bit of fantasy, irregular and rather short, but passing over all the strings essential for the key, done to set it, either to prepare one's voice or to put one's hands on the instrument before beginning a piece of music.

      But on the organ or the harpsichord the art of préluding is greater/more significant. It is to compose and play impromptu pieces filled with all that composition has of the most knowledgeable in design, in fugue, in imitation, in meditation, and in harmony. It is above all in préluding that the great musicians, relieved of the extreme servitude to the rules that the eye of the critics imposes upon them on paper, make shine these clever transitions that thrill their listeners. It is there that it is not enough to be a good composer, nor to handle the keyboard well, nor to have a good and well-trained hand, but one must have the abundant fire of genius and inventive mind that lead to finding on the spot the most harmonious subjects that most please the ear. It is by this great art of préluding that excellent organists such as Calvière and Daquin shine in France today […].

Davitt Moroney gives 15 points about unmeasured préludes in the Introduction to his 1985 re-edition (Monaco: L'Oiseau-Lyre) of Paul Brunhold's 1936 edition of the harpsichord music of Louis Couperin, which he introduces thus:

These pieces are justly among Couperin's most famous works and are undoubtedly those which present the greatest challenge to any player. Although they are only partially notated (with careful indication of all the exact pitches but no indication of any relative rhythm), it is clear that the notation is in some ways far from vague or imprecise. It leaves free only these elements which must remain spontaneous in this prelude-style; yet it manages to be quite precise, even systematic, about other elements whose fixing is not incompatible with the desired expressivity. (p. 11)

The most salient points are:

1) The notation contains all the instructions we need.

2) Every note to be played is notated.

3) Stylistically, the frame of reference is literary prose.

4) Stylistically, it is misleading to concentrate on the supposed 'improvisatory' nature of the preludes.

8) The notation must generally be read obliquely.

9) The diagonal straight lines clarify the order of events.

10) There are three kinds of vertical straight lines.

11) The curves are neither ties nor slurs; they should be called 'tenues.'

12 It does not matter that the 'tenues' are not notated in a fully consistent fashion.

13) The 'tenues' have one primary function: to indicate which notes are to be held, and for how long.

14) The precise position of the start and end of a 'tenue' is more important than its curving shape.

15) A secondary function of the 'tenues' is to help clarify the exact sequence of notes to be played.

(pp. 11-16; Itals in original)

Each of the 15 points is explained in detail, over several paragraphs in most cases. This will give the reader a concept and general idea of the performance challenges of the form – and perhaps also its potential for beauty in interpretation and listening. Others think "liaison" is a better term than "tenue," but Moroney's evidence and reasoning are convincing; "ties" is the English equivalent for both. Since Louis Couperin did not publish any of his works, he did not write anything about this form or how to execute it, so we can only go by what subsequent clavecinsites, such as Le Bègue, wrote about it and their own examples. Nothing in any other tradition is equivalent.

When he re-issued his L'Art de toucher Le Clavecin in 1717, Couperin provided as examples/samples one Allemande and eight Préludes, all written with bar lines, but with the following note under the heading "Observations":

Quoy que ces Préludes soient écrits mesurés, il y a cependant un goût d'usage qu'il faut suivre. Je m'explique. Prélude, est une composition libre, ou l'imagination se livre à tout ce qui se présente à elle. Mais comme il est assés rare de trouver des genies capables de produire dans l'instant; Il faut que ceux qui auront recours à ces Préludes=réglés, les joüent d'une manière aisée sans trop s'attacher à la précision des mouvemens; à moins que je ne l'aÿe marqué après par le mot de, Mesuré: ainsi on peut hazarder de dire, que dans beaucoup de choses, la Musique (par comparaison à la poésie) a sa prose, et ses Vers.

Although these Préludes are written with bar lines, there is however a tradition of use that should be followed. I explain. A Prélude is a free composition, in which the imagination is given free reign for all that comes to it. But since it is quite rare to find geniuses capable of producing on the spot; It is necessary for those who will use these measured Préludes to play them in a relaxed manner without respecting too closely the precision of the movements; unless I have marked it after the title with the word "Measured": thus one can take the risk of saying that in many things, Music (compared to poetry) has its prose and its verse.

You can see where Moroney's 3rd point originates. Four of the eight are marked: "Mesuré." Couperin also provides instructions for playing certain sections of some of the pieces in his first two Books that he deems difficult to execute. Many other clavecinistes did this as well, often as the final page in their publications. Other clavecinistes, such as Jean-Henry d'Anglebert, chose a kind of intermediary path in the published versions of their preludes, entering bar lines and dividing the whole notes into whole, eighth, and sixteenth notes, to help amateurs attempt them, but they are still looser than regular scoring. The autograph manuscript BNF Rés. 89ter shows his as they were originally written, permitting a good compare-and-contrast that offers more insight than is available for most.

Of course, Couperin's statement about the freedom in some preludes assumes that there is to be no freedom in the execution of other works, not even in the ornamentation. This is precisely what pianist-composers such as Saint-Saëns, who prepared an edition of the harpsichord works of Rameau, Chabrier, Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel were referring to and the tradition they were following when they railed against pianists who added their own readings, overdoing rubato, for example, to what was written in their piano scores. Indeed, concerning the importance of Louis Couperin's préludes non-mesurés, Colin Tilney writes in the Commentary portion of his The Art of the Unmeasured Prelude for Harpsichord: France 1660-1720 (See Appendix D for details):

These sixteen pieces are part of world literature, not merely the record of one seventeenth-century Frenchman's exceptional ability to improvise. In their length and complexity, their demands on virtuoso technique and their range of emotion they belong with the preludes of Chopin, Liszt and Debussy. That their impact has not been as great as might have been expected must be blamed mainly on their notation, although […] the intentions behind the notation are in themselves of wonderful clarity and can be discovered quite easily with patience and a little method. (v. 3, p. 10)

Bruce Brubaker, chair of the piano department at the New England Conservatory, recently made a post to his blog on this form and some of its modern manifestations, but curiously, he doesn't mention the connection with Debussy's Préludes.

Occasionally, other types of pièces were also non-mesuré: Jacquet de la Guerre's No. 27, Tocade (Toccata), which opens and closes with non-mesuré sections surrounding a mesuré one, is an example. [François Couperin insisted on the spelling "sonade" as the French equivalent of "sonata" to match "sérénade" as the equivalent of serenata, which probably explains Jaquet's spelling.] This is not an accident, because the early composers like Chambonnières and Louis Couperin were very familiar with the toccatas of Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) and especially those of Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667), who spent some time in France in the 1650s, that are clear ancestors of the unmeasured prélude. There is even a sarabande non-mesuré by Dufour. This form and composition type is another manifestation of the emphasis on expression, but the performer is expected to reproduce the expression the composer had in mind, using "notes inégales," tied note connections, and ornamentation; it is not totally ree expression in the way a cadenza was originally executed or free improvisation as in jazz.

The Instruments

French keyboard instruments of the late 16th and early 17th centuries were small and had small compasses (range of notes) of 4 - 4.5 octaves at first, growing to 5 octaves in the 18th century, and little power. They were strung with brass strings (not unlike lute strings of the time), which were rather fragile and subject to snapping, and could not produce much volume. Not too many 17th century harpsichords remain, but there is one by Nicolas Dufour, Paris, 1683, in the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. The article about it by John Koster gives a lengthy, but detailed and excellent description of it with numerous photos of it and its components. An internal link will take you to images and a shorter article about the museum's 18th century harpsichord by Jacques Germain, Paris, 1785, almost exactly a century later. Only a single instrument, a spinet, by the aforementioned Jean Denis, considered in his lifetime to have been the best keyboard instrument builder, remains, but he is known to have built numerous harpsichords because some are mentioned in his will and the inventory of his estate. There were even some harpsichords built in the 18th century that were called clavecins luthé; they were strung with gut strings. None remain, but at least one modern maker has built one following a description. See the entry for Elizabeth Farr's CD of the music of Jean-Henry d'Anglebert in Appendix C below for details.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Flemish harpsichord makers (Antwerp was the center), particularly the Ruckers and Couchet family workshops, began building larger instruments and strung them with iron strings, which were stronger, and could therefore be kept at higher tension and produce more volume. The French aristocracy and its musicians quickly became enamored with their products and acquired them.

As early as the late 17th and especially in the 18th century, French workshops began taking earlier Flemish instruments and rebuilding them, mostly keeping the soundboards which were particularly resonant, but extending the compass of the keyboards (meaning that a new one was installed) at either or both ends, adding stops such as a buff or a lute stop, the former dampening or muffling the sound, the latter making it more lute-like, and adding wood to create a deeper case or often making a new, deeper, much more decorated and luxurious one, a process called "ravalement." There were two degrees or levels of this process: "petit" and "grand," i.e., less or more extensive/invasive, the former obviously retaining more of the original materials, and generally adding keys at only one end of the keyboard, the latter generally adding keys at both ends, and sometimes even going so far as to replace the soundboard, which is, of course, the soul of the instrument. Some craftsmen attempted to disguise their interventions and pass the instruments off as their own original products; others who were perhaps less sure of their skills made modifications but put the original maker's nameplates and label in their usual locations on the new product. It is important for the details to be known, and more and more often today, examination of the instruments is bringing them to light, and musicians recording on them are providing the details in the notes in the CDs' accompanying booklets (See Appendix C below).

From the beginning those Flemish instruments had a deep, resonant bass register, a bright upper, and a warm medium one, offering a greater variety across the registers than the limited one of the earlier French instruments, and of those made in other countries. As the French workshops created their own instruments and rebuilt the Flemish ones, they consciously attempted to increase the variety. They also worked hard to reduce the rapid decay of the sound so that the notes would resonate longer and that there would be less or no silence between them when passing from one note to the next. They worked to develop instruments that had an extremely light touch and that favored crisp notes to allow the display of the delicate ornamentation for which the composers called and which they demonstrated in their own skillful playing. The major French workshops were the Blanchet family, Jean-Claude Goujon, (Jean-)Henri Hemsch, and Pascal(-Joseph) Taskin. This led to instruments that differed markedly from the products of England, Germany, and Italy, for example, even The Low Countries (mostly Belgium), the other primary centers of harpsichord building, although those were also not like each other. This tradition was followed by the French pianoforte builders in the late 18th and 19th centuries, which led to the distinctive and unique French sound of the Érard, Pleyel, and later Gaveau companies that I wrote about in my earlier piece.

Just as the pianist-composers I discussed in that piece wrote for that sound, so too did the French clavecinistes write for this particular harpsichord sound, which is in fact much richer and more powerful, even if it cannot match the power of a pianoforte/fortepiano, than that of instruments from other countries. Not being a performer, I do not know if the agréments the clavecinistes called for can be executed on other types of instruments, but they are surely likely to be less effective. One can easily hear the differences in expression, tone, power, and register variety in recordings in which such instruments are used (See Appendix C). Alas, many were destroyed during the French Revolution as symbols of the extravagance of the nobility; for example, only 7 of all the instruments that (Jean-)Henri Hemsch built from scratch survive in the world. Françoise Petit plays one of them, from 1754, in her recording of the complete pièces of Bernard de Bury (See Appendix C). Christophe Rousset plays one, from 1751, for most of the works in his recording of the complete music of Jean-Philippe Rameau (See Appendix C; he uses it as well for 2 CDs of music by J.S. Bach, incl. the "Goldberg" Variations & the Italian concerto). Both have a crisp, rich sound, a significant and pleasant variety across the registers with a deeply resonant basse and bright dessus, and a relatively slow decay.

One can appreciate the loss to posterity that this mass destruction represents and imagine what the instruments would be worth today, not just in monetary value but in musical beauty and pleasure and musicological knowledge. But it was also a huge loss for visual art, because the instruments were all individually decorated, not factory reproduced with stencils. The cases were all painted differently and in many cases the lids, both inside and out, were painted by celebrated and esteemed artists. In some cases, they were adaptations of paintings on canvas, in others, original works, in various genres: landscapes, scenes of courtly entertainment or amorous encounters, still lifes, historic, or mythological scenes. The soundboards were also often decorated with birds, flowers, fruit, and other vegetation, the styles varying with the tastes of the times.

Of course, many were more simple, but one element that was unique to this artistic medium is the rosace (literally, rose window, as in a cathedral, but called rosette, or sometimes simply "rose" in English), the decoration encircling the round, generally elaborately carved (the carving also being different for each instrument) sound hole [see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozJ66-hyE6A] (Why the soundtrack of this video does not feature harpsichord music is beyond me!; the owner of the workshop shown restored and owns the instrument used in the CD of the music of Jacques Duphly listed in Appendix C). Even the earlier and more simply decorated ones have a carved rosace, though in those, the carving may have been more uniform; in face of the mass destruction, it is difficult to know for certain. This artistic element derived from the design of the lute. In modern instrument making, it has been carried on by some guitar and hammered dulcimer makers as well. Some of the builders put their names in the rosace painting, making it sort of like a maker's seal, but no two were identical. They are visually stunning, and could easily be the subject of a photographic coffee-table art book. One of Hemsch's adorns the cover of the booklet of the Bury CD (See Appendix C, below).

For part three (of five parts), click here.