François Couperin: Pièces d’Orgue

Floral design

Edited by Jon Baxendale
184 pp (hardback)
Cantando Musikkforlag
ISMN: 979-0-2612-4441-1

It has always frustrated me that past generations of editors have thought it just fine to publish music in non-specialist, mass-distribution editions in a form that is not fully suitable for performance. I am thinking in particular of renaissance music that lacks any indication that a plainchant incipit or insertion is needed and liturgical organ music that gives no hint of the chant that should surround it.

Well, at long last this latter issue has been addressed, at least for Couperin, by this handsome new edition of his two organ masses which may prove to be the most enduring memorial to have been stimulated by the composer’s 350th anniversary year – it has already been used for three recordings. An editorial re-consideration of the masses was long overdue. Their sources are complicated by the fact that the music, though ‘published’ by the composer, was never actually engraved and printed: what you bought was a printed title page but a manuscript copy of the notes themselves. In a spectacular piece of diligent research Jon Baxendale has carefully explored the whole musico-social-historical-commercial context of the surviving copies and their relationship to others that must once have existed and proposed a new and convincing stemma on which to base his work.

Indeed, what this publication contains in addition to the music is at least as important as it is. The lengthy introduction explores Couperin’s early life as an organist and the sources of the music; offers advice on performance style and ornamentation; and explains that this music is in the alternatim tradition, in which organ music replaces portions of the sung liturgical texts. Not only are the necessary chants and texts to complete the mass ordinary provided but there is also a set of propers. Needless to say, all the chant is from appropriate French sources. In addition, there is an explanation of the organs on which the repertoire was originally played, discussion of exactly which stops were used for what, and comments from other contemporary organists/composers – since we have none from Couperin himself – on the general character of each movement style. All these are evaluated and explained further, where this is needed, by the editor. The volume ends with a substantial critical commentary and a valuable bibliography.

As an organist myself, I value the edition’s landscape format, the clarity of the print and its relatively spacious layout which leaves space for the insertion of fingering! I do, however, regret that the margin on the binding edge is not a little more generous in order to provide easier reading of those parts of the pages. However, above all I value Couperin’s music, of which we now have a newly-authoritative edition we can use with re-booted confidence and understanding – an edition underpinned by no little editorial knowledge, skill and sheer love.

I honestly think that this is the publication that those who play the French Baroque organ repertoire have been needing for decades.

David Hansell

I declare an interest in that I did see and comment on an early version of the edition but I did none of – and claim no credit for any of – the research and do not benefit financially from sales!