Extracts from some reviews of
the third edition (2020) of
The Mirror of Human Life
by Jane Clark and Derek Connon
Good things come in small packages. This relatively short book has always loomed large as one of my go-to sources for information about François Couperin, his music, the people and places he knew, and the culture in which he lived […] The improvements in this third edition are many. To cite just a few examples, the new version expands the discussions about the important role of the exiled Stuart court at Saint-Germain-en-Laÿe in Couperins career; the contribution of Evaristo Gherardi and his Théâtre italien to the new and diversified character of [Couperins] Pièces de Clavecin; the influence of the Masonic Orders and the Rosicrucians on Couperin (a prime example being Couperins harpsichord piece La Visionaire, ordre 25); and how the almost universal dislike for Louis XIVs mistress, Mme de Maintenon, was portrayed satirically and subversively in the music of Couperin and other composers […]
The section on the meaning(s) of Couperins titles is always fun reading, even when the explanations sometimes raise more questions than they answer. This new edition is no exception. We are told that the most likely candidate for the noble allemande LAuguste (ordre 1) is now the exiled James II, often referred to as Augustus in royalist iconography, and that, perhaps less significantly, René-Guillaume Landouillette de Logivière should be added to a rather long list of inspirations for La Logivière (ordre 5), since his name appears in handwriting on a copy of the continuo part of Marin Maraiss third book of Pièces de Viole.
We learn that Le Trophée (ordre 22) is not only an amorous air or amorous trophy, but also a reference to Le Bosquet des Dômes at Versailles, where the domes on the tops of two marble pavilions were surmounted by sculptures of children standing on trophies playing trumpets, and that Le point du jour in the same ordre might refer to the eponymous statue on these structures that signified Lucifer (light-bringer in Latin), the morning star. My favorite, however, actually appears in the new preface. Couperins La Chemise Blanche, a viol piece, is not only, or merely, a white shirt, but a clean one, the title making a sly reference to the regime change in France after the death of Louis XIV, an event not generally lamented by Couperin and his contemporaries.
Readers unfamiliar with Couperins music might wonder if such seemingly trivial information matters. Is it really that important to know what a white shirt does or does not signify? The answer is — it does. Just about every piece by Couperin has one or more connections to the world in which he lived and worked, the people he liked and disliked, its aesthetics and culture, its theatre, painting, and literature. Couperin tells us as much in the preface to his first book of harpsichord pieces: I have always had a subject in mind when composing all these pieces: different occasions have provided it. Thus the titles refer to ideas that have occurred to me [and many of the pieces] are portraits of a kind.
Therefore, a complete immersion into Couperins world, a thorough knowledge and understanding of those ideas and portraits to which he refers, enhanced by a careful analysis of the compositional techniques he uses to realize his goals, are central to the interpretation and appreciation of his music, more than perhaps any other composer. That is why a book like this is so important, for performers and listeners alike.
Couperin’s titles to his 226 harpsichord pieces, comprising 27 Ordres, have long proved an enigma. In this welcome book, originally published in 2002 and now in its third edition, Jane Clark and Derek Connon have continued their researches, based on a wide range of relevant literary, cultural, social, aesthetic and musicological sources that advance the study considerably. Hence the chapters Aspects of the Social and Cultural Background, Aspects of the Literary Scene and the Catalogue of Movements have been revised and extended accordingly.
Couperin stated that his titles were based on portraits and ideas that occurred to him. Clark is aware of the dangers of being too positivistic, stressing that solutions to understanding are not definitive, but based on the cumulative picture that emerges when the background to Couperins subjects is explored. The titles, therefore, can be regarded as a musical autobiography, but full of subtle references and seemingly esoteric meanings. This cumulative background consists of places, aristocrats, singers and actresses, painters, the theatre (both French and Italian) and playwrights. The literary scene is further explored by Connon, and Couperins relations with Freemasonry are explored in The Architecture of the Ordres. The word ordre itself was evidently a masonic term, and the number 3 was significant at both macro (3 x 3 x 3 = 27 ordres) and micro levels (La Visionaire, 25th Ordre, has a symbolic three flat key signature and three opening chords). Clarks notion of an architectural unity for each ordre is important, most obviously evident in the eighth Ordre, with its conscious juxtapositions of Italian and French styles. However, I still maintain that the Italian gigue La Morinéte (8th Ordre) was placed after the famous Passacaille to mitigate awkward page-turns. Surely, the French and Italian gigues should be contiguous?
The advantage to understanding these titles is the influence it has on interpretation. (imagine the scholarly speculation that would ensue if J. S. Bach had added fanciful titles to every prelude and fugue in the 48!). Undoubtedly, Clarks and Connons work has advanced the understanding of Couperins Pièces de clavecin enormously. Reading through the text inspires further engagement, to which we may contribute. Many titles are yet to be fully understood, and certain pieces have the potential for several explanations, but from Couperins titles all manner of extraordinary persons, theatrical events, social customs, and references are explored. This is the latest stage of fruitful ongoing research, essential reading for harpsichordists and scholars.