François Couperin, known as le grand to distinguish him from an uncle of the same name, was the most distinguished of a numerous family of French musicians, officially succeeding his uncle and father as organist of the Paris church of St Gervais when he was 18. He enjoyed royal patronage under Louis XIV and in 1693 was appointed royal organist and, belatedly, royal harpsichordist. As a keyboard player and composer he was pre-eminent in France at the height of his career. He died in Paris in 1733.
Couperin composed church music for the Royal Chapel under Louis XIV. The surviving Leçons de ténèbres are possibly the best example of this form of composition—settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah for the Holy Week liturgy. The first two of the three are for soprano solo and continuo (the vocal part of the second pitched slightly lower than that of the first), and the third is for two sopranos and continuo.
Couperin’s chamber music includes L’Apothéose de Lully (‘The Apotheosis of Lully’), a tribute to the leading composer in France in the second half of the 17th century, Jean-Baptiste Lully. A tribute to the Italian composer Corelli, L’Apothéose de Corelli, is part of a larger collection of ensemble pieces under the title Les Goûts réunis (‘Tastes United’). It was an exploration of the rival French and Italian tastes in music, a quarrel in which Couperin remained neutral. The Concerts royaux represent another important element in Couperin’s music for instrumental ensemble.
Couperin’s compositions for the harpsichord occupy a very important position in French music. His 27 suites, most of them published between 1713 and 1730, contain many pieces that are descriptive in one way or another. These richly varied suites, or ordres, represent the height of Couperin’s achievement as a composer and arguably that of the French harpsichord composers.