Couperin & Marais: French Musical Enhancement in the Court of the Sun King

Today I bring you a topic that we have explored very superficially elsewhere and that has been resurfaced due to some feedback and encouragement received via Facebook. You may see a couple of related updates too. These will all revolve around the topic of music in the court of the Sun King. And for this occasion, I present you two men who were influential in the court of Versailles and that are perhaps not all that well-known. I am talking about François Couperin and Marin Marais.

They were both composers who were incredibly talented in their own specialties. Couperin was a master keyboard player. The Couperin family had a high-profile as organists: both Couperin’s father and brother were renown for playing the organ at the Church of Saint-Gervais (Paris). François would continue this legacy years later, alongside his duties at the court of the king. One of his most famous pieces of work, Pieces de Clavecin, was produced under royal patronage. The enterprise begun in 1713, allowing him to produce 4 volumes on harpsichord music. This was followed by a manual on how to play the instrument:  L’art de toucher le clavecin (1716), which apparently he wrote to ensure his previous work was understood and interpreted properly. Although his musical activities diminished after the king’s death in 1715, he was nevertheless appointed “ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du roi pour le clavecin” in 1717, which was one of the greatest titles and honours a court musician could ever receive.

Marin Marais on the other hand, was famous for his work with the viola de gamba. He studied with the great Lully, and in fact conducted many of his operas. Not much is known about Marais personal life, and it seems most of what we know about him comes from his musical success. He was appointed as court musician in 1676, acquiring the title of “ordinaire de la chambre du roy pour la viole” in 1679 – equivalent to that of Couperin in his own field of work. His most famous piece was the 5 volume Pieces de Viole (1686 to 1725). Like Couperin’s work, this became the model of study for viola de gamba players in France ever since. From the personal point of view we also know that both composers got married and had children who also pursued a career in music. Couperin’s daughter, Marguerite-Antoinette, succeeded her father as harpsichordist for the court until 1741. Marais son, Roland, following his father’s footsteps became also a viola de gamba player and composer. However, the rest of the information available on each of them is entirely concerning their musical career. For the little that is recorded about both composers on a personal level – and more importantly on a musical level – we need to turn to the work of Titon du Tillet called Le Parnasse françois (Paris, 1732). This was a compilation of all the great musicians and poets working at the French court during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Couperin was considered an individualist. He took upon himself to import a great deal of Italian sonatas and cantatas from the 1690s into the French musical sphere. These influenced his work greatly, which is particularly noticeable in his Les goûts réunis, a piece that combined the French style and his Italian influences from Corelli. Another aspect that differentiated Couperin from his contemporaries was the fact that he liked to group his pieces into ordres rather than suites, as well as creating character pieces instead of music based on dance movements, which was the norm. On the other hand, the fact that Marais was a viola de gamba expert already set him apart from his peers. But what is truly outstanding about Marais is the sheer volume of work he left behind. He did not only write the benchmark for future musicians in his field, he also published the work himself. The 5 volumes amount to a total of over 550 compositions for different musical formations viola de gamba players. In fact, his contribution is in volume bigger to any other composer in history. His work stands alone as the key literature written for the instrument.

We obviously need to keep in mind that it was not these individuals effort that made the musical arts great in the France of Louis XIV, but their personal contributions increased the national profile and set standards for those among them and many to follow. I hope this allows you to have a little think about this fascinating period of French history from a different perspective and to investigate many others that like Couperin and Marais enhanced the arts beyond national excellence.

To hear some of Couperin’s work just have a look at this YouTube video:

For Marais, the BBC Music website has an excellent list of his work and recordings you can explore:


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