As the foremost representative of one of the most illustrious musical dynasties in history, Francois Couperin achieved distinction in every contemporary genre except opera. But it was in his pieces for the harpsichord that he revealed his personality – La Couperin, from the 21st Ordre, is a witty self-portrait (marked "with moderate vivacity"!).
Although now faded into obscurity, Jacques Duphly was one of the most prominent French harpsichordists of his time, famed for his excellent teaching skills and known for his enviable connections with the French aristocracy. His keyboard works are a veritable treasure trove of music for harpsichord lovers; despite having been an organist in his youth, he soon realised that his talents lay with the smaller keyboard instrument, and he moved from Rouen to Paris to make best use of his skills.
Rameau’s compositional stages included early keyboard works, followed by operas not started until the age of 50 (!), taking a break close to age 60 in order to create the five books of Pieces de clavecin en concerts, which really refer to pieces done in ensemble as opposed to solo harpsichord. These are not Italianate at all, but inundated with a French sensibility where the harpsichord is the be-all and end-all of the proceedings, the accompanying violin and viola da gamba (or flute and second violin, which the composer provided for) ornate and involved yet still not central. This was a natural progression for the composer who had already set a number of solo harpsichord pieces according to descriptive form where the music follows its own natural path in terms of the basic dances that he uses as a foundation.
Pancrace Royer's First Book of Harpsichord Pieces demonstrates how much the harpsichord tried to change to meet the challenge of the upstart pianoforte. These works push the instrument to its technical limits, showing an astonishing variety and quality of music.Alexander Bryce
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