François Couperin inspires Thomas Adès and Osvaldo Golijov



It isn’t unusual for today’s composers to draw inspiration from early music. After all, it’s a tradition in and of itself. Yet, there are a few high-profile modern composers who are quite candid about their “early” muses.

For Thomas Adès and Osvaldo Golijov, it is François Couperin le grand—the venerable French-baroque composer, harpsichordist, and organist—who was the most significant member of the Couperin family of musicians.

Thomas Adès

Adès, a British pianist and conductor, has written at least three works directly inspired by Couperin, including the Sonata da caccia, op. 11 (1993, for baroque oboe, French horn, and harpsichord), an arrangement of Les baricades mystérieuses (1994, for clarinet, bass clarinet, viola, ‘cello, and double bass), and Three Studies from Couperin (2006, for chamber orchestra).

He has been noted as saying “My ideal day would be staying at home and playing the works of Couperin – new inspiration on every page.”

Although he is serious about Couperin, Adès can also be tongue-in-cheek about him, too. When asked in a BBC Radio 3 interview what he liked best about Couperin, he quipped, “his wig.”

Osvaldo Golijov

A native of Argentina, Osvaldo Golijov is another major composer whose has taken inspiration from Coperin, and, in particular, the Leçons de ténèbres for voice(s) and basso continuo (a setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah).

Couperin’s Leçons were the inspiration for Tenebrae (2002, two versions—soprano, clarinet, and string quartet, or just string quartet), and the song Lúa Descolorida, or “Colorless Moon,” set after a poem by Galician author Rosalía de Castro.

In the foreword to Lúa, Golijov gives his thoughts on the work:

“The song is at once a slow motion ride in a cosmic horse, an homage to Couperin’s melismas in his Lessons of Tenebrae, and velvet bells coming from three different churches.”

At the beginning of the score, he indicates “Infinitely tender: ‘Couperin—Lullaby’ (as in the letters of ‘Leçons de ténèbres’).” The ‘cello is told to recreate “a breeze, like Jordi Savall’s viola da gamba.” And for the upper strings, they should be “bowing as in ‘early music,’ with almost no vibrato, ‘air’ between each note.”

Lúa Descolorida is part of a larger composition, Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra (2002), dedicated to American soprano Dawn Upshaw.

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