Adès: Three Studies from Couperin

Thomas Adès was born March 1, 1971, in London, England, where he currently lives. He composed his Three Studies from Couperin in 2006 on commission from the Basel Chamber Orchestra, supported by the Ernst-Siemens-Musikstiftung and Paul Sacher Foundation. It was first performed April 21, 2006, with the composer conducting the Basel Chamber Orchestra at the Martinskirche, Basel, Switzerland. These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances. The score calls for two flutes (first doubling alto flute, second doubling bass flute), clarinet, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, bass marimba, two small metal bars or anvils (enclumes), bass drum, three timpani, five roto-toms, and two string orchestras (ideally comprising four each of first and second violins, three violas, three cellos, and two doubles basses). Performance time: about twelve minutes.

Although he is still in his early forties, Thomas Adès is widely hailed as one of the most significant of contemporary composers. He studied piano and composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and then went on to advanced study at King’s College, Cambridge, where his teachers included Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway. Already in 1989 he was awarded second prize in the BBC’s Musician of the Year contest in recognition of his skill as a pianist, and to this day he continues to concertize and record as a pianist, both in solo repertory and as a collaborative pianist.

He also appears regularly as a conductor of such ensembles as the Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Philharmonia Orchestra, Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, and London Symphony Orchestra. A contract with the recording company EMI ensured that he is richly represented on CDs through his work as a pianist, conductor, and composer. As a performer he often plays or conducts his own works, but he is also acclaimed for his interpretations of other modern composers (including Conlon Nancarrow, György Kurtág, Poul Ruders, and Gerald Barry) and of standard classical repertory (by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Janáček, and others).

He held Carnegie Hall’s composer chair during the 2007-08 season, and in 2009-10 he was the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic’s featured composer. His two operas have met with considerable success. His first, Powder Her Face, was first seen at the Cheltenham Festival in 1995, and his second, The Tempest (from which the San Francisco Symphony will perform excerpts later this month), was premiered and later revived at Covent Garden and received further performances from the opera companies of Copenhagen, Strasbourg, Santa Fe, and Frankfurt, as well as the Metropolitan Opera (where he conducted it in 2012). His explorations have included collaborations with video artist Tal Rosner; one of these, Polaris, was memorably presented by the San Francisco Symphony in 2011.

Adès was music director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (1998-2000), and from 1999-2008 was artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival. In 2000 he received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for his orchestral work Asyla, and the EMI recording of The Tempest earned him the Diapason d’Or de l’année and the 2010 Classical BRIT Award for Composer of the Year.

One of his particular passions is the music of the French Baroque composer François Couperin, nicknamed Couperin “le Grand” to avoid confusion with his Uncle François and, in posterity, with the many other members of the Couperin dynasty who were important members of the French musical establishment from the mid-seventeenth century well into the nineteenth century. “My ideal day,” Adès has stated, “would be staying at home and playing the harpsichord works of Couperin—new inspiration on every page.” Several of his works proclaim his admiration of this earlier master, including an allusion in his Asyla; his 1994 arrangement (for five players) of the beloved harpsichord piece Les Baricades mistérieuses; and his Sonata da Caccia (1993), which he performs along with musicians from the San Francisco Symphony at a chamber music concert at Davies Symphony Hall this week, on Thursday, October 3.

The Couperins were particularly associated with the Church of St-Gervais in Paris; members of the family reigned in the organ loft there for 173 years, from the appointment of François’s uncle Louis Couperin in 1653 until the death of his later kinsman Gervais-François Couperin in 1826. François “le Grand” was born in the organist’s residence overlooking the church’s cemetery, on November 10, 1668. (He died sixty-five years later, on September 11, 1733, in the large and elegant home he had acquired in 1724 on the Rue Neuve des Bons Enfants, today renamed the Rue Radziwill, next to the Palais Royal.) His father died when François was ten, but the church council agreed that young François should inherit the post when he turned eighteen. They hired the notable Michel-Richard de Lalande in the interim, but because de Lalande already held other prestigious positions, Couperin ended up deputizing for him frequently even before he officially assumed the post in 1685. In 1693 he was also appointed royal organist, and that engagement at court led to his being hired as harpsichord teacher to various nobles. He grew active in the court’s chamber music activities and seems to have embodied the esthetics of instrumental composition in the last decades of the reign of Louis XIV. After that monarch died, in 1715, Couperin remained active in courtly circles, but he largely stuck to the style he had by then developed, leaving to other composers the more flippant or galant spirit of the ensuing age.

Although Couperin produced important works for the organ and remarkable sacred pieces and chamber music, he is remembered today principally for his harpsichord compositions: an essential instruction manual (L’Art de toucher le clavecin, 1716) and four volumes of Pièces de clavecin (1713, 1716-17, 1722, and 1730). His four books of harpsichord pieces together encompass some 220 movements, which are presented in ordres (suites) that, in all but the first volume, usually comprise from six to eight pieces that are unified by key but otherwise range through diverse characters. The movements are presented with titles, and in the preface to his 1713 collection, Couperin allowed that the names relate to some inspiration or exterior reference, however cryptic: “In composing these pieces, I have always had an object in view, furnished by various occasions. Thus the titles reflect my ideas; I may be forgiven for not explaining them all.” Some of these subjects have been clearly identified: musical portraits of friends, colleagues, patrons, and pupils (and even a self-portrait), tone-paintings of public figures, depictions of scenes or of topical sentiments. Quite a few of the titles nonetheless guard their secrets.

In his Three Studies from Couperin, Adès provides orchestrated settings of three of these short movements. In each case the work is the last item from its particular ordre; this is accordingly a suite of finales. Les Amusemens (The Amusements) concludes the Seventh Ordre (in G major), which falls in the Second Book (1717). Couperin marked it sans lenteur (without slowness) but nonetheless steered it away from overt virtuosity and imbued it with a rich timbre, keeping the music consistently in the harpsichord’s medium-low range and articulating the sonorities through syncopations and broken chords (often referred to as the style luthé, the lute-like style). It is cast as a rondeau, its purling refrain returning with comforting regularity. Adès’s setting of this piece underscores Couperin’s sonic spirit by assigning much of the melodic activity to the winds, including the husky-timbred alto and bass flutes, and instructing the strings to install mutes. One might describe the overall sound as “tubular.” The percussion instruments provide surprising effects, with the marimba supporting the plummy sound and the metal bars shocking with their contrast.

The exquisiteness of Couperin’s style is reinforced by his abundant use of ornamentation. Indeed, modern eyes may initially find his notation hard to decipher since ornaments are attached to so many of his notes, in every case denoting a specific sort of turn, twist, or trill. Adès maintains these embellishments in his study—indeed, they are inherent to the text of each piece—but he writes out all of them in standard modern notation, doubtless a necessary precaution since the music is likely to be played by instrumentalists with a range of experience in reading French Baroque notation. The result can look deceiving, filled with thirty-second-notes that under other circumstances might convey extreme vigor. Here, even those quick flutters are meant to flow without interrupting a longer-spanning line.

Les Tours de Passe-passe (The Sleight-of-Hand) is the final movement of the Twenty-Second Ordre (in D major), from Couperin’s Fourth Book (1730). Although Couperin characteristically wrote for a harpsichord with two keyboards, here he calls for the player to render the music on just one keyboard, finessing the tight counterpoint with hand-crossings while still letting out the lyric line of a mostly descending melody—sleight-of-hand, indeed. Most of the activity inhabits a constrained, rather high-pitched level, but some punctuation does arrive from lower in the orchestra. This wry setting recalls Stravinsky’s reworking of Pergolesi (and that composer’s contemporaries) in Pulcinella, right down to potentially rude thumps from brass and percussion. Things seem to be tumbling a bit out of rhythmic control as the piece rolls to its conclusion, but it ends before disaster strikes.

L’Âme-en-peine (The Soul in Distress) comes from the Thirteenth Ordre (in B minor), from the Third Book (1722). This entire ordre has a melancholy feeling, and its concluding movement reaches a point of out-and-out anguish. It carries the marking Languissament (In languishing fashion). “Languishing is the most beautiful of the stirrings of love,” wrote the seventeenth-century French essayist Saint-Evremond. “It is the delicate effect of a pure flame that sweetly consumes us; it is a cherished, tender sickness that makes us loathe the thought of being healed.” Couperin’s minute tone-poem is filled with sighing appoggiaturas and emotionally intense suspensions, as well as punctiliously selected ornaments, to suggest just that regret born of contentment: the confluence of love and tragedy. As he has throughout his set, Adès offers a subtly detailed orchestration in which all participants play important roles, if sometimes only for a fleeting moment.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings:  Thomas Adès conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (EMI)

Readings:  Thomas Adès: Full of Noises: Conversations with Tom Service (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) | François Couperin and the French Classical Tradition (revised edition), by Wilfrid Mellers (Faber and Faber)  |  François Couperin, by Philippe Beaussant (Amadeus)