Matthew J. Hall
Cornell University

The Harpsichord, Harmony, and the Soul: François Couperin and le bon goût d'aujourd'hui

For Couperin, the inability of the harpsichord to crescendo or diminuendo was a real deficiency that needed to be overcome for the instrument to be capable of expression. "Until now it has seemed untenable that one could animate (donner de l'âme à) this instrument," (L'art de toucher le clavecin, 1716). Couperin's "animated" harpsichord links the mechanical touch of the player to an aesthetic touch in persons of taste. This paper explores the circumstances in which an instrument may be said to have a soul, and how this is dependent on the taste of the player and the listener. Although far from a fully elaborated aesthetic philosophy, Couperin's piecemeal reflections on the mechanisms of expression are dependent on categories borrowed from Neoplatonist and Cartesian thought. In these systems the soul is understood as harmony, a relation of number and measure (mesure); a soul animates a body by setting matter in harmonic motion (mouvement). Ideas and sentiments, the substances of thought, are communicable insofar as they induce continuous movement in matter as a likeness of the movement of the soul. Yet the soul of a hearer will be moved sympathetically only if it is itself properly tuned; the state of the listener's soul accounts for his taste (goût), which encompasses not only his aesthetic but also his ethical disposition. This framework gives some context for Couperin's commitment to a smooth and continuous motion in the technique of the hand (liaison), particularly evident in his recommendations for finger substitution in his "modern" approach to ornaments; his insistence on an exacting observance of his notation in performance; and his synthesis of polyphony,brisé texture, and cantabile melody. These ideas will be illustrated through a reading of pieces from Couperin's "Premier Ordre" (Premier livre, 1713).

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Matthew J. Hall is a PhD candidate at Cornell University. His research interests include J.S. Bach, counterpoint, music analysis, and Renaissance studies. He has published articles and reviews in Understanding Bach, Eighteenth-Century Music, and The Journal of the Alamire Foundation. He was recently awarded the Irene Alm Memorial Prize by the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music for research on instrumental chamber music at the court of Louis XIV. He performs regularly on the harpsichord, organ, clavichord, and fortepiano. In 2013 his recording of the C.P.E. Bach piano quartets with Sarah Darling (viola) and Sarah Paysnick (traverso) was released on the Ad Parnassum label.