François Couperin was born on 10 November, 1668 (d. September 1733) and was a French Baroque composer, organist and harpsichordist. He was known as Couperin le Grand (“Couperin the Great”) to distinguish him from other members of the musically talented Couperin family.
Couperin was born into one of the great musical families of Europe. His father Charles was organist at Church Saint-Gervais in Paris, a position previously occupied by Charles’s brother Louis Couperin, a highly regarded keyboard virtuoso and composer. He was a proficient student and when his father Charles died in 1679, the church council at Saint-Gervais hired a temporary organist with the condition that François would replace him at age 18. François’s talent must have manifested itself quite early; by 1685 the church council agreed to provide him with a regular salary even without a formal contract.
He published his earliest chamber music about 1694 while at the court of Louis IX. The numerous duties Couperin carried out at the court were accompanied by duties as organist at Saint Gervais, and also by the composition and publication of new music. He obtained a 20-year royal privilege to publish in 1713 and used it immediately to issue the first volume (out of four) of his harpsichord works, Pieces de clavecin. A harpsichord playing manual followed in 1716, as well as other collections of keyboard and chamber music. His most famous book, L’art de toucher le clavecin (“The Art of Harpsichord Playing”, published in 1716), contains suggestions for fingerings, touch, ornamentation and other features of keyboard technique. Many of Couperin’s keyboard pieces have evocative, picturesque titles (such as “The little windmills” and “The mysterious barricades”) and express a mood through key choices, adventurous harmonies and (resolved) discords. They have been likened to miniature tone poems. These features attracted Richard Strauss, who orchestrated some of them.
Couperin’s health declined steadily throughout the 1720s. The services of a cousin were required by 1723 at Saint Gervais, and in 1730 Couperin’s position as court harpsichordist was taken up by his daughter Marguerite-Antoinette. Couperin’s final publications were Pièces de violes (1728) and the fourth volume of harpsichord pieces (1730). The composer died in 1733.