Couperin - Les petits moulins a vent
Francois Couperin (1668 - 1733) was known as a keyboard virtuoso of his day.
On his eighteenth birthday he inherited his father's position as organist of Saint-Gervais in Paris and in 1693 was appointed Royal Organist to Louis XIV. Listen here to a little organ music by Couperin.
He was greatly influenced by the Italian composer, Corelli, and wrote four volumes of harpsichord music.
He was also in great demand as a teacher, and in 1716 produced a publication entitled 'L'art de toucher le clavecin' which provided detail about fingering conventions of the day as well as explanatory notes on details of harpsichord playing, including ornamentation.
Pupil Match & Suitability
Not a particularly demanding piece in the opening half although with its own challenges at the beginning of the second section.
It is important to coordinate cleanly between the hands and be systematic regarding the working out of fingering. An efficient finger technique is important here.
Musically it may not appeal to the younger pupil, as it might be viewed as a somewhat dry piece with not a lot with which to engage the imagination.
However for students who have a strong technique it could appeal as quite a virtuosic piece in its own right.
Style & Tempo
Couperin’s territory is that of the harpsichord with its bright, scintillating tone qualities. This becomes an exciting musical experience in skilful hands.
To project the right sense of style, the pianist needs to work hard to achieve the appropriate quality of tone if the performance is to sparkle and engage the musical imagination.
The ‘chattering’ effect, described by Wilfred Mellers, comes across readily without the need to do very much with the phrasing. However, it is important to think about the phrasing as it will sound on the piano. If it sounds dry and dull – like a Hanon exercises – it will bore the performer and audience alike!
The title means, literally, "the little windmills" and the choice of tempo here reflects the character successfully.
Phrasing & Articulation
There is a really important factor to consider when deciding how to play this piece: how can we best perform a piece, written original for the harpsichord, on a contemporary piano ?
We should not compromise the tonal varieties achievable on the piano, since the piano can show phrasing definition and articulation variety in different ways from that possible on the harpsichord.
However we should give proper consideration to how the music sounded on the instrument for which it was originally intended.
Tone & Texture
The textures will come through fairly clearly, almost whatever touch is employed. However this might not necessarily be a musical quality unless attention is paid to the type of tone quality and the means (finger technique) by which that is achieved.
The difference between a more musical effect and a rather heavy and uninteresting texture may well be a fairly subtle one when it comes to finger control.
For example the richness of bass octaves needs to be heard between bars 12 – 19 and bars 41 – 48 in a way which is bright and steely, not heavy and muddy.
Compare the three effects here: first a harpsichord, secondly a good quality piano sound and thirdly a rather heavy and somewhat thick piano tone.
A good finger technique is essential. This means a comfortable dexterity which produces even rhythmic tone.
Problems can occur at any level of playing as a consequence of incorrect finger technique.
It is essential in quick-paced pieces to use consistent, carefully chosen fingering.
Changing the fingering from one day to another is a source of mistakes in performance as the memory is not selective, meaning that all attempts will be stored in the memory.
The fingering suggestions in the ABRSM edition are sound and will suit most students. If fingering is changed to suit an individual, the new fingering should be pencilled in, so as to avoid ambiguity.
Embellishment is an essential part of the line in Couperin.
It was both an expressive device and a means of heightening tension and adding resonance to longer notes which, on contemporary instruments, did not resonate for very long.
This is not an easy piece to play whilst constantly looking at the notation, so a first priority could well be to decide how much to memorize and what strategies to therefore employ in teaching the piece.
Slow practice is always important, but cannot, by incremental increases in tempo alone, achieve comfortable and fluent fast playing.
Playing quicker, in small bits and then working at the joins is the answer.
Losing one’s place may well be a problem encountered in performance. Nervousness can seriously disrupt the fluency of a piece such as this.
The solution is to be adamant about careful preparation and a really thorough knowledge of the piece.
Also, it is important to give sufficient time in the learning of the piece to feel settled when it comes to performance. It may be possible to get away with a performance of slow music which is less well prepared and not entirely ready, but it is a different matter with quicker, more demanding pieces.
An excellent performance will be a colourful one in which the playing has flexibility yet rhythmic excitement and excellent clarity in the articulation. Tone will be well controlled and never accentuated or hard edged. The mood will be engaging and show a comfortable dexterity in the passagework yet elegance in the phrasing.
A good performance will have a comfortable tempo and will be confident. The tone may lack the excellent degree of refinement, perhaps being a little heavy at times, but there will be an expressive range of dynamics with plenty of shading. There will be a good grasp of the elements of timing.
A sound performance will show a solid grasp of the timing elements so that different note values are consistently integrated into the whole. The line will have expressive elements and show a broad understanding of the mood, although it may lack the consistency of tonal control needed to display a refined and supple balance of tone between the hands.