In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section François Couperin

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Archival and Historical Sources
  • Couperin and His Times
  • The French “Classical Style”
  • Italian Influences and the Union of Styles
  • Music Titles
  • The Basse De Viole in Couperin’s Works
  • Sacred Vocal Music
  • Secular Songs
  • Instrumental Chamber Music
  • Performance and Pedagogy
  • Selected Editions and Indexes

Music François Couperin
David Tunley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0110


François Couperin (b. 1688–d. 1733) was the most famous member of a French dynasty of musical Couperins stretching from the middle of the 16th century to the middle of the 19th century. Known as “Couperin le grand,” he was a brilliant organist and harpsichordist, and, as a composer, his works reflect the changes that came over French music at the beginning of the 18th century. It was a time when the court-centered music of the previous century (often known in modern studies as the French “classical style”) began to give way under the impact of Italian baroque music being performed in Paris for the first time. The changes coincided with the waning influence of Versailles after 1685. Although Couperin’s love of the music of the 17th-century court composer Lully remained strong throughout his life, he was also at the head of a movement that sought to combine the best qualities of the French and Italian styles, a union that he described as the “perfection of music.” To the end of his life he inhabited both the ambience of Versailles (where he was a court musician) and the more cosmopolitan and lively city of Paris. His compositions mirror these two worlds. Couperin’s name is often linked with that of Rameau, but the latter was of a slightly later generation, his compositions bearing the imprint of the innovations already introduced by Couperin. Moreover, Rameau was known primarily as an opera composer, a form untouched by the other. A number of the studies listed below are not necessarily directed specifically at Couperin, but, nevertheless, they provide a very useful historical or stylistic context in which to place the composer. They are all essential to a fuller understanding of this remarkable musician. Couperin’s complete works were first published in 1932–1933. They have been revised from 1980 onward. The work, which is still to be completed, has brought Couperin research to a new level of expertise (although the original edition by Cauchie is still highly regarded). The new edition includes material not available in the 1930s and reflects the extremely high level of modern musical scholarship.

General Overviews

While recent research into Couperin’s music has tended to focus on specific or specialized aspects of his music—and hence often published in scholarly journals—there are also monographs with a wide focus such as Mellers 1987. Higginbottom 2001 provides a first-rate scholarly summary of Couperin’s background and works as does Beaussant 1990, while Anthony 1997 includes numerous references to the composer. A number of books by French scholars, which became classic studies in their day, have been largely subsumed in the writings by later musicologists and have not been included here.

  • Anthony, James R. French Baroque Music: From Beaujoyeulx to Rameau. Portland, OR: Amadeus, 1997.

    An essential reference for anyone starting research into French music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Its vast bibliography (divided into pre- and post-1800 sources) and its wide-ranging scholarship ensure its place in musicology for many years. References to Couperin are found throughout the book.

  • Beaussant, Philippe. François Couperin. Portland, OR: Amadeus, 1990.

    This is an English translation from the French of Beaussant’s excellent study of 1980, giving a well-rounded picture of the composer and his works. It includes useful references from archival resources, indexes, and tables. One needs to look elsewhere for a more detailed study of the Italianate elements in Couperin’s music. Otherwise, it is thoroughly recommended.

  • Couperin, François. Mélanges François Couperin. Paris: Picard, 1968.

    This book, in the series La vie musicale sous les rois Bourbons, contains eleven essays and a small collection of Réflexions by leading French scholars. These essays focus on very specific aspects, including archival research.

  • Higginbottom, Edward. “François Couperin.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 6, Claudel to Dante. 2d ed. Edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan, 2001.

    This very fine article covers the various facets of Couperin’s life and music, its bibliography giving a broad sweep of books and articles up to the time it was compiled.

  • Mellers, Wilfrid. François Couperin and the French Classical Tradition. 2d ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.

    When this book was published in 1950 it was the first major study of Couperin in English. The second edition appeared thirty-seven years later, by which time Mellers felt compelled to rewrite and correct many pages. Unchanged, however, is his broad sweep of the period’s culture in a book that is as civilized in its writing as the music he is surveying.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.