Transcribing Couperin’s Preludes à la D’Anglebert: A Journey into the Creative Processes of the 17th-Century Quasi-Improvisatory Tradition

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The interpretation of the unmeasured preludes by Louis Couperin is contentious, owing to their rhythmically-free notation. Couperin’s system of notation is unique to him, but the complex system of lines that he apparently invented contains both ambiguities and inconsistencies between the two sources of this repertory. Modern editors are sometimes sharply split on whether lines are curved or straight, where they begin and end, and whether notes are joined or separated by lines.

In a possible attempt to remove some of the ambiguities of unmeasured notation, D’Anglebert converted his own preludes, first written in unmeasured notation in his autograph, into a new, semi-measured notation for publication. Other composers had their preludes engraved in similar ways as they readily saw the benefits of the semi-measured notation. It is likely that, if Couperin had the opportunity of preparing his music for publication, he would have taken similar steps of clarifying his intentions in print. The aim of this article is therefore twofold. First, it establishes D’Anglebert’s procedures of transcribing his own preludes from unmeasured to semi-measured notation. Second, by transcribing three of Couperin’s preludes, of different lengths and sophistications, into semi-measured notation ‘a la D’Anglebert’, it evaluates the extent to which a semi-measured notation might inform interpretative matters.

By playing and comparing the semi-measured version with Couperin’s ‘originals’, it becomes apparent that the semi-measured notation brings to the fore the otherwise hidden relationship between the structure and the musical details, in which ornaments, gestures and other idiomatic effects can be instinctively discerned. The semi-measured notation also provides contextualizing information for the performer when making decisions on critical matters, such as which notes to sustain and which notes to linger on for greater expressivity, while still being flexible enough for individual interpreters to carve out unique performances.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMusic & Practice
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019


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