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Couperin Les Barricades Mysterieuses Analysis Essay

François Couperin's piece for harpsichord, Les Barricades Mystérieuses (the original spelling seems to have been Les Baricades Mistérieuses - now all four possible combinations of these two variants seem to be employed) was published in 1717, as the fifth piece in his VIth Ordre de Clavecin in B flat major. Written in the arpeggiated style brisé (broken style) or style luthé of a lute piece, the work is in rondeau form. As David Tunley notes, the piece employs a variant of the traditional romanesca in the bass, though here in quadruple, rather than the usual triple, time (François Couperin and 'The Perfection of Music,' Ashgate, 2004, p. 116). A detailed harmonic analysis of the piece is given by the composer Philip Corner on the Music page of this site.


While the piece itself is haunting and beautiful, its effect has surely been enhanced by its mysterious title. Couperin gave most of his harpsichord pieces titles. This practice stemmed from "the music of Chambonnières and the earliest works of the French 'clavecinists' who, in turn, had borrowed the habit from the lutenists of the late sixteenth century" (David Tunley, Couperin, BBC, 1982, p. 79). (There is, in fact, a harpsichord piece called Les Baricades (or Les Barricades) by Chambonnières himself. What does his title mean? I have seen nothing addressing this question.) Some of Couperin's pieces are named after people or types of people, some indicate something the music is supposed to represent. A few of the names, however, remain mysteries to us.  David Tunley adds that "even in their own days these same pieces might well have appeared enigmatic to all but a handful of the composers' circle" (ibid., p. 82-3). Such appears to be the case with Les Barricades Mystérieuses. As far as I am aware, there is absolutely no direct evidence to illuminate the meaning of Couperin's title. Anything offered as an interpretation is more or less well-founded speculation.


A number of the artists whose work is recorded on this website have connected the piece with barricades impeding communication between people, barricades between past and present or present and future, between life and death, between the immanent and transcendent. Almost none of these are offered in the spirit of conjecture as to what Couperin really meant by the title himself.


One sometimes sees suggestions that the mysterious barricades of Couperin's title are either women's eyelashes or women's underwear, or chastity belts. Neither of these hypotheses is very plausible (the music itself surely makes the ribaldry of the second suggestion out of place) and there is no evidence I am aware of to support them in the least. In one place (a Youtube of a performance of the piece by Philippe Radault), it is claimed in addition that the use of the expression to refer to women's eyelashes was distinctive of "les précieuses," the witty and educated women who populated the salons of the 17th century. Again, I have found no evidence of this.


In 'The mirror of human life': Reflections on François Couperin's Pièces de Clavecin by Jane Clark and Derek Connon (Redcroft, King's Music, 2002), Jane Clark links the VIth ordre to a divertissement staged by one of Couperin's patrons, the Duchesse Du Maine in 1714. The entertainment was called Le Mystère ou les Fêtes de l'Inconnu (The Mysterious One or the Celebrations of the Unknown One). In the performance, the King's musicians and Marguerite-Louise Couperin (François' sister) wore masks, emphasizing the mysterious presence celebrated by the divertissement, possibly the exiled Stuart James III. Clark suggests that the barricades mistérieuses may refer to these masks (p. 67-8). With regard to another piece, La Misterieuse, in the XXVth ordre, Clark suggests a possible reference to the Duchesse Du Maine's interests in freemasonry.


Wilfrid Mellers also wonders if there is a link to a divertissement though in tandem with another approach to understanding the name, that it refers to some technical features of the piece itself. Mellers suggests that the piece is "one of Couperin's technical jokes, the continuous suspensions in the lute style being a barricade to the basic harmony; and this may link up with the illusory devices in a masque decor. Barricades has its modern sense after 1648, but if the harmonic ambiguities might be described as 'revolutionary' in the context of baroque orthodoxies, the tone of the music remains, even in its mystery, impeccably aristocratic" (François Couperin and the French Classical Tradition, new version, London, Faber and Faber, 1987, pp. 400-2). I am not aware of other cases in which Couperin's titles reflect technical features of the music they name, but the approach is not altogether implausible. Some have suggested that the constant syncopation of the piece makes of the bar lines themselves "mysterious barricades". (Perhaps this is also what Mellers is referring to.) Others point to the fact that in playing the piece, one's hands are 'barricaded' in more or less one place. Finally, in what strikes me as the most plausible suggestion linking the title of the piece to features of the music itself, the harpsichordist Luke Arnason offers the following (written for this website):



The title Les Barricades Mystérieuses is probably meant to be evocative rather than a reference to a specific object, musical or otherwise. Scott Ross, in a master class filmed and distributed by Harmonia Mundi, likens the piece to a train. This clearly cannot have been the precise image Couperin was trying to convey, but it is easy to hear in Les Barricades the image of a heavy but fast-moving object that picks up momentum. In that sense, the mysterious barricades are perhaps those which cause the "train" to slow down and sometimes stop. The piece could almost be seen as a catalogue of the effects that can cause an energetic line (the piece is marked vivement) to do slow down or stop naturally and elegantly: through the imperfect and perfect cadences at the end of each couplet, the cadence resulting in a unison E flat in the third couplet, the introduction and modification of sequences in both the treble and bass (third couplet), and through some of the more "unexpected" harmonies like the diminished D chord in the first couplet. This hypothesis seems to fit in with the pedagogical aims of Couperin's music, since the composer presents himself as something of a specialist in building sound through legato, style luthé playing. It might also explain the placement of the piece [in the ordre at the beginning of the second volume]. Though the title does not appear to be in keeping with the pastoral register of the rest of the ordre, it is emblematic of Couperin's compositional and pedagogical style, and in that sense very much belongs at the head of the second book. Moreover, it seems to form a set with the following piece, Les Bergeries. This latter piece, though more melodic than Les Barricades, set in a higher register and more bucolic in feeling, is also an exercise in using a repetitive motif (in this case a left hand ostinato evocative of the musette) to build sound without seeming mechanical or repetitive. Both Les Barricades Mystérieuses and Les Bergeries, then, are exercises in building (and relaxing) sound and momentum elegantly. It is unfortunate, then, that so many harpsichordists play both pieces in such a relentless fashion, disregarding Couperin's rather obvious invitations to slow down and, in my mind, the very spirit of the pieces.

To most people, harmony is a mysterious thing. Even to some composers! Just to set the mood, here is a piece intended to be harmonically mysterious, Les Baricades Mistérieuses by François Couperin le grande played by Scott Ross:

Just to give you an idea of the extraordinary reactions this piece can provoke, here is a website entirely devoted to the piece and its influence. That is just for interest, I don't advocate any of the material or claims on that website, which get rather too ephemeral. But it would be interesting to have a look at the music. It's only two pages, so I'll put up the whole thing:

The time signature nowadays would be written 2/2 or the half-circle with a slash that is often called "cut time" but that is really an archaic medieval modal time signature meaning tempus imperfectus or duple time. The key is B flat. It sounds almost as if it starts in the middle, which is a nice effect. Composers can go one of two ways to avoid the opening of a piece sounding too standard: they can compose an introduction, often in a slower tempo, or they can, as novelists sometimes do, give the effect of coming in in the middle of the story, which Couperin chooses.

The harmonic effect here is one that comes from counterpoint, often called "voice-leading". You might remember from my post of a few days ago I cited a book that I called a "bible of music theory", Aldwell and Schachter's Harmony and Voice-Leading? Well, it is pieces like the Couperin that are responsible for why the phrase "voice-leading" is in the title. Harmony actually, both historically and currently, comes from counterpoint, from voice-leading. The phrase "voice-leading", by the way, just refers to the way the voices move from harmony to harmony (from one chord to the next). But harmony itself is built from different voices. One of the problems with harmony nowadays is that a lot of composers and listeners have forgotten this. In the strummed chord progressions of popular music, the contrapuntal nature of harmony is nearly extinguished.

But the whole effect of Couperin's Les Baricades Mistérieuses depends on the voice-leading. The kind of texture he is creating uses two different kinds of effects. In one, a voice is held over from a previous harmony and resolves down into the next harmony after the bass note is sounded. There is an example in the very beginning where the top voice sounds a D, the third of the tonic B flat, and this is held over the sounding of the F in the bass, the root of the dominant F chord. It then resolves down by step to the C, the fifth of the dominant. In modern harmony courses, this is called a suspension, specifically a 6-5 because those are the intervals over the new bass note. In French baroque music this is often indicated with an ornamental sign and is called a coulé. Also at the beginning, but in the alto voice, is another suspension, from B flat to A, a 4-3 suspension in modern terms. Then, going into the next measure, after the repeat sign, the A now resolves up into the B flat when the harmony returns to the tonic. For some odd reason, modern harmony books, even Aldwell and Schachter, focus almost entirely on the suspension that resolves down. But Couperin makes considerable use of the reverse: a dissonance that resolves up, usually the leading tone resolving to the tonic, what we might call a 7-8 resolution. Theorists seem to want to regard this as an anomaly, but Baroque composers seem quite comfortable with it. The term for this kind of ornament is port de voix or "carry the voice". In the next measure we see a 9-8 suspension, a 4-3, and going into the next measure again, a 7-6.

The lovely and mysterious effect that Couperin creates here is through the inventive and layered use of suspensions of both kinds, the standard one that resolves down and the less-common one that resolves up. I say "layered" because he often has two different suspensions resolving at different times in the same measure. It creates a kind of filigree of harmony. All this depends on a contrapuntal device however! This piece is not a simple succession of chords, it is a harmonic web of different voices that resolve according to long-standing rules of counterpoint. The most important: dissonances resolve by step, whether up or down. Probably the reason for this is that when the note resolves by step, we know exactly where it came from, i.e. which voice it is. Bach sometimes breaks this rule by resolving a leading tone down an octave, for example, but he always does it in a context where it is clear what note is being resolved where.

One final comment, another kind of layer here is that while one voice is resolving by being delayed by an eighth-note, another might be resolving after a quarter-note delay. There are different levels of layers!

Let's listen to that again, this time trying to hear all the suspensions. Here is a version on piano played by Cziffra György:

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