Composers Datebook®

Couperin the Great

Francois Couperin (1688-1733) "Les Baricades misterieuses," from "2nd Livre de Clavecin" (Kenneth Gilbert, hc) Harmonia Mundi 190354/56

Composer's Datebook - 20210911


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September 11, 2021


On today’s date in 1733, the French composer François Couperin, known as “François Couperin the Great,” died in Paris. The building where Couperin lived for the last decade of his life still stands in Paris, and like the building, the high esteem afforded this Baroque composer has stood the test of time.

François Couperin is known as “The Great” for two reasons: first, to distinguish him from other talented Couperins, who like the Bach Family, were also well-known musicians, and second, because, well, he was great – a strikingly original composer, admired for his harmonic invention and programmatic wit.

Couperin is most famous for his 226 pieces for solo harpsichord, many with descriptive titles indicating they were portraits or caricatures of real people or recognizable types of people. Others have poetically ambiguous or rather baffling titles like “The Mysterious Barricades.”

Were these titles private “insider” jokes for himself and his friends? Who knows? Maybe not knowing the secret “program” is even part of the music’s appeal.

Couperin was admired by fellow composers ranging from Bach to Brahms and Ravel, and some of his harmonically adventurous keyboard pieces have been orchestrated by Richard Strauss in the 20th century and Thomas Ades in the 21st.

Music Played in Today's Program

Francois Couperin (1688-1733) "Les Baricades misterieuses," from "2nd Livre de Clavecin" (Kenneth Gilbert, hc) Harmonia Mundi 190354/56

On This Day


  • 1711 - Baptismal date of British composer William Boyce, in London;

  • 1786 - German-born Danish pianist and composer Friedrich Kuhlau, in Ülzen (near Hanover);

  • 1825 - Conservative Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick, in Prague;

  • 1935 - Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, in Paide;


  • 1733 - French harpsichordist and composer François Couperin ("le Grand"), age 64, in Paris;

  • 1949 - French composer Henri Rabaud, age 76, in Paris;

  • 1985 - English composer William Alwyn, age 79, in Southwold;


  • 1887 - Dvorák: Mass in D, Op. 86, at a private performance in Luzany;

  • 1924 - Gershwin: musical "Primrose," at the Winter Garden Theater in London;

  • 1936 - Kodály: "Te Deum," in Budapest;

  • 1951 - Stravinsky: opera, "The Rake's Progress," in Venice at the Teatro della Fenice, conducted by the composer; According to Opera America, this is one of the most frequently-produced American operas during the past decade;

  • 1971 - Barber: "Fadograph from a Yestern Scene" (the title is a line from James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake"), by the Pittsburgh Symphony, at the opening concert in Heinz Hall;

  • 1986 - Harbison: "Remembering Gatsby" for orchestra, in Atlanta, with the Atlanta Symphony, Robert Shaw conducting; This music became the prelude to Harbison's 1999 opera, "The Great Gatsby";


  • 1840 - German composer Robert Schumann gives his fiancée, Clara Wieck, his new song-cycle "Liederkreis," as a gift on the eve of their wedding;

  • 1850 - Swedish soprano Jenny Lind makes her American debut at the Castle Garden Theatre in New York City, inaugurating a 93-stop American tour arranged by showman and entertainment entrepreneur Phineas "P.T." Barnum;

  • 1950 - At a Decca recording session in New York City; Leroy Anderson conducts the premiere performance of his piece entitled "The Waltzing Cat" and also commits to disc six more of his most popular compositions: "Jazz Pizzicato" and "Jazz Legato" (both composed in 1938), "A Trumpeter's Lullaby" and "The Syncopated Clock" (both composed in 1945), and two of his pieces that had premiered at 1947 and 1948 Boston Pops concerts: "Serenata" (Arthur Fiedler's favorite Leroy Anderson composition) and "Sleigh Ride" (which was actually composed in July!); Anderson had conducted the premiere of "Jazz Pizzicato" (his first composition) at a 1938 Boston Pops concert, and "Jazz Legato" was written at the request of Arthur Fiedler as a companion piece for the second side of a 78-rpm recording of "Jazz Pizzicato"; "A Trumpeter's Lullaby" was written at the request of Roger Voison, principal trumpet of the Boston Pops, and "The Syncopated Clock" was popularized when it was used for 25 years as the theme music for "The Late Show" on WCBS-TV in New York City;

  • 1962 - At their third recording session at London's Abbey Road studios, The Beatles record one of their early hit songs: "Love me, do!"