Beautiful Music: The Mysterious Barricades

For today, a bit of haunting music by François Couperin (1668 – 1733), “The Mysterious Barricades,” a keyboard piece from his vast output, four volumes of harpsichord music, each with many “orders” of individual works. He taught extensively, and used these pieces to demonstrate keyboard and compositional techniques. (It’s striking that so much extraordinary keyboard music over the centuries was pedagogical in origin: in addition to lots of French baroque examples like this, there Bach’s WTC I and II, the Chopin Études, the Four Opus 7, Études of Stravinsky, and sets for children by Tchaikovsky and Schumann. Easily a whole program’s worth of first rate material.)

But back to Couperin: this is a rondo, meaning a musical structure that sets out one idea, then introduces new material, comes back to the first idea, another new idea, return, etc. Kind of like life.  This one has a gentle motor like rhythm hidden within, and according to an unusually full wikipedia entry for a piece of baroque music, evokes the (unknown to Couperin) world of fractal mathematics.

That’s a stretcher, but, it does seem other worldly. Here’s the piano maniac Georges Cziffra playing it. (For some reason there is a two and a half minute tail on the video.)

And then there is Igor Kipnis playing it on the harpsichord,

Kipnis’ is the first recording I ever heard of the piece, on an LP 30 years ago, and I am still struck by how the structure of piece comes through in his playing. Using the lute stop on for contrast is so touching somehow, as is the elegance of his ornaments–a big deal, no the big deal of 17th & 18th century music, and much clearer on this instrument than the piano.

As for Couperin’s enigmatic title, for me it evokes passages as you move back and forth to the theme, as well as motion down a road. But what might it have meant to Magritte, who used the same title for this artwork?

Screen Shot 2013-03-26 at 8.57.40 AM

The Margritte example was found via an engrossing site about the piece by a philosophy prof/composer who is evidently even more smitten with the piece than I. He has, among other things, many examples of visual art related to the piece, and the factoid that it shows up as background music for Brad Pitt in Tree of Life.

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