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How to: Francois Couperin’s Messe pour les Paroisses

August 28, 2016

The composer François Couperin (1668-1733) seems to have published only one book of organ music, this consisting of two Masses of 21 movements each, one “for the Parishes” and one “for the Convents”, the year being 1690.

Anyhow, I recently picked up the an edition of these, in two green paperbacks published by Kalmus, from the free shelf at a college library. Be that as it may, there are several public domain editions available at IMSLP. Mine happens to resemble this one, in that it frequently leaves the pedals on the second staff (which I like, in this case); or if you like your pedals on their own line, you might check out the newly typeset edition by Pierre Gouin [I mention this because I generally find his editions to be consistently well done].  Thus far for scores.

Anyhow, having obtained a hard copy, I found upon playing some of it that the “Mass for the Parishes” looked to be good postluding material, and decided to proceed accordingly. Interestingly, this is said to be the more elaborate of Couperin’s two Masses; however, the main reason I was attracted to it was that it is easily seen to be based upon the melodies of what nowadays we would refer to as Mass IV: Cunctipotens Genitor Deus (of which a convenient printout may be had here, though I printed mine out from the authentic Vatican Edition Graduale 1908 just for the fun of it, and then added the rhythmic signs on over top of it, afterwards.)

Now, I have mentioned that these Masses by Couperin have 21 movements: what of that?

Historically, in this period of time, the organ was played in alternation with the singing of the chant, in such fashion that it was actually considered to be, well, singing the alternate verses. [To hear an example of this practice, check out this Te Deum, which seems to make the rounds of the internet every now and then.] For example, if you were going to sing a hymn, the organ would play verse 1, the choir would sing verse 2, and so forth. Note also that the organ, at least as far I as have seen, generally takes the first verse: and the way you can tell is that when there is a hymn with, say, 7 verses, the composer will write 4 versets.

So, with these two organ Masses, the arrangement of versets (happily the same for both) is as follows:

Kyrie: 5 versets

Gloria: 9 versets


Sanctus: 2 versets

Benedictus or Elevation

Agnus Dei: 2 versets

Deo gratias

For the Kyrie, Gloria, and Agnus Dei, the divisions we use nowadays (marked with a double bar) are right in sync with these versets. The Offertory is then stand-alone piece, and the Deo Gratias is the organ’s response to the priest’s “Ite missa est.” The interesting question, however, is what to do with the Sanctus, which our modern chant editions is not marked to be sung in alternation.

A little pottering about turned up a couple of recordings with differing solutions, as well as some editions with either too many or too few double bars. Finally, I hit upon the Ratisbon Graduale, published in 1871, which gave an agreeable number of divisions, thus:

1871 Ratisbon Graduale - Sanctus from Mass IV

[And whether you separate the Benedictus makes no difference here.]

Now, the reason that I wanted to work out these alternations is that for the most authentic effect these pieces ought to be performed in alternation with the appropriate chants: and what I do in such cases is that I play the appropriate chant verses in their proper places on a the soft 8′ flute stop that I customarily use for accompanying chant during Mass.

In the end, the way things came to pass, I ended up playing the whole of the “Mass for the Parishes” over the course of seven postludes, in the following manner:


Postlude 1: Kyrie (all 5 versets)

Kyrie – organ

Kyrie – chant

Kyrie – organ

Christe – chant

Christe – organ

Christe – chant

Kyrie – organ

Kyrie – chant

Kyrie – organ

Postlude 2: Gloria (first 3 versets)

Gloria – chant

Et in terra – organ

Laudamus te – chant

Benedicimus te – organ

Adoramus te – chant

Glorificamus te – organ

Gratias agimus tibi – chant

Postlude 3: Gloria (second 3 versets)

Domine Deus, Rex coelestis – organ

Domine Fili – chant

Domine Deus, Agnus Dei – organ

Qui tollis… miserere – chant

Qui tollis… suscipe – organ

Qui sedes – chant

Postlude 4: Gloria (third 3 versets)

Quoniam tu solus sanctus – organ

Tu solus Dominus – chant

Tu solus Altissimus – organ

Cum Sancto Spiritu – chant

Amen – organ

Postlude 5: Offertory

(This one just goes by itself)

Postlude 6: Sanctus & Benedictus (3 versets total)

1st Sanctus – organ

2nd Sanctus – chant

3rd Sanctus – organ

Pleni sunt coeli – chant

Benedictus – organ

Postlude 7: Agnus Dei & Deo Gratias (3 versets total)

1st Agnus Dei – organ

2nd Agnus Dei – chant

3rd Agnus Dei – organ

Ite missa est – chant

Deo gratias – organ


And that’s how it went. By the way, all of these combinations ran to a quite satisfactory length of time, while at the same time none of them seemed to require an unreasonable amount of preparation. Also the entire sequence comes with its own built-in variety, in that the different types of piece and the different registrations occur in a pleasing sequence, courtesy of Mr. François Couperin, who planned it that way.


P.S. As a sample, here is Postlude 3, ut notatur supra:



From → Organ

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