Couperin: Les Barricades Mystérieuses

Last winter I heard a piece of music I had never heard before and, like so many before me, I became obsessed. I couldn’t even think about this piece without compulsively turning it on and listening to it several times and so eventually I decided it was time to unleash this glorious baroque beast onto all of you as well.

YES ELLEN, HARPSICHORD

PIECE: Les Barricades Mystérieuses 

COMPOSER: François Couperin

DATE: 1717

ERA: Baroque

GOOD FOR: Developing obsession, diving down wikipedia holes, increasing the sexual tension in a room.

Right so let’s talk about Couperin quickly. Couperin was born in 1668 to one of the most famous musical families in all of Europe. So famous in fact, that when Couperin started to get big they referred to him as Couperin le Grand or “Couperin the great” so that they wouldn’t get confused about which fantastic musician named Couperin they were referring to. Now he’s pretty much the only one who we think about anymore so sorry other less grand Couperins. Thanks to his family reputation, Couperin was pretty much set for life where musical employment was concerned, which may have given him more confidence and freedom musically.

And he really is great. It took me too long to come around Couperin’s parts but it’s a really beautiful little corner of the canon. He’s probably best known for his twenty-seven “orders” of harpsichord suites written for amateur players to play for personal entertainment written between 1713 and 1730.  These works have evocative titles (more on that later) and include so much tone painting that music historians liken them to mini tone-poems/program music like La Moucheron (The midge) which features lil’ cute fluttering wings or musical portraits like La Forqueray named after the French violist Antoine Forqueray.

This piece we’re going to talk about today comes from the sixth order (Ordre 6ème de clavecin) and has developed a little cult of people who are desperate to unravel its mysteries. It’s titled Les Barricades mystérieuses* which literally translates to “The Mysterious Barricades”. So remember how those other titles were pretty obvious and match up nicely with the tone painting in the music? This one haunts peoples dreams.

Who is she???

There are so so so many people trying to solve the enigma of this title. Here’s a quick rundown of the possible explanations I came across while researching this piece:

  • Communication barriers
  • TIME barriers (between past/present and future)
  • Life and death barriers
  • It’s EYELASHES. They’re EYE BARRIERS
  • Masquerade masks from this one specific party in 1714 that one of Couperin’s patrons hosted
  • Virginity
  • Chastity belts and/or women’s underwear
  • Continuous suspensions barricading harmony
  • Syncopation in the right hand that crosses over the bar lines, the bar lines being the barriers
  • Couperin knew he would always be famous and wanted to mess with future musicologists.

Okay the last one is maybe my own theory but I think the two above it are pretty plausible theories since they also have a fun visual component (on the page the bar lines look like little fences the notes are hopping over). It’s less fun than a sex thing, but it reminds me of other contemporary musical jokes and has more solid evidence.

never say never

Let’s walk away from that mystery for a bit and wander over to the music itself. These are musical works intended for amateurs to play and if you have any piano training I highly suggest downloading this and playing it. It’s not super difficult and it is super cool to play. You kind of feel magical when you play this work because it’s not too complex on paper but sounds like you are basically Rachmaninoff. 10/10 will impress your date with this (tell her it’s about sex stuff)

…If anyone tries this please let me know how it goes (you can download the sheet music right here for free)

Les Barricades Mystérieuses is in style brisé which is just irregular arpeggiation (outlining chords).  Couperin levels up and holds one note over from the last chord and doesn’t resolve it (i.e. make it fit the new chord) until the bass has started the new harmony. This also what those two plausible title explanations about bar lines/suspensions from earlier are referring to. This creates an awesome texture that seems to constantly be moving and almost existing out of the realm of earthly things like bar lines and measures. Even though Couperin has the entirety of the keyboard to work with, he chooses to restrict this work to a pretty limited selection, which helps to keep this perpetual music machine going without any big changes to catch your ear.

This work is a rondeau which in this era was a dance movement with refrains, so basically, verse/refrain/sorta-different-verse/refrain etc. for as long as you want. This particular one goes AABACADAA (A=refrain) but because of that blurred-measure-lines texture we talked about before, you might not even notice the return of the refrain until it’s already well underway.

What you might sense is that this piece feels…familiar…as if you’d already heard it before…and you have. Or at least you’ve heard the harmonic outline before, literally everywhere, haunting your dreams and burying into your subconscious. I can’t possibly imagine why Les Barricades Mystérieuses wasn’t included in the infamous Pachabel’s Rant but the refrain definitely fits the bill. It was also recently featured in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette so maybe you heard it there and now it conjures up beautiful 18th-century fashion memories for you.

I have many listening options available for you on this one friends! First up is a youtube video WITH THE SCORE (!) so you can see those bar lines and held over notes/suspensions (the ones with a bowed line connecting them) and decide for yourself if that’s the source of our title or if you think I am totally wrong and you’re sure it’s about underwear.

If you’re ready for some more active listening, check out our Spotify playlist below with the following:

  • Classic Harpsichord version
  • Piano version (you can hear that the lower range of the piano gets muddier than the ping of harpsichord)
  • 1727 domestic Spinet version, this is probably what it sounded like in an amateur player’s home and that is a very cool thing. Historical performance is magical and you can close your eyes and time travel to hear the exact same sounds you would have heard when this piece was composed.
  • A guitar version because this piece is popular with guitarists too and it sounds great
  • Thomas Adès’s (see next paragraph) arrangement for double bass, bass clarinet, clarinet, viola and cello might help you hear it in a new light.
  • Deconstructed arrangement which is very very good for hearing the bassline if you didn’t believe me about the whole Pachabel’s canon thing.

Thomas Adès called this work a better composition lesson than any he’d gotten from teachers in how to generate melody from harmony and vice-versa. So congratulations, you have now received a full conservatory composition education! Go forth and compose fine sexy harpsichord harmonies.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ only one way to find out…

* For reasons no one seems to understand, this piece was originally spelled “Les Baricades Mistérieuses” and was later changed to the correct “Les Barricades Mystérieuses” so if you’re looking for recordings, you’ll find that some spell it one way, and some spell it the other way.

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