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Review: Francois Couperin - Duets, Dave Rowlnds

François Couperin “Selected Duets”. Transcribed and arranged in D and G for all melody instruments by David Rowlands

Dave Rowlands is obviously a very busy man as it doesn’t seem two seconds ago that his collections of 18th century music were published. (The Long Century and Across the Water, see Chanter Summer 2019 for reviews.) In this new volume, Dave has travelled a little further back in time to the late 17th century and into the world of the French baroque. This is, of course, the time period and heyday of the musette and it brings to mind bucolic scenes of shepherds and shepherdesses, powdered wigs and ruffles!

The book contains 22 duets by François Couperin transcribed for bagpipes in D or G – and playable, of course, on other melody instruments, including gurdies. Other than one piece, all the harmonies have been arranged by Dave. The first section is for D instruments and then they are repeated at the rear where they have been transposed to suit instruments in G. Dave openly states that a few of the pieces are a little “edgy” due to the conflict with the drones and some of the harmonies are a little strange for modern ears and a number are also in keys less familiar to folk-orientated pipers.

As with all of Dave’s books, this one contains a wealth of well-researched information both about Couperin, his life and works. There are also fulsome notes on the music and the subjects of the pieces, both in the lengthy introduction and dotted throughout the book. Although I was aware of Couperin as a composer of keyboard music, I must admit to not knowing anything about his life. Going under the title of ‘Couperin le Grand’, it seems that he was likely to have been attached to the Stuart and Jacobite courts when they were in exile in France and in 1693 he was appointed to play at the court of Versailles. In fact, it is his keyboard pieces which are the source material for the music in this selection. Couperin specifically states in some of the titles to be played “in the style of the musette’ or “in the style of the cornemuse”. Dave has therefore taken highly graced and stylised harpsichord music of this period and arranged it for bagpipes – and, thankfully, has left it up to the player to ornament as they see fit, although he suggests various ways of embellishing the music. There is also a useful chart in the introduction which shows the different types of gracings of the period for those that want to use an authentic style.

In making his arrangements, Dave has transcribed the tune through both parts – so the tune is not carried just in one line. This meant that when I played through some of the pieces on my own, some were more successful than others in conveying the tune. As the music is clearly designed to be played as pure duets, you will have to wait for the social distancing rules to be relaxed to play with a friend (unless you have Zoom, of course!). I have not played through all of the pieces and the style felt rather strange at first but after several plays through I certainly got more used to the musical idiom and there are some nice pieces in the selection – but they would certainly benefit from the second part being played! I played them on my Dudy smallpipes (the nearest I’ve got to a ‘musette’ sound) and, despite having a restricted range, the pieces certainly had promise.

The book is illustrated throughout with pictures and engravings from the period. For the first section (the tunes for D instruments), a facsimile of the original keyboard music is given and Dave’s transcriptions are printed below. This is a nice touch and give a good reference to see how the music has been transcribed.

If I have a gripe with the book though, it is in the layout and editing of the music. The D music layout has kept the margins and layout of the facsimile keyboard music above it with the result that some of notation is cramped and therefore difficult to read as a result. I really had to think and look quite hard to begin with to understand some of the pieces, especially with accidental signs often overprinting an adjacent note. In a couple of pieces, I found the playing directions within the music (repeats, order to play, etc) very confusing. I noticed several scoring errors and inconsistencies between the two parts and at times Dave has not reflected the scoring of Couperin’s original intentions. I’m sure these issues would be overcome with familiarity but it did not help with sight reading the music. The second section, for the music in G, is totally different in layout and presentation from that which precedes it. As there are no illustrations or facsimiles to constrain it, the music is set out with larger staves and font size and consequently looks as though it’s from a different book. This has its own problems though as some of the music goes over two pages resulting in having to stop to turn the page in the middle of a moving passage. It would have been good if a clear consistent style could have been attained throughout. Also, some of the lower parts in the ‘G’ section end on a chord – a tad difficult to achieve on a bagpipe!

If you like baroque music and have always wanted to try your hand at playing it on pipes (without the luxury of owning a musette), then this is a book for you. I imagine playing them with a like-minded friend would be a lot of fun.

Congratulations must go to Dave Rowlands for his energy and passion and I wonder where his enthusiasms will take him next because I’m looking forward to it!
The book costs £15.00 plus shipping and is available, as well as all Dave’s other books, from