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Le Coucou

November 4, 2018: Lucille Chung, piano

Louis-Claude Daquin’s intellectual, artistic family immediately recognized his prodigious talents. He took harpsichord lessons with his talented godmother Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and composition lessons from the illustrious Nicolas Bernier, and at the age of six he performed for Louis XIV. Just two years later he conducted his own Beatus vir at the royal chapel, Sainte-Chapelle, and at twelve he became assistant there to Marin de la Guerre (Elisabeth’s husband). That year he was also hired as organist at Petit St.-Antoine, where crowds flocked to hear him.

Daquin won the position of organist at St. Paul in 1727 in competition with a number of fine musicians including the great Jean-Philippe Rameau, and he remained there until his death. Concurrently he held other organist appointments—at Cordeliers from 1732, Chapelle Royale from 1739, and Notre Dame from 1755. He is also known to have mightily impressed his audiences at the Concerts Spirituels at the Palais de Tuileries and the Concerts Français.

Contemporary accounts rate Daquin as the finest improviser of his time, but he may have been too busy improvising to commit the extent of his genius to print—just two collections of his compositions were captured for posterity. His Nouveau livre de noëls (New book of Christmas pieces), published in 1757, shows charm, brilliance, and imaginative registrations. But Daquin’s more original side shows in some of the pieces in his Livre de pièces de clavecin (Book of harpsichord pieces), a collection of four suites and a divertissement, for which there was enough demand to be printed twice, in 1735 and again in 1739.

In his 1735 preface Daquin points to his use of “new styles of expression” while keeping within true keyboard idioms. He points to Les vents en couroux, in which he says the crossed hands passages represent the fury of the waves and flashes of lightning as the wind whips up a storm on the ocean, and Les trois cadences, which contains the novel technique of the triple trill. He also mentions his attempt to imitate the “appropriate effects and characters” in the publication’s final set of pieces, Les plaisirs de la chasse (The pleasures of the hunt), but other than including it in a list of pieces possible for violins or flutes, he does not mention Le coucou, which has become his most celebrated composition.

Le coucou, the first piece in his Third Suite, shows his remarkable use of a stylized bird call in an original way. A cuckoo’s call is generally heard as a descending major or minor third, and Daquin starts with this interval, always placing it in the same rhythmic spot—from the second half of the second beat to the downbeat of the next measure. The call migrates from hand to hand, but more strikingly changes from a third to a second, fourth, fifth, or sixth depending on the harmony, and sometimes ascends rather than descends. It never loses its identity as the cuckoo, however, owing to its rhythmic configuration.

In terms of form, Daquin opts for a rondeau in which the opening alternates with two couplets as a refrain in the form A-B-A-C-A. He never alters the texture of running sixteenth-notes against the “cuckoos” except to switch hands and add judicious ornaments, but he keeps the ear engaged with harmonic excursions and the flitting of the cuckoos from place to place.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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