The Mysterious Barricades
François Couperin’s piece for harpsichord Les Barricades Mystérieuses has caught the imagination of many. In these pages I discuss the piece and its title and gather its echoes in music, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, the visual arts, film, and performance.
François Couperin’s piece for harpsichord, Les Barricades Mystérieuses (the original spelling seems to have been Les Baricades Mistérieuses – now all four possible combinations of these two variants seem to be employed) was published in 1717, as the fifth piece in his VIth Ordre de Clavecin in B flat major. Written in the arpeggiated style brisé (broken style) or style luthé of a lute piece, the work is in rondeau form. As David Tunley notes, the piece employs a variant of the traditional romanesca in the bass, though here in quadruple, rather than the usual triple, time (François Couperin and ‘The Perfection of Music,’ Ashgate, 2004, p. 116). A detailed harmonic analysis of the piece is given by the composer Philip Corner.
While the piece itself is haunting and beautiful, its effect has surely been enhanced by its mysterious title. Couperin gave most of his harpsichord pieces titles. This practice stemmed from “the music of Chambonnières and the earliest works of the French ‘clavecinists’ who, in turn, had borrowed the habit from the lutenists of the late sixteenth century” (David Tunley, Couperin, BBC, 1982, p. 79). (There is, in fact, a harpsichord piece called Les Baricades (or Les Barricades) by Chambonnières himself. What does his title mean? I have seen nothing addressing this question.) Some of Couperin’s pieces are named after people or types of people, some indicate something the music is supposed to represent. A few of the names, however, remain mysteries to us. David Tunley adds that “even in their own days these same pieces might well have appeared enigmatic to all but a handful of the composers’ circle” (ibid., p. 82-3). Such appears to be the case with Les Barricades Mystérieuses. As far as I am aware, there is absolutely no direct evidence to illuminate the meaning of Couperin’s title. Anything offered as an interpretation is more or less well-founded speculation.
A piece by Pascal Tufféry offers what I find an extremely plausible hypothesis. The other pieces in Couperin’s VIth ordre are all of a bucolic or agricultural nature. Against that setting, Tufféry links the rhythm of the piece to the stamping out of the grapes to make wine. “Barrique” means barrel and “barriquade” is used in the name of a contemporary organization of viticulturalists in France. The association of wine with the mysteries of Bacchus accounts for the epithet “mystérieuses” in the title.
One sometimes sees suggestions that the mysterious barricades of Couperin’s title are either women’s eyelashes or women’s underwear, or chastity belts. Neither of these hypotheses is very plausible (the music itself surely makes the ribaldry of the second suggestion out of place) and there is no evidence I am aware of to support them in the least. In one place (a Youtube of a performance of the piece by Philippe Radault), it is claimed in addition that the use of the expression to refer to women’s eyelashes was distinctive of “les précieuses,” the witty and educated women who populated the salons of the 17th century. I have found no evidence of this.
In ‘The mirror of human life’: Reflections on François Couperin’s Pièces de Clavecin by Jane Clark and Derek Connon (Redcroft, King’s Music, 2002), Jane Clark links the VIth ordre to a divertissement staged by one of Couperin’s patrons, the Duchesse Du Maine in 1714. The entertainment was called Le Mystère ou les Fêtes de l’Inconnu (The Mysterious One or the Celebrations of the Unknown One). In the performance, the King’s musicians and Marguerite-Louise Couperin (François’ sister) wore masks, emphasizing the mysterious presence celebrated by the divertissement, possibly the exiled Stuart James III. Clark suggests that the barricades mistérieuses may refer to these masks (p. 67-8). With regard to another piece, La Misterieuse, in the XXVth ordre, Clark suggests a possible reference to the Duchesse Du Maine’s interests in freemasonry.
Wilfrid Mellers also wonders if there is a link to a divertissement though in tandem with another approach to understanding the name, that it refers to some technical features of the piece itself. Mellers suggests that the piece is “one of Couperin’s technical jokes, the continuous suspensions in the lute style being a barricade to the basic harmony; and this may link up with the illusory devices in a masque decor. Barricades has its modern sense after 1648, but if the harmonic ambiguities might be described as ‘revolutionary’ in the context of baroque orthodoxies, the tone of the music remains, even in its mystery, impeccably aristocratic” (François Couperin and the French Classical Tradition, new version, London, Faber and Faber, 1987, pp. 400-2). I am not aware of other cases in which Couperin’s titles reflect technical features of the music they name, but the approach is not altogether implausible. Some have suggested that the constant syncopation of the piece makes of the bar lines themselves “mysterious barricades”. (Perhaps this is also what Mellers is referring to.) Others point to the fact that in playing the piece, one’s hands are ‘barricaded’ in more or less one place. Finally, in what strikes me as a very plausible suggestion linking the title of the piece to features of the music itself, the harpsichordist Luke Arnason (whose performance you can hear above) offers the following (written for this website):