Written by Pianist Lee Jae Phang
Another bird-related post? Yes, I haven’t gone cuckoo!
Le Coucou by Louis-Claude Daquin is what one would call an oldie but a goodie. It has been a favorite among budding pianists since the early days of my piano education, and continues to fascinate piano students around the world. To professional pianists, it is a great miniature that would work well as an encore.
With only two episodes (it is a rondo, or Rondeau in French), Daquin manages to give this piece a character that lives up to its name.
Let’s get right into the two tips I have prepared for you.
Tip Number 1: Keep your fingers alert
Remember that the piano in its modern form did not exist back in 1735 when Daquin wrote this piece, as part of his harpsichord suite Pièces de clavecin, Troisième Suite.
The timbre of the harpsichord is very different to that of the piano. The strings, instead of being struck by felt-covered hammers, are plucked by plectrums.
Here is a picture of a harpsichord and its action mechanism for you to have a greater appreciation of how the instrument looks and how sound is produced on it.
As a result of the plucked action, the sound of each individual note produced begins with a sharp articulation. The closest sonic approximation to this would be string instrument pizzicato.
How does this knowledge benefit us as pianists, you may ask?
It tells us what kind of articulation to employ when we play this piece. With our greater palette of possible articulations, knowing the type of articulation and touch to use when playing pieces from different musical eras has to be a consious and informed decision.
Cantabile touch, which is usually executed with the pads of the fingers, would sound quite out of place in Daquin, Scarlatti, and Bach, for example.
When we play Le Coucou, it is therefore important for us to keep our fingers curved as much as possible, with the distal phalanges (nail joint) perdendicular to the key surface. Each striking of the key should be clear and decisive. The sound should be alert.
Besides, bird calls are never sluggish or lazy…
Tip Number 2: Is it CUC-koo or cuc-KOO?
I don’t think the cuckoo call in the music would have escaped anyone’s notice.
But are there any among us who would have looked at the printed music and noticed that the stressed syllable of the ‘cuckoo’ call—the syllable ‘cuc’—falls on the quaver off-beat?
Please see the excerpt below.
In the absence of an accent on the off-beat quaver (the G in the excerpt), and if we adhere to the traditional metrical stress of 2/4 time, Daquin’s bird sings ‘cuc-KOO’.
Let’s have a listen to some real life cuckoo calls for comparison.
There is a noticeable discrepancy.
I wouldn’t want to suggest that Daquin has incorrectly written his music (is there really an objective right or wrong in art anyway?) and that changes need to be made in barring to accommodate authenticity or faithfulness of transcription. He might have even assumed that we would naturally accent the correct syllable. Who knows?
But I would like to invite you, if you don’t already do it unknowingly, to try adding a subtle syllabic stress on the off-beat quaver every time you play the cuckoo motif.
You might just like it better than the ‘academic’ way of playing.
By creating this misalignment of accent versus metrical accent, you imbue a kind of subtle tension in the music, spurring it onwards.
That’s it for this post!
Here’s my performance of this rondo.
If you have any comments or questions, please let me know in the comments section below.
Feel free to share this post with your friends if you found it useful, and I’ll see you again at my next post. Happy practicing and exploring!
About The Author
Lee Jae Phang is on a mission to spread his love for great music far and wide!
Using his skills and experience, he helps others deepen their appreciation for and understanding of music through his work as an international concert pianist, teacher, and writer. If you would like to be part of his musical adventures, follow Lee Jae on his Facebook page.