Les Barricades Mystérieuses

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Les Barricades Mystérieuses (The Mysterious Barricades) is a piece of music that François Couperin composed for harpsichord in 1717. It is the fifth piece in his "Ordre 6ème de clavecin" in B-flat major, from his second book of collected harpsichord pieces (Pièces de Clavecin).[1][2] It is emblematic of the style brisé characteristic of French Baroque keyboard music.[3]


The work is in rondeau form, employing a variant of the traditional romanesca in the bass in quadruple time rather than the usual triple time.[2]

"The four parts create an ever-changing tapestry of melody and harmony, interacting and overlapping with different rhythmic schemes and melodies. The effect is shimmering, kaleidoscopic and seductive, a sonic trompe l'oeil that seem to have presaged images of fractal mathematics, centuries before they existed."[4]

The piece was voted at #76 in the Australian 2012 Classic 100 music of France countdown.


Les Barricades Mystérieuses was originally published with the spelling Les Baricades Mistérieuses ["single r" in the first word, and "i" rather than "y" in the second word]. All four possible spelling combinations have since been used with "double r" and a "y" being the most common. There has been much speculation on the meaning of the phrase "mysterious barricades" with no direct evidence available to back up any theory.[5] Nevertheless, of those that link the title to features of the music itself, Evnine believes harpsichordist Luke Arnason's is the most plausible:

"The title Les Barricades Mystérieuses is probably meant to be evocative rather than a reference to a specific object, musical or otherwise. Scott Ross, in a master class filmed and distributed by Harmonia Mundi, likens the piece to a train. This clearly cannot have been the precise image Couperin was trying to convey, but it is easy to hear in Les Barricades the image of a heavy but fast-moving object that picks up momentum. In that sense, the mysterious barricades are perhaps those which cause the "train" to slow down and sometimes stop... This hypothesis seems to fit in with the pedagogical aims of Couperin's music, since the composer presents himself as something of a specialist in building sound through legato, style luthé playing...Moreover, it seems to form a set with the following piece, Les Bergeries. This latter piece, though more melodic than Les Barricades, set in a higher register and more bucolic in feeling, is also an exercise in using a repetitive motif (in this case a left hand ostinato evocative of the musette) to build sound without seeming mechanical or repetitive. Both Les Barricades Mystérieuses and Les Bergeries, then, are exercises in building (and relaxing) sound and momentum elegantly.[5]

While the title reflects the musical structure, there may be more at play. The suggestion of barricades is "a double entendre referring simultaneously to feminine virginity and the suspensions [of] harmonic [progressions] of the music, [whose] lute figurations [from the style brisé] are imitated to produce an enigmatic stalemate", as Judith Robison Kipnis explained the work's title and its interpretation by her husband Igor Kipnis.[6]

Jean-Honoré Fragonard
The Love Letter (1770)

Other suggested intended meanings for the title include:

  • impeding communication between people
  • between past and present or present and future
  • between life and death
  • women's underwear
  • allegedly a common way of referring to women's eyelashes among the Salonnière of the 17th century
  • masks worn by performers of Le Mystère ou les Fêtes de l'Inconnu (The Mysterious One or the Celebrations of the Unknown One) staged by one of Couperin's patrons, the Duchesse du Maine in 1714[7]
  • a "technical joke...the continuous suspensions in the lute style being a barricade to the basic harmony".[8]

Homages and references in other works[edit]

The piece has been used as a source of inspiration by many others across different artistic fields including music, visual arts and literature. Some have simply used the title while others have created new works inspired by the original.[9]


  • 1971 Moog synthesizer rendition titled Variations on Couperin's Rondeau ("Les Barricades mystérieuses") on the album "Short Circuits" by Ruth White.
  • 1973 harpsichord piece titled Barricades (Rock piece after Couperin). on the album "Bhajebochstiannanas" [an anagram of Johann Sebastian Bach] by Anthony Newman.
  • 1982 piece for Synclavier, "Las Barricadas Misteriosas" composed by Sergio Barroso.
  • 1984 written for, and incorporating texts by Christopher Hewitt, a piece for women's chorus, piccolo, bassoon, harpsichord and clapping titled "Les Barricades Mysteriéuses" by Juilliard composer Andrew Thomas.
  • 1986 album titled Heavenly Bodies including the "Appia Suite", one movement of which is titled "Les Barricades mystérieuses", by British Jazz composer Barbara Thompson. Rerecorded in the same year to be the title track of the German film Zischke.
  • 1987 piece for solo guitar by John Williams on his album "The Baroque Album"
  • 1988 rock piece titled "Mysterious Barricades" on the album of the same name by former Police guitarist Andy Summers.
  • 1989 work for flute and orchestra called "Les Barricades Mystérieuses" by Luca Francesconi.
  • 1989 piece for three recorders called "Les Barricades" by Matthias Maute.
  • 1990 a harpsichord concerto titled "Mysterious Barricades" commissioned by the Cleveland Chamber Symphony composed by Tyler White.
  • 1994 quintet arrangement for clarinet, bass clarinet, viola, cello and double bass in the album "America: A prophecy" by Thomas Adès.
  • 1994 piece for solo guitar titled "Mysterious Habitats" by Serbian guitarist Dusan Bogdanovic.
  • 1995 sextet arrangement for flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello titled "Les Barricades mystérieuses", the fourth of nine movements that make up the composition Récréations françaises by French composer Gérard Pesson.
  • 1995 commissioned by the Villa-Lobos Orchestra for 12 cellos, Le Barricate Misteriose (Hommage à Couperin) composed by Italian composer Gabriella Zen.
  • Mid-1990s solo percussion and electronic piece titled Mysterious Barricades on the album of the same name by Scott Smallwood.
  • 1997 commissioned by the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra, "Las Barricadas Misteriosas" is the third movement of ``Sinfonía à la Mariachi by Robert Xavier Rodriguez.
  • 1999 "Les Baricades Fantasques" is the second movement of a suite of three harpsichord pieces paying homage to Scarlatti, Couperin, and Bach, by American composer Robert T. Kelley.
  • 2001 "Girándula" for 4 corni di bassetto or 4 bass clarinets, based on "Les Barricades mystérieuses", by Jacobo Durán-Loriga.
  • 2002 folk song "Mysterious Barricades" on the album Letter to the Editor by Max Ochs.
  • 2003 piece for drums, voice and instruments titled "Through the Mysterious Barricade" by Philip Corner. This was revisited in 2011 with a new work titled ""Petite fantasie sur Les Barricades Mystérieuses (déjà une révélation) d'après François Couperin."
  • 2007 "decomposition and performance" for piano titled "Les Barricades" Canadian performance artist Yawen Wang.
  • 2009 electronic piece titled "Les Barricades Mystérieuses" by Portuguese composer António Ferreira.
  • 2009 music video "Les Barricades Mystérieuses" by French electro-acoustic artist Mulinex.
  • 2010 piece for oboe, horn, violin, viola, cello and harpsichord titled "The Mysterious Barricades" by Korean composer Jung Sun Kang.
  • 2019 song “Bambina” off the album “Father of the Bride” by Vampire Weekend bearing resemblance to the piece.

Visual arts[edit]

[1] [2]



[3] [4] [5]

  • 1922: The Worm Ourobouros. ER. Eddison. Early in this fantasy novel the protagonist and his wife, hearing their daughter play this piece, comment to each other that only they know the true meaning of the title.
  • 1955: the short story The Mysterious Barricades by Joan Aiken in her collection More than You Bargained For
  • 2002: featured in the thriller novel Imprimatur by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti, as the cure for an artificial pestilence.


  1. ^ Baumont, Olivier (January 1998). Couperin: Le musicien des rois (Couperin: The musician of kings). Découvertes Gallimard (in French). 339. Paris: Gallimard. p. 74. ISBN 2070533123.
  2. ^ a b Tunley, David (2004). François Couperin and the perfection of music. Aldershot, England: Ashgate. pp. 113, 115. ISBN 0754609286.
  3. ^ Bond, Ann (1997). A guide to the harpsichord (1 ed.). Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. p. 155. ISBN 1574670638.
  4. ^ Service, Tom (January 14, 2010). "Solving François Couperin's Les Barricades Mystérieuses". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 October 2012.
  5. ^ a b Evnine, Simon. "Les Barricades Mystérieuses". Retrieved 10 October 2012.
  6. ^ Igor Kipnis, French Baroque Music for Harpsichord, EPIC LP cat.no. BC1289, 1964, Library of Congress r64001444 Permalink http://lccn.loc.gov/r64001443, also http://catalog2.loc.gov/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=207082&recCount=25&recPointer=3&bibId=9856129
  7. ^ The mirror of human life': Reflections on François Couperin's Pièces de Clavecin by Jane Clark and Derek Connon (Redcroft, King's Music, 2002), cited in Evnine.
  8. ^ (François Couperin and the French Classical Tradition, new version, London, Faber and Faber, 1987, pp. 400–2). Cited in Evnine.
  9. ^ Evnine, Simon. "Les Barricades Mystérieuses – Music". Retrieved 10 October 2012.

External links[edit]