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ClassicsOnline Home » MARAIS / SAINTE-COLOMBE: Greatest Masterworks (The)
"brilliantly played... a mesmerising disc, superbly programmed with endless highlights.... 68 perfect minutes"
Sainte-Colombe (died c.1700)
Marin Marais (1656 - 1728)
"Those who have heard excellent violists and good concerts
of viols know that there is nothing more delightful, after good voices, than the moving
strokes of the bow that accompany all the ornaments that are done on the fingerboard, but
because it is no less difficult to describe their elegance than it is to describe that of
a perfect orator, it is necessary to hear them in order to understand them."
In 1636 when the French theorist Marin Mersenne wrote this
paragraph in his "Livre Quatrième des Instruments" the viol was a relative
newcomer to musical life in France. Yet Mersenne's comments give a clear insight into why,
fifty years later, it was to be the most highly revered of all instruments. French taste,
the elusive bon goût so often referred to by writers at the time, responded
immediately to its unique blend of elegance, delicacy and, above all, an expressiveness
akin to the human voice.
In England during these early decades of the seventeenth
century the viol was already enjoying enormous popularity amongst the nobility and would
continue to do so until the reign of Charles II when the violin family found favour with
the king. The instrument initially found favour in England because of its physical
resemblance to that most beloved of court instruments, the lute, the tuning of its six
strings and the presence of frets on the fingerboard making it easy for lutenists to play
yet having the greater expressive potential that a bow provides. Similarly, in France, the
first virtuosi of the viol, Andre Maugars and Nicholas Hotman, were both lutenists and
Mersenne again describes them in Harmonicum Libri (1635) as;
"...men who are very accomplished in this art."
Maugars, interestingly, studied in England for a time, whilst of Hotman another important
theorist, Jean Rousseau, says;
"The tenderness of his playing came from the beautiful bow
strokes which he animated and sweetened so fittingly and with so much skill that he
charmed all those who heard him, and it is this which began to give perfection to the
viol, and to make it preferred over all other instruments." (Traite de la Viole.
This subtle art of bowing, the mastery of which held the key to
truly expressive playing, was the most precious skill which Hotman passed on to his pupil,
Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (died c.1700), that most elusive of French viol players.
Contemporary writers give us some tempting glimpses into his life:
"He gave concerts at his home where two of his daughters
played, one on the treble viol and the other on the bass, thus forming a consort of three
viols with their father, which was much enjoyed. ..." (Titon du Tillet 'Le Parnasse
Franyais'. Paris 1732)
Yetsuch descriptions are little more than fleeting images which
can only paint a sketchy picture of a man for whom we do not even have a Christian name.
What we do know, however, is significant in charting the continued development of the viol
in France. Sainte-Colombe added a seventh string to the traditionally six-stringed
instrument to extend its range a fourth lower and then introduced a metal winding for the
gut bass strings, to make a brighter and more resonant sound. He also took standards of
performance to new levels of excellence, his ability as a player being the subject of many
written tributes paid at the time by theorists and musicians alike. His legacy to modern
violists, however, are his Concerts a deux violes
Quite apart from the time spent in perfecting his technique on
the viol and committing his compositions to paper, Sainte-Colombe was also a teacher
dedicated to sharing his ideas with a group of talented students as one of them describes
in this account; "His worth and his knowledge have made him sufficiently known, and
if he has developed some pupils who surpass the ordinary, they are indebted for it to his
unusual kindness and to the particular care he has taken in teaching them; and they must
acknowledge frankly that they owe to him that fine hand position, those beautiful
cadences, and finally that manner of drawing forth harmony, sometimes tender, sometimes
brilliant, which agreeably surprises the ear."
(Danoville 'L'Artde Toucherle Dessuset Bassede Viole'. Paris,
One of Sainte-Colombe's pupils not only 'surpassed the
ordinary' but was to become one of the greatest performer-composers of the time. Indeed,
at a time when Louis XlV was the 'Sun King' of France, Marin Marais (1656-1728) was the
undisputed ruler of a by then flourishing kingdom of French viol players.
"The empire of the viol was founded and powerfully
established by 'fe pere Marais' "
(Hubert le Blanc 'Defense de la Basse de Viole'. Amsterdam,
His enormous achievement in reaching such exalted status was
due not only to his talent and the quality of Sainte-Colombe's teaching but also to the
age in which he was living. Titon du Tillet tells us that after six months of tuition the
great teacher professed that he had nothing left to show Marais and that, indeed, his
pupil was able 'to surpass him'. This gives a clear insight into the level of Marais'
innate genius on the viol, a genius which Louis XIV was quick to recognise and keen to
nurture. Thus the young prodigy, at the age of twenty-three accepted the position of
'Ordinaire de la Chambre du Roi', a post which required him to serve at court for six
months in each year, leaving the rest of his time free to compose, teach and to give
private concerts in the homes of the French nobility. The royal appointment not only gave
Marais instant credibility, for the kings fine artistic judgement was seen by all as
the arbiter of taste, but allowed him to work with the finest composers and performers of
his day. Indeed, he was, it seems, a soloist in the opera orchestra and was therefore
closely associated with the great Jean-Baptiste Lully who gave him composition lessons and
allowed him on occasion to beat time. An accolade indeed!
Amongst Marais' pupils, as well as talented young professionals
such as his son, Roland. there were many members of the nobility for whom learning the
viol was deemed one of the most desirable of accomplishments. It was for these 'amateur'
players that he wrote his five volumes of 'Pieces de Violes', published between 1686 and
1725. These publications are made up of several large suites, some of them containing up
to thirty stylised dance movements, preludes, and character pieces. These would never have
been performed in their entirety; each suite contains pieces of varying difficulty and the
performer would simply have chosen the movements best suited to his or her abilities. Many
of Marais' students must have reached a very high standard, for in the introduction to his
fourth book of 1717 he mentions that some of them have been complaining that his music is
too easy! For them he wrote the Suite dun Goût Etranger, not a dance
suite so much as a collection of thirty-three individual pieces which are, as the composer
promised, highly demanding. Each is very different; from the somber, reflective La Rêveuse, to the joyful, quirky charm of LArabesque, yet all are united in the genius
of their conception.
One of Marais, finest pieces is his Tombeau pour Monsieurde Sainte-Colombe written in
1701 after the death of his teacher. This speaks more than words ever could of the depth
of his love for Sainte-Colombe for he draws from the viol every ounce of its expressive
potential to convey the nature of his grief. In this 'Tombeau' we have a fitting tribute
to both men; to the devotion and kindness of the teacher and to the brilliance of his
pupil in carrying the viol "... to its highest degree of perfection..." (Titon
du Tillet 'Le Parnasse Franyais')
1993 Susanna Pell
Spectre de la Rose
Marie Knight, Baroque Violin
Alison Crum, Viola da Gamba
Elizabeth Liddle, Viola da Gamba
Susanna Pell, Viola da Gamba
David Miller, Theorbo and Baroque Guitar
Timothy Roberts, Harpsichord
Formed in 1991 by a number of Britain's finest exponents of
Early Music, the Spectre de la Rose varies between three and seven members depending upon
the repertoire performed. The individual members appear as soloists in concerts throughout
the country, including in 1993 one of the most prestigeous events in Britain, the
Sheffield Chamber Music Festival. The disc of Marais and Sainte-Colombe for Naxos is their
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