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ClassicsOnline Home » MARAIS: Viol Music for the Sun King
"It seems extraordinary that this superlative issue of truly rare repertoire should be offered at bargain price... An outstanding issue in every way."
"Spectre de la Rose's performances are zestful and generally satisfying...These are attractive performances worthy of attention."
Marin Marais (1656 - 1728)
Sonate à la Marésienne
Suite in D major
Les voix humaines
Suite in C minor
Tombeau de M. Meliton
Couplets de folies
Marin Marais's musical output consists very largely of music for the viol. As such, it is relatively unknown outside the circle of devotees of that instrument. Yet his music is of such quality that, had it not been written for an instrument that was destined to become virtually obsolete a mere half century later, it would arguably have ensured him a place in our modem musical consciousness comparable to that held by his contemporaries, Couperin and Rameau.
Fortunately the revival in this century of the art of viol-playing has begun to re-establish the reputation of Marais as a major French composer of his time. He himself was a virtuoso on the instrument, and anecdotes proliferate concerning his technique and artistry .He first studied with the greatly revered violist, Sainte-Colombe, who, according to a contemporary writer, "having discovered after 6 months that his pupil was able to surpass him,... told him that he had nothing more to show him" (Titon du Tillet: Le Parnasse Francois, 1732). Marais, however, was apparently convinced that he had more to learn from Sainte Colombe; he allegedly slipped into his garden on summer evenings in order to eavesdrop on his teacher, who was in the habit of practising in a secluded summerhouse.
This anecdote, whether true or false, perhaps illustrates both the subtlety and the fragility of the art of which both he and his teacher were masters. The Italian instrumental style, epitomized by the music of Corelli, and which Couperin claimed to fuse with his native French style in Les Goûts Réunis (1724), is perhaps characterised by a muscular formal strength. In contrast, the elegant and deceptive simplicity of the French style reveals its quality in subtle balance of phrasing and delicacy of ornamentation. As such, it is music which is difficult to convey through mere notation, and derives many of its attributes from the nature of the instruments for which it is written.
Marais himself discovered after the publication of his first pieces (now sadly lost) that if his music was going to survive in the form in which he intended it, he must find a way of conveying the style of playing in addition to the mere notes themselves. In his introduction to Book I of his Pièces de Violes, he wrote: "...having recognised...that players were not performing [my pieces] the way I had composed them, I have finally decided to issue them in the form in which I play them, with all the ornaments that should be added to them". His works for viol thus form not only a pillar of the viol repertoire, but are a priceless resource in the rediscovery of the art of playing the instrument.
The music on this record opens with one of the few works by Marais for violin. In it, the viol takes a largely continuo rôle in support of the dominant violin part, although moments of extreme virtuosity for the viol reveal Marais's own preoccupations. It is one of three chamber works with violin published in 1723, and is perhaps the most Corellian of the three. He entitled it Sonate à la Marésienne, which one might translate as a Maraisian Sonata, indicating that the piece may have been intended as a deliberate "unification" of his own and the Italian style.
Marais clearly had a shrewd marketing instinct, and his five volumes of Pièces de Violes consist both of simple pieces and those for advanced players, and range in form from standard dance movements to character pieces in exploratory styles. Pieces in the same key are grouped into what are often long suites, from which an appropriate selection of items can be made. In Book III, he also sought to "remind the public that the majority of pieces that make up this third book can be played on several other instruments like the organ, the harpsichord, the violin, the treble viol [etc]...it is just a question of knowing how to make a suitable choice for each of these Instruments." However, the music itself betrays such intimate knowledge of the precise nuances of colour and articulation possible on the viol, that any such arrangement would seem inevitably to be a second best. The Suite in D major presented here is from Book III, and the pieces selected range from a characteristic gentry rhetorical prelude, to the two last contrasting character pieces: an extended plainte whose bleak grief belies its major key, and a charivary - a light-hearted depiction of the cacophonous serenade traditionally summoned to harry an unpopular person.
This is followed by another character piece, this time from Book II: Les Voix Humaines - perhaps best translated as "the voices of humanity". Again, Marais exploits the warmth and resonance on the viol of the key of D major, together with the richness of low, close harmony, to produce music of arresting pathos.
The Suite in C minor is from Pièces en Trio published in 1692, for two treble instruments and bass, and is arguably the first French piece in trio-sonata form. We have taken Marais's pragmatism as regards the instrumentation of his music as a licence to transpose the pieces down by a third, in order to accommodate them most comfortably on treble viols.
Marais wrote several Tombeaux as tributes to his most respected friends. The Tombeau pour M. Meliton is the most extended of them all, and the only one for two solo viols. As there is reason to believe that M. Meliton may have been a player of the theorbo, we have used that instrument for continuo here, where its softness and depth of tone-colour provide an appropriate sonority for his Tombeau.
We end the programme with the couplets de Folies from Book II of the Pièces de Violes. This is a set of variations on the Iberian dance tune La Folia, published a year after Corelli's variations on the same bass. Like Corelli's better known variations, Marais's encompass a wide range of moods and techniques, and as such, form a digest of his vast idiomatic vocabulary. However, the piece transcends being a mere sampler, and it is an indication of Marais's stature as a composer that the 32 couplets (theme and 31 variations) add up to much more than the sum of their parts; the piece has an overall architecture that has the masterly pacing of a great play.
While Marais still awaits full recognition in our time, his worth was fully appreciated in his own. According to Titon du Tillet, on hearing his three sons play, King Louis the Great said to Marais: "I am very satisfied with your children, but you are still Marais, and their father".
© 1995 Elizabeth Liddle and Alison Crum
Le Spectre de la Rose
Marie Knight - Baroque Violin
Alison Crum - Treble and Bass Viols
Susanna Pell - Treble and Bass Viols
Elizabeth Liddle - Bass Viol
Paula Chateauneuf - Theorbo and Baroque Guitar
Timothy Roberts - Harpsichord
Formed in 1991 by a number of Britain's finest exponents of early music, Le Spectre de la Rose specialises in the performance of French Baroque Music for one or two viols and continuo, expanding where the music requires to include violin or flute. The individual members appear as soloists in concerts throughout the world, and between them play in most of Britain's leading early music groups.
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MARAIS: Viol Music for the Sun King