Gamba bass solo, with accompaning bass viol and theorbo – Marin Marais, Les Voix Humaines, Book 2

June 5, 2009

Have reacquainted myself today with no.63 from Book II (1701) via alarob’s link to Les Voix Humaines (Montreal) and via the recording by Savall, accompanied by Anne Gallet and Hopkinson Smith. In the liner notes for the Savall recording, Marie-Madeleine Krynen justifiably spends more time discussing the Folies d’Espagne, which not only heads up the recording but is everyone’s obsession. For me, it’s the voice of his teacher Ste-Colombe speaking in Les Voix Humaines, a re-establishment of Marais’ musical roots. Was the Folies a public statement on publicly-popular music, a case of whatever they (Italians) can do, we (French) can do better and Les VH a commentary on personal predicament? I can’t help being impressed by the rhetoric and adulation of the Sun King (endless in the cantatas and other vocal works of praise) on the one hand and the private intimacy inherent in so much of Marais and Couperin’s solo pieces. Surely this is in part irony and disdain for the tedium of bowing-and-scraping, for the endless waiting around, whether it be for a court official business or the tedious presentation and dancing of couples before the king? The finger-nail scratching at doors, the quiet despair – aptly conveyed in the film version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Obviously Marais had the stamina to put up with and flourish at court, and have 19 children, but at what cost? We’re aware of the cost of not being at court – that’s perfectly well summed-up in the life and work of Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Better to be an insider than an outsider, perhaps.

Coincidentally, I’ve opened up again John Hsu’s book on the technique required to tackle the music and I’m (again) overwhelmed as well as challenged. Little wonder few came after Marais and that his contemporaries whinged about the technique the music demanded. For me, it’s like the gouffre between 19thc Chopin (of the Etudes for example) and 20thc Debussy (of similar Etudes). In order to encourage myself to ‘get back into Marais’, I hit upon the List of Requirements  for Tackling Marais – a seven-string bass, the scores in facsimile, the Savall recordings, John Hsu’s book. Of course you need an abiding interest in things French and more than a passing knowledge in French viol music before Marais. As well, someone to play the basso continuo line – a strongly sympathetic person able to endure your musical torture playing the solo melodies, overcoming the tangles of ornament, the slurs without number and the dashed pousser or tirer bow stroke. I’m blessed in possessing most of these but I  say to myself that the lack of a playing partner to work on this repertoire is my failing, but I can’t let that stop me. Savall at his masterclass in Sydney exhorted us not to learn the pieces by dumbing them down, but to learn it in totality, with the ornaments present from the beginning. The flourishes are not add-ons; they are as essential as vowels are to speech, you’re not going to get far with consonants alone.

I’ll have to try and find out more about the context of these pieces, who the continuo players were, what his court duties exactly were, for example. We assume they were played at court and followed up with interest afar in the salons of Alternative Versailles back in Paris, which I imagine to be where the workhouse of musical teaching and learning must have been located. Student players are mentioned in the Forewards of the published Books. I’m not aware of any nobility or aristocracy actually learning at Versailles, from Marais or others. Did Marais spend most of his time playing in Lully’s orchestra, preparing for the next opera? Obviously he would have come into his own a lot more after Lully’s death, especially with J.-F. Couperin around on clavecin. And certainly his opera writing is of the time of Books 1 and 2.

I have thought about re-visiting the Minuets as a way back into Marais. They are short, regrettably fast though, and make musical sense in their brevity. Like a sprint, one can dash to the barlines and recover – they’re not so far away. The musicality of some of them – my favourites are 99 and 100 from Book V – can be extraordinarily moving. And I find Roland Marais’ work sometimes less dense and more accessible – I’m a big fan of the La Barrengue rondeau with its clumpy heavy-handedness. The tempi required of the Courantes and Gigues are a disincentive, as is the ‘soul’ required for Sarabandes and Preludes. Savall incidentally makes very nice work of the Minuet #94 in his recording of Book II.

I’ll dust off the score of Les Voix Humaines and report back. But no promises on any great shakes with progress. The top line sounds as if it doesn’t go off the top frets… They say among amateur viol players that only a dozen or so pieces are playable out of the 500+ and really why should one bother? The same can be said for amateur pianists tackling Chopin – a waltz or nocture here or there, while we look on in wonder at the Ballades and Etudes as recorded by The Greats.


One Response to “Gamba bass solo, with accompaning bass viol and theorbo – Marin Marais, Les Voix Humaines, Book 2”

  1. Alarob Says:

    “The flourishes are not add-ons; they are as essential as vowels are to speech, you’re not going to get far with consonants alone.”

    That sentence really caught my attention. It was the right metaphor to get through to me, I guess. Thanks.

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