Marin Marais – Book IV: Petite paysane

December 27, 2009

This Christmas week is all about being stood down from work because of the financial crisis. My workplace these last few weeks has also been riven by very bitter industrial relations disputes. Such incredible bile and vitriol, at a time when everyone talks of goodwill and peace to all men. So what better way to spend it than strew the house with gamba music and play. Playing the seven-string bass is particularly laborious, so I rest by looking at sheet music and listening to recordings. I’m somewhat appalled by how much sheet music I’ve accumulated over the years, a lot of it far beyond my technical ability. Fierce mid-summer heat has been replaced by the gentle fall of steady rain, leftovers from a typhoon on the other side of the continent. I ought instead to be learning the tenor line of the Chorus of Purcell’s Dido since that will be my focus next week, by way of a rural retreat with one of the country’s leading counter-tenors. While large chunks of 2010 will be ‘shut off’ with university study, I’d like to think I can spend time making small progress with both Marais and lyra/tab (Manchester Gamba Book). I notice Ben Torrey spends two hours, 4am-6am, before going off to work, on his music. I’m not sure if I can replicate that, especially since I was getting up at 3am to do my musicology uni study earlier this year. Though a couple of hours of “me” time does set one up nicely for the rest of the day, devoted as it is to satisfying the unending demands of others.



I finished reading Siblin’s splendid account of Bach’s cello suites today and have been thinking about the survival of music in manuscript and in printed copies from the period and the spotty history (so far) of the gamba in Germany. I’ve been privileged to watch the German repertoire come slowly into focus in recent decades. An entirely different situation in France where the published music of Couperin le grand and Marin Marais, because of their importance at a central, ‘national’ court, has survived. Marin Marais, notwithstanding his position at court alongside control-freak Lully, was able to spend half the year in Paris (August to December), teaching and composing. Little wonder then that over the decades, he managed to work at publishing 500+ pieces for basse de viole.

Marais rushed into print in 1685 with his Book I following DeMachy’s publication of solo bass viol music, the first in France. He had as much to say about the instrument, if not more, and what was the good of a position at court if he didn’t go into print? 1692 saw the publication of his trios, ostensibly for treble viols and bass viol. This music gets perilously close to the “outlawed” Italian style in many ways and while Italian chamber music circulated in manuscript composed by Couperin, presumably in Paris salons far from the court at Versailles, it wasn’t till very much later after the death of Louis XIV and Lully that Couperin felt it was okay to publish his Sonades. Meanwhile, Marais’ Book II (1701) catered for bass viol playing experts in his midst. I’m a bit dubious about the extent to which it catered for le style galant (something I associate with music composed very much later), but he certainly sought to acknowledge Italian influence with inclusion of La Follia while clothing it so extensively that it became thoroughly Frenchified. Musically it was impossible to ignore the Italians, politically and in terms of survival in an employment sense, it was too dangerous. 

In the following decade, his success hitherto had obviously created a new, wider audience of viol playing amateurs of lesser skill, so in 1711, his Book III catered to those with a less than virtuosic handle on the instrument. Within the next six-year period, he had to balance the demands of the virtuosi alongside those of the less skillful, so his 1717 collection, Book IV, caters for both. The first part (Pieces 1-54) are for those of moderate skill, as is the third part. These are bookends around a group of character pieces, as far away from the standard French suite of dances as you could get.  They remind me of Couperin’s free pieces de caractere for harpsichord and Marais creates the grab-bag title for them, Suitte d’un gout Etranger. By “etranger” he doesn’t mean Italian, just anything that was outre by Parisian standards of the time. These are the fantastical character pieces familiar to us since the 1991 film, Tous les matins du monde, and the Savall recordings. All professional viol players feel duty bound to perform and record these pieces now and the titles of these masterworks have become synonymous with the instrument itself: Labyrinthe, Arabesque, Reveuse, Badinage.

In the city of 4million where I live, I’m aware of no more than five or six Marais fanatics. Most of them are professionals. Why would amateur viol players tackle Marais? For the same reason amateur piano players add a few waltzes, noctures or mazurkas of Chopin to their own repertoire. Not all piano players will be up to the technical demands of the Etudes or the Ballades, but most will start with the Minute Waltz and proceed as far as they can from there. Only a fraction of viol players will ever play very many of the 500+ pieces de viole, but for those mad about the period, mad about the particular instrument, mad about the sound and style, they will add a small number to their gamba experience. I’m not concerned about the fact that I may never play more than a dozen or two of these pieces in my lifetime. Playing a handful does allow me enormous scope to listen critically to live performances of those behind my own technical level. Some argue that time is better spent on consort music, but that presupposes ready access to other players of similar ability. I have to admit Marais really does require accompaniment – a harpsichord or lutenist and/or another bass viol with the extra 7th string. I’m sure the lyra viol repertoire transports the solo amateur viol player back to England of the C17 as much as Marais transports one back to the late C17/early C18. This modernist fashion for early music is, at its heart, all about fleeing from the current, everyday world and taking refuge in another.

Book IV (1717)

This book is famous for its virtuoso pieces, as recorded by gamba professionals. But there is a contrasting third, final section of the book devoted to two suites for three bass viols, the first in D Major and the second in D Minor. In his foreward, Marais indicates this is the first time anything like this has been done in France (harking back somewhat to his first Book with its works for two bass viols and continuo, made up of harpsichord and a third bass viol) and it is his concession to players with less advanced technical skill. Here the three bass viols take centre-stage, with harpsichord continuo.

The muzettes of the Dminor suite are particularly useful in teaching Marais to groups of three or more students. The least familiar with Marais can “rest” by playing the monotonous but necessary bass line; the more advanced can tackle the upper lines, and take breaks from time to time with the third part. Marais himself might have had a similar teaching situation develop in Paris where he had three bass viol students in the room together all wanting to play as part of an ensemble. Theoretically they could play without a continuo, but the figures in the part for Bass III indicate that a harpsichord in the background would have been heavily involved in the musical process. 

My work today has been on the Petite Paysane of Suite 1 (major key), contrasting as it does with the Paysane Gracieuse of Suite 2 (minor key). The two bass solo lines in these two suites feature either writing in thirds and/or short-interval imitation and in this regard they accord with pieces written for two treble viols and bass and are reminiscent of the Marais 1692 Trios. Not surprisingly, Marais mentions this as a possible instrumental combination (along with German Flutes or violins), so there’s “broken” consort potential (violin/viol, flute and bass viol with continuo) or trio sonata potential (two flutes and continuo) – certainly a “broader” aural range than the usual bass viol with continuo that marks the rest of the Pieces de viole.

The Petite Paysane is in a tic-toc rhythm and I’m aiming at a beat of around 108/m. It’s marked Legerement so we’re talking about a very light touch, contrasting with the sound of the clodhopping slurs. The top line calls for smooth fingering from D to A via E and F# and holding down the E for as long as possible in these run-ups is a good idea. The only sticking point is the descending scale from A down to B with slurred steps. The first section is remarkably short at just 4.5 bars; this accords with another dance movement entitled Paysane in Book I. Thereafter the harpsichord here is immediately given some crunchy harmonies by way of strong contrast. The second bass viol has more interesting writing for it than you’d anticipate. It doesn’t just imitate the top line throughout, playing in thirds. Marais clearly doesn’t associate the rural with lack of interest. The folksy touch is repeated in the second Suite not only in the Paysane Gracieuse (which jumps to the range of an octave higher than the Petite Paysane) but also with two Muzettes and a Menuet-Muzette. These very simple movements contrast with more difficult surrounding movements.

I can now add Petite Paysane to my list of Marin Marais works accessible to intermediate-level bass viol players and I’m well on my way to my first twenty pieces. Ben Torrey likes (or liked) to always include musical scores and webcam/digital camera performances along with the text of his blog. That’s something for me to aim for in the future.

1-2        Menuets 99 and 100 (Book V) – see recording by Savall of Book V, track 15.

3            Petite Paysane (Book IV)

4            Menuet 7 simple et double (Book V)

5            La Biscayenne (Book 4)

6-7       Menuets 103 and 104, Cor de chasse (Book III)

8           La syncope

9           Idee grotesque (Book V, no.42)

10        Menuet 1, La Poitevine (Book  V, no.112)

11        Prelude (Book V, no.92) – see recording by Savall Book V, track 11.

12-13   Menuets (Book 1, no.23 and 25)

14          Menuet (Book III, no.35)

15          L’uniforme (see recording by Charivari Agreable)

16          Rondeau le Bijoux (see recording by Charivari Agreable)


Equally interesting are these four (as far as I can tell noone has ever recorded Roland Marais):

1                Menuet (Roland Marais, Book 1)

2                Gavotte et double (Roland Marais, Book 1)

3                Rondeau La Barrengue (Roland Marais, Book 2, 1738)

4                Rondeau allemand (Book 1) – see Charbonnier’s method.

And I note some also in Dunford’s method (Marais from the Scottish National Library, Hotman and Ste-Colombe).


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