Marin Marais – Book II: Les Voix humaines

December 28, 2009

I checked out viola da gamba videos on YouTube today and was very impressed with Fahmi Alqhai (Accademia del Piacere, July 2007, Aracena) who plays the  Sarabande grave from Book III, no. 99. among others. I was also impressed by the amateurs who’ve committed themselves (or been thrown in by family and friends) to being recorded. Seeing Ben Torrey work incredible magic with scores and video clips (as well as the very sophisticed Eric Stolz’ versions of Marais and others with the score projected PowerPoint-like as he plays) makes me want to find out more about recording videos of what I do.  What I really appreciate about the Stolz videos is that you can clearly see his left hand at work. I came upon the only YouTube video of a Burgksteiner baryton trio the other day to be somewhat disappointed by the fact that a music stand completely covered up the baryton instrument! Unlike Ben and others I don’t perform publicly (the drive towards performance being such a necessary dynamic in music-making); I don’t even memorise ‘party pieces’ for family occasions. Blogging has provided an important personal direction, complementing the odd consort session. The amateur playing on YouTube points up the importance of recording oneself for the aural feedback – something I need to move towards, starting at least with a minidisc player.

I’m inclined to re-read Siblin quite soon. First time through, I read it without stopping to listen to each of the movements of the Suites. It ended up rounding out my knowledge of Bach in the same way that last semester’s uni work rounded out my knowledge of music 1600-2000, from Monteverdi to Reich. Siblin has led me to view today Casals, Dupres, Ma, Rostropovich, Maisky and Tortelier playing the Prelude from Bach Cello Suite 1. Different pauses between phrases and gaps between notes attract me about each of them. I’ve forgotten the technical term, but there is word that describes this endless circular motion in Bach’s music representing the endless human condition; this is the dynamo behind the first section of the Gmaj Prelude and gamba players find it all the time, from the earliest Divisions through Marais, Roland Marais and Abel (Nima Ben David’s YouTube videos).  This dynamo is different in each individual – linked to chi if you want to see it from a Chinese perspective – so the tempi employed will vary and that doesn’t faze me. The partisanship involved in siding with any one particular interpretation seems very futile to me, as the YouTube comments attest.

I recall having messed around with this prelude on bass viol in the past and have dug out my Tortelier edition; it will be interesting to hear Pandolfo’s interpretation in due course.  See sinophysiker’s bass guitar version – a visual delight as much as a musical one. But today’s main event was Les Voix humaines, followed at the close of day by some more little work on the Manchester Gamba Book.

Les Voix humaines

The first surprise is how short the piece is, a single page. With repeats, Savall records it lasting 5mins 11secs and so one anticipates a piece several pages long. I find no clarity in this piece. There seems to be tumult and jangling at every step along the way when played en concert with bass continuo viol, theorbo and/or harpsichord. Theorbo players bring out their singularly unusual harmony. The only way cohersion and peace can be achieved is if it’s played by a single viol alone. Perhaps Marais is commenting on the nature of making chamber music. It’s not often he uses an abstract title like this, since names of people are more often used, either comments on an individual or a description of an individual or the suggestion of a dedicatee. Here, Marais unusually seems to be commenting on human life in a general sense.

My entire focus has been on the four-bar first section. I’m a little surprised how often Marais’ opening sections follow this four-bar model. You’d expect it in the Minuets, but it is in fact much more widespread than that and seems to be something peculiar to Marais.

The second surprise is that the solo part stays in the lower register of the bass viol, around the “middle” D of the instrument. What’s more, you stay on this fourth string almost all of the time! (Another irony, a piece about human voices but you stay on the one string!) Admittedly the second part goes straight to the top octave, above the frets, but the repeating figure of this rondo stays in the middle. And it is in rondo form. Learn the first four bars up to the first double-bar line and in fact you’ve learned just about a third of the piece. Admittedly, every time the A theme returns it is more or more elaborately ornamented.

In orienting myself I quickly abandoned my small division bass viol for the seven-string. The music is made for the seven-string bass. First step is to isolate the melody, see second stave. Starting on the third of the scale sounds awkward, but this is addressed in when it’s repeated later in the piece. The pared-down melody makes sense if it’s played fast initially. Free of all the encrusted ornamentation, you realise the first section is in two phrases, one “human voice” answering another. There is something odd going on here because the second responding voice, with its very strong, “final” cadential character, seems to “cut off” the first voice in mid-sentence. There is something “choked” about this opening phrase. Having reduced everything to dotted crochets, this would be an ideal time to get the bowing right; Marais specifies where to put some of the tirer/pull bows. The natural tendency is to throw in some inegal from the start, essentially double-dotting the crochets and I think that’s okay because you’re immediately getting used to the rhetorical flourish of the French style.

Then comes the rather startling observation that Marais has duplicated the continuo line in the solo part, creating a two-voice texture. I don’t know if Marais does this often – I suspect hardly at all. For two very inexperienced viol players, one could pare this down to a solo line and a bass accompaniment, without the two-voice texture in the solo part. Little wonder this piece de viole has been recorded on viol alone, and adapts itself to solo guitar and other instruments, for example. Why Marais would do this is beyond me. It must have something to do with showing off – surely the ultimate in jeu d’harmonie is to be playing the continuo line and solo line at the same time, when what one normally expects is casual and irregular double-stops to suggest harmony. Perhaps it was a teaching piece, designed to assist students understand the importance of the ringing long notes of the continuo – and what better way to teach the necessary listening skills by playing it oneself. There is the irony too of playing a piece about human voices on one instrument.

Next comes negotiating the fingering. Think third finger on D as the pivot point for just about everything else. There is an extension (see the marking ‘prep’) and Marais gives you time to get there. Basically the first double-stop is with the fourth and third fingers, with the first and section already holding down the C# and A, a tight closed lute-like fist. The only double-stop that defeats me is the D and B. Of course there’s a battle going on here between the melody and its ornaments and the holding down of the double-stop with other fingers. The aim of course is to maintain focus on the melody and add the second voice where one can.

My written-out version is becoming bigger than Ben Hur so one should start committing it to memory. Dunford suggests only writing on the score only those things which are absolutely essential and he’s right. With so many stopped notes, it’s important not to crash on the top open A string in bar 2. And I haven’t even begun to think consciously about which part of the bow best plays which note, or the several enfles (not in the published score but additions by a player in a score held in the Eastman Library and reproduced in the analysis by Sarah Cunningham in A Viola da Gamba Miscellany, Proceedings of the International Viola da Gamba Symposium Utrecht 1991). The enfle is explained by John Hsu in his book. Watching oneself in a mirror might help consolidate the length of bow stroke and where on the bow one plays what notes.

It’s taken me most of a day to get two bars reasonably coherent. Imagine being a professional gamba player, working alone in ‘the office’, spending hours at a time getting a trill or an ornament or a phrase right in this music, ready for public performance! A mammoth test of one’s raison-d’etre surely, but then is any other type of ‘work’ really very different from any other?  


Les Voix Humaines on Youtube

What set me off months ago about Les Voix humaines was the inclusion in alarob’s wordpress blog of a YouTube recording of this piece. There are others. In a video by Ensemble a Deux Violes Esgales, the first section is played by Thomas Dunford on theorbo alone as a warm-up. This first section is repeated with Sylvia Abramowicz playing the solo part over the theorbo. Johnathan Dunford enters at the start of the second section on the high C. A brilliant sense of the required drama is conveyed throughout. Patagonian gamba player, Horacio Bollini, has recorded a version for viol alone. F X Nicolet plays an excellent version on solo guitar, Louis XIV’s favourite instrument representing his most private self. Nicolet does a superb job also of Llobet’s El testament d’Amelia, by the way.





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