A Marais a day: Book II, Menuet 136

July 4, 2011


4 July 2011.

My bass viol and I reacquainted ourselves yesterday after a very long absence. Recently I had the opportunity to read Pascal Quignard’s Tous les matins du monde in a single day and am now re-reading it with James Kirkup’s translation to hand. So as well as relishing some of the slower movements of Domenico Scarlatti keyboard sonatas (for example, K.208 played both by Robert Hill on fortepiano and Fou Ts’ong on pianoforte) and noting Pert Wagner’s recent recording of the suites of Roland Marais, my mind turns to Marin Marais. 

My gamba is strung fairly lightly and stays in tune for long periods of time, which is a blessing. It takes relatively to get things up and running: there’s a haughtiness about my seven-string viol. He reproaches me by saying, “Well, where have you been? Not so hard to get a decent sound going, eh? Why do you persist in ignoring me for so long?”

My muscle memory is not the best, since I usually play my smaller 6-string bass, so I know I need to work at string-crossing. The other main thing I need to keep aware of is to keep the instrument up high on my calves in order to get appropriate clearance of the top string. I know the 41cm body length is too big for me, but at least the instrument isn’t heavy.

Yesterday I sawed my way through some very simple Louis Caix D’Hervelois suite movements, La Chailly from his Book V in particular.

I thought though that since I want to develop some momentum again with my seven-string bass, I need to stick to some sort of plan. So I’m going to see how I go concentratating on just one Marais piece de viole a day.    

Today’s was a simple minuet from Book II. There are, believe it or not, a couple of Marais suite movements which fit entirely on the stave, with just one note moving to top A, a ledger line above. This, of course, for Marais, is rare, since the whole raison-d’etre of his music is to exploit the top string, the chanterelle. You get the feeling that if Marais were to lose all the lower strings except the top one, he’d still be perfectly happy. Yes, he will exploit lower strings for the effects created by wide leaps and for chords, but creating a melody across all top three strings is still relatively rare.

I’ve here transcribed it for a Chere Collegue who only reads bass clef. By rights, anyone tackling Marais has to be able to read more than just one bass clef, but my Chere Collegue never plays French repertoire normally and possesses a six-string.  If I create enough of these pieces in a clef she can play, preferably as both soloist and continuo bass, I might be able to get some duet playing going. But I won’t get ahead of myself!

To keep things easy, I’ve omitted here the ornaments which Marais but have included the slurs. The slurs obviously require extensive use of the fourth finger which both strengthens the hand in terms of reaching the top fret as well as preventing string-crossing. Integral to the character of Marais’ sound is the ‘integrity’ of staying on the one string to the max, with almost an aversion to moving to another.  The first section is played on the second and third strings only. After this simple statement, he creates interest by moving to the top string. In terms of bowing, it’s a simple alternating between a push and a pull bow in each bar.

Once the hand is strong and the extensions sure, then the simple mordent ornaments can be added. We know the minuet is taken at a fairly fast speed, with much more a count of one to the bar rather than three, so it’s important for the tempo not to be laboured from the start. Where still in the late 1600s and Louis XIV’s death is a good fifteen or so years away. I mention that because it’s suspected that the menuet may have begun to slow down during the reign of Louis XV, when everyone was sitting around in mourning for years on end and things were no longer very lively on the dance floor. In part because they were in mourning for a king who danced, un roi qui dansait, but also because a great era had now passed and gloom and shadows are a natural consequence of any extended period of radiant sunshine.

So what’s the context of this minuet? Book II of 1701 is of course better known for the Folia variations, Les Voix humaines, the Tombeau pour Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe and a similar Tombeau for Lully. In a total of 142 separate suite movements, these are the big stand-outs, much vaunted and much recorded. The rest are your normal Suites.  in otherwise a total of 142 separate suite movements. But Marais, in the final pages, pp.131-150, has given us a long Suite in A major. After some technically demanding movements, he admits a much simpler Gavotte, two Menuets and a Bransle de Village, before launching into an demanding Echo,a Rondeau moitie pince and an extended Fantaisie. Worth noting, from a Marais Beginner’s perspective are not just the two Menuets and Bransle de Village, but also #140 which is an Air en Vaudeville. As short as any two-section Minuet, it does however provide an ornamented version of the whole thing (le mesme avec ses agremens) which provides an insight into a how an advanced player of the time would turn a simple, straight-forward tune into something much more elegant. Marais goes a step further by adding a Double, a variation in a flowing style, with endless runs of four quavers to a bow.

An extension of today’s Menuet, and useful in terms of working in the key of A major (which is far from the norm in conventional consort playing and worth getting the hang of) is #137 Menuet, #138 Bransle de Village (note the bizarre tripping notes in the second section!) and #140 Air en Vaudeville,


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