A Marais a day : Book II La vilageoise 59

July 8, 2011

I get the feeling that many of the shortest, least difficult pieces of Marais’ are “fillers”: moments of almost frivolous rest and relief for both musicians and audience between pieces of much greater gravitas and much more earnest intent.

This is confirmed by this village dance (and the following three Minuets) are small beer prior to Les Voix humaines. This ‘villageoise” joins with muzettes and other, similar pieces by Marais, pointing to a contrasting mix of the urban and the pastoral which lies at the heart of Marais’ music. What I find interesting is the way (perhaps starting with Ste-Colombe?) dances of this type, outside the norms established with the standard dance suite, enter into the gamba’s repertoire: we don’t find such dances in the works of (harpsichord) composers in Paris of the 1650s. Some additional dances seem to be exploiting unusual rhythms which composers find attractive; others seem to be aiming for “sophisticated” instruments, such as the gamba, trying to imitate the timbre of folk instruments. The other agenda at play has to do with the pointing up the distance that courtiers have come from their estates, locked up in Versailles by their master and king. There has be, it seems, a measure of nostalgia for their regional birthplaces, for those estates where they were number one. Hanging over many courtiers must have been the return to their estates, social and cultural exile, if they failed to live up expectations at court. The context, then, for these village dances is more complex than first appears.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Musically, these are very slim pickings; they represent almost a regression, compared to more interesting dance movements written half a century earlier by harpsichord composers. But they show Marais’ attention to craftsmanship and their musical interest resides in the fact that they are written for gamba and not for solo harpsichord, so we shouldn’t compare perhaps.

I suspect then that gamba technique is at the centre of these ‘fillers’. The two short sections here point to something of a teaching piece (short enough to get the technical point across, but not so long as to disincentivate the student) – the focus of the second section is the treatment of the slurs; the focus of the first is the octave leaps. Rusticity can be emphasised with a solo guitar continuo. In wanting to emphasise the rustic, the soloist can’t “sit” on the lower notes of the octave leaps – a subtle combination of a resonant thump and a light enough bow to leap back up to the top strings!

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