Marin Marais: Music for Two Viols & Continuo

(Be sure to press play, the concert will not auto-play.)

Les Bostonades

Shirley Hunt & Emily Walhout, violas da gamba
Akiko Enoki Sato, harpsichord

Marin Marais (1656–1728): Viol Music for the Sun King

A live-streaming concert featuring some of the best music for one and two violas da gamba and harpsichord by Marin Marais (1656–1728), who served as Ordinary of the King’s Chamber Music under Louis XIV.

Suite in F Major for Viol and Continuo
(Pièces de viole, Book 3, 1711)

Allemande and Double
Gavotte la badine

Suite in A Minor for Viol and Continuo
(Pièces de viole, Book 5, 1725)

Prélude en harpègement
Prélude “Le Soligni”
Allemande la facile
Petit caprice
La Sincope
Grand gavotte

Suite in G major for Two Viols & Continuo
(Pièces de viole, Book 1, 1686)

Fantasie en Echo

Les Voix Humaines
(Pièces de viole, Book 2, 1701)

Program notes for Marin Marais

A leading figure of French Baroque music and a viol virtuoso, Marin Marais (1656–1728) lived his whole life in Paris. He served as Ordinaire de la chambre du Roi (“Ordinary of the King’s Chamber Music”) under Louis XIV, the Regency, and Louis XV from 1679 to 1725. He received his initial musical training as choir boy at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, where he probably also learned the viol (also known as the viola da gamba, or gamba) before completing his studies with the master bass viol player Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. According to Titon du Tillet (Le Parnasse françois, 1732), Sainte-Colombe, “having realized after six months that his student might surpass him,” “told Marais that he had nothing left to demonstrate to him.” Marais’s skill on the viol subsequently earned him a position in the royal orchestra, where he met Jean-Baptiste Lully, who taught him to compose. Marais’s life was adapted for the movie Tous les matins du monde (“All the Mornings of the World”—1991), directed by Alain Corneau.

While Marais composed several operas and motets, his sizeable quantity of chamber music is a substantial contribution to the viol repertoire. At the center of his output are the nearly 600 pieces for one, two, or three bass viols and continuo, published in five books between 1686 and 1725. Similar to the four harpsichord books by François Couperin, Marais’s five books of Pièces de viole contain dances and pieces with descriptive titles, arranged in suites of varying length, from 4 to 41 movements. Most suites use a common key throughout. They are framed by more complex pieces such as preludes and chaconnes, with movements of varying styles and characters in between. The Pièces de viole were published in part-books, one for the solo part and the other for the figured bass continuo.

Marais never wrote a treatise on the viol, but his avertissements (prefaces) to the five books offer important explanations of the ornament signs in the music, fingering and bowing notation, continuo realization and instrumentation. The prefaces are among the most important French sources on viol playing—the others being by Le Sieur de Machy (1685), Le Sieur Danoville (1687), and Jean Rousseau (1687). In several prefaces, Marais states that many of these pieces are suitable for other instruments. The possibilities he mentions in Book 3 are the most extensive, including the organ, harpsichord, violin, treble viol, theorbo, guitar, transverse flute, recorder and oboe, although he cautions that “it is merely a question of knowing how to make the choice for each of these instruments.” Indeed, the complexity, richness, and depth of many of the pieces can perhaps only be expressed well on the bass viol. An example is the quasi-improvisatory Prélude and Fantasie from the Suite in F Major for Viol and Continuo from Book 3 (1711). Other selections from this suite are exemplars of French court dances: Allemande and Double, Courante, Gavotte la badine, Sarabande, and Rondeau.

There is no evidence that Marais’s suites were intended to be performed as a set, or that the movements had to be in any particular order. In this program, the stately Prélude en harpègement, in broken-chord style, is chosen to open the set. It is the last number of the Suite in A Minor for Viol and Continuo from Book 5 (1725). It is followed in the program by the profound and pensive Prélude “Le Soligni,” a dedicatory piece, the first number of the suite. Next are several short and delightful movements, Allemande la facile (“The Easy Allemande”), Petit caprice, and Fantasie. La Sincope is in the spirit of a gavotte, but it is marked by regular syncopated rhythm and wide leaps. While the Grand gavotte and Gigue are of their typical dance characters, the closing movement requires special execution and has an unusually long title, “Rondeau half-plucked and half-bowed, or entirely bowed if desired.” The effect of alternately plucking and bowing is striking, as if two soloists were in dialog with one another.

The Suite for Two Viols and Continuo in G Major comes from Book 1 (1686), which Marais dedicated to his teacher and mentor Lully. One should note that the basso continuo part-book for Book 1 did not appear until 1689, almost three years after the publication of the viol part-book. Marais explains the delay in his preface to the continuo part-book:

When I presented to the Public my book of Pieces for One and Two Viols, I intended to include the parts for basso continuo, which are an essential part of it. But since engraving is a very time-consuming process, I was obliged to delay their appearance until today. I have figured them completely, so that they may be played on the harpsichord or theorbo, which goes very well with the viol that plays the tune.”

One may not be entirely convinced about why the completion took so long. Besides, the viol part-book makes no mention of a basso continuo or a forthcoming publication. Whether Marais originally intended to include a basso continuo or not, it is evident that the music was played unaccompanied when it was first published—a common practice for viol music of the time. In the case of this duo suite, the addition of the continuo enhances the dialogue and collaboration between the two viols, as well as the pleasant of the key of G Major. The wonderfully charming Chaconne reminds one of Lully’s chaconnes and passacailles, and it is no doubt a climax of the program.

One of the most well-known pieces by Marais is Les Voix Humaines (“Human Voices”) (Book 2, 1701). It is often performed as a stand-alone piece and has been transcribed for numerous early and modern instruments. The piece, set in D major, exploits the lower register of the viol to great effect, as if to touch the deepest part of one’s soul. These words by Jean Rousseau come closest to my feelings every time I hear or play this piece: “… the human voice… never has an instrument imitated it as well as the viol …; it differs from the human voice only in that it cannot utter words.” (Traité de la Viole, 1687).

© 2021 Sonia Lee

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