Nothing or next to nothing was known about Monsieur de Sainte Colmbe - not even his first name - and the mystery surrounding his person only intersified the mystery of his music : the Concerts à deux violes, which are the only pieces that have come down to us. He was known to violist as the inventor of the seventh string that was added to the bass viol of the baroque era in France. It was gathered that he had two daughters because he was known to have given concerts with them. And Titon du Tiller had recounted the pleasing story of Marin Marais coming to listen to his master in secret, hidden under the hut in a mulbery tree where the latter "played the viol more peacefully and more delectably ". That was all. And on top of this mixture of ignorance and charming anecdotes, there was also his music - strange, somehow distant and aloof, grave and erudite, unlike any other known genre, impossible to relate either to a particular school or a specific type of composition, pitchforked into the history of music.

It was then that a writer and a film director - a producer of words and a producer of pictures - came on the scene : suddenly, a novel and a film put faces to Monsieur de Sainte Colombe and his daughters, built the hut and filled it "delectably" with music. Monsieur de Sainte Colombe had an identity, and what was most astonishing was that his personality in the film was not so much the result of the two well-known anecdotes (his Daughters, the hut ) asof his music itself. Its gravity became an expression of the seclussion, the reserve and the brusqueness of a man who had withdrawn into himself and was engrossed in transforming into sound all his nostalgia, despondency and unfulfilled desires. It was a biography stemming from the music : Les Regrets, Les Pleurs, La Réveuse had given rise to a tragedy; the pictures and words were born from the eloquence of the music itself.

One thing always leads to another, and now this imaginary biography is making way for another life superimposed on the first. We learn that Monsieur de Sainte Colombe really did exist, that he was not called Siante Colombe but Augustin Dautrecourt, that he lived not in the Biévre Valley but in Lyons, where he taught music to the "demoiselles de la Charité" : a sort of Vivaldi living on the banks of the River Saône. What is most surprising is that all this makes no difference. The Sainte Colombe we imagined before going to the cinema has not been affected by the one invented by Pascal Quignard and Alain Corneau ; not are we bothered by the fact that this new person was not real either. All these images can quite happily coexist : all that really matters is the music.

In the end, we realize that Monsieur de Sainte Colombe not only gave the French viol the seventh string which makes it so original : he also gave it its soul. He was the first person to have grasped the viol's specifity and to have translated it into music. This stamp compelled recognition among all the violists who came after him in France. Until its disappearance (much deplored by Hubert Le Blanc), French viol music was characterized not only by its distinctive technique, by the use of the polyphony, the frets, the form of the bridge, the seventh string..., but also by its elegiac, crepuscular, noctural (in Fauré's sense of the word) nature : it was a music of light and shade. French viol music always retained that gravity, inwardness and secrecy which are to be found, for example, in Couperin's La Pompe Funébre and Marin Marais's LesVoix Humaines. Even where Forqueray, with his nobility, his forcefulness, had drawn it towards virtuosity and brilliance, even when Caix d'Hervelois had given it a lighter, more amiable tone, there still remained something inward and silent about the French viol, which we undoubtedly owe to Monsieur de Sainte Colombe.

Philippe Beaussant
Translation: Mary Pardoe
from Auvidis Records 1992
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