Although Marin Marais fell into total oblivion, the musician who worked at the court of Lous XIV enjoyed great fame in his day. But, like many of his contemporaries, he suffered from the environment of too brilliant musicians: between Lully and Rameau we can still cite Charpentier, Delalande, Campra and François Couperin. But what about the others? The Destouches, Mouret and Marais pale alongside the stars of a fruitful era, troubled only by polemics. The school of harpsichordists and organists, who did not rival Lully's vocal art, are still represented in the repertoire of present-day performers: D'Angelebert, Lebegue, Dandrieu, Grigny and Clerambault are still played on our instruments. But Marin Marais had the misfortune not only to compose operas in Lully's domain, but to devote the bulk of his art to an instrument which was falling into oblivion with the advance of the violin family-namely the VIOLA DA GAMBA or the BASS VIOL: And it is only recently that we have rediscovered the specific manner of playing this instrument in the way that the composer illustrated it.

Born on 31 May 1656, the son of a shoemaker, Marin Marais became a choirboy at the Saint-Germain-I'Auxerrois in Paris, around the same time as another boy with a promising future - M.R. Delalande (1656-1726), who was to make his name as a composer of sacred music. At sixteen Marais left the choirschool to become a pupil of Sainte Colombo, a virtuoso on the viola da gamba, who had brought the instrument's technique to such perfection that he could, in the words of H. Le Blanc, "imitate the most beautiful ornaments of the voice" (Defense de la Basse de Viole, 1740). The viola da gamba was, in fact, just beginning to enjoy its popularity in France. In 1636, Marin Mersenne could write in his Harmonie Universelle: "Those who have heard excellent performers, and good ensembles of Viols, know that, except for good voices, there is nothing as ravishing as the languishing bow strokes which accompany the trills which are done on the fingerboard, but since it is no less difficult to describe their grace as that of a perfect Orator, they have to be heard to be understood". The English School, introduced into France by Richelieu's viol player, Andre Maugars, later helped to give the French viol its own technique and style, which masters like Sainte Colombe brought to even greater perfection. Marin Marais thus took advantage of this teaching and soon surpassed his master. At the age of twenty he was engaged at Court as "musiqueur du Roy" and in 1679 was appointed "ordinaire de la Chambre du Roy pour la viole", a post which he continued to occupy until 1725, shortly before his death. His rise to fame was a rapid one: in 1682, he was cited, alongside his teacher, among the great virtuosi of the time. He divided his time between his duties at Court, composition and teaching the viol.

Marin Marais thus found himself in the heart of French musical life - the Royal Court. In fact, since the time of Louis XIII, instrumental music had not been developed, as in the sixteenth century, by popular festivities in which all the social classes combined to celebrate the solemn Progress of the King, the head of a guild or the advent of Spring, for which performers from the populace formed associations and exercised their talents. After 1620, the King attracted to his Court the best musicians, especially since it was necessary to replace Italians who had left, upset by the troubles of civil wars and by their poor appointments. The confraternity of popular "instrumentalists", deprived of the best elements, underwent a slow decline which Couperin was to depict with great humor in his harpsichord piece untitled Les Fastes de la Grande et Ancienne Menestrandise. Listening to good music became the preserve of the privileged few, assembled for the purpose at Court, in special rooms, at fixed times.
Music served the entertainment or splendour of leading people and to this end the "bande des 24 violons du Roy" and that of the "12 hautbois" were formed.

It was in the new "concert" setting that Marais exercised his virtuoso talent. But the instrumentalists of this period were also at the same time composers. In this regard Marais was the disciple of Lully. He certainly expressed great admiration for the master, dedicating to him in 1686 his first book of music for the viol, describing him as his "benefactor" and "protector". This esteem was moreover mutual for, according to Titon du Tiller, a historian of the period, Lully often used Marais to beat time in the performance of his operas. In the same year that this first book was published, Marais enjoyed great success with his debut as a Court composer: an Idylle dramatique celebrating Peace was staged at Versailles, and the Dauphine enjoyed it so much that she immediately demanded a repeat performance. The composer's prestige was still acknowledged in 1701 when, for the Dauphin's convalescence, it was Marais who was commissioned to write a Te Deum Mass, rather than Delalande, who was the accredited court official in charge of composition.

The career of Marin Marais occurred at the height of the "musical war" between the goût français. For a long time the establishment of Italian music in France had been opposed by Lully. After his death, in 1687, Italian pressure grew stronger end stronger, the more so since it already had its French partisans. These partisans had hitherto met secretly to play music by Bononcini, A. Scarlatti and Stradella. In the operatic field, these Italians ensured the triumph of melodic ornamentation, vocal acrobatica, a subtle harmony, full of chromatism, dissonances and modulations. Marais did not risk any of these innovations. Wildly anti-Italian, his four surviving operas composed between 1693 and 1709, follow all the principles of Lullian opera - clarity of textual declamation, recitatives with slightly melodic tendency, with daring intervals used solely for expressive ends, and a simple, clear harmony favouring the comprehension of the text. Innovation in this area would have led to certain failure, for he would have come up against the defenders of Lully and French music who made up the operatic public.

In the field of instrumental music, which escaped the hegemony, and sectarianism of dramatic music, he proved to be freer and bolder. Already in his operas, his "symphonies" and his dances has established his reputation, an in for example the Tempest scene from Alcyonne, a descriptive orchestral piece which had a striking effect on His contemporaries, the work being revived at the Opera until 1771. But his genius operated with unequalled originality in his music for viol:

Five books of pieces for one, two or three viols (1686,1701, 1711, 1717, 1725)
Pieces for trio with flutes, violins, and treble viols (1692)
La Gamme et autres morceaux de symphonies for violin, viol and harpsichord (1723)
In all about seven hundred pieces "suitable for playing on all sorts of instruments" Marais convinced of the value of national tradition, condemned the Italian sonata, to the extent of forbidding his pupils to play them! He concentrated solely on the Suite, which at first was simply a juxtaposition of dances written in the same key and assembled for the convenience of the performer; the latter would choose a few pieces to make a group " of just proportions" with necessarily having to play the whole Suite.

The present recording offers a Suite, a series of variations and a character piece, all taken from the Second Book which appeared in 1701. Marin Marais perfectly illustrates the love of contrast characteristic of music in the baroque era. We find it in the variations in dynamics, - between the fortes and pianos and in tempi - where slow passages are linked to quick ones without transition. Variety of colour is provided by the multiple possibilities which all the instrument's register and all the manners of playing it afford; at the same time, its polyphonic "voices" allow us to hear a voluble upper part with a quiet lower one or vice versa. Finally the"jeu de mélodie" and the "jeu d'harmonie" contest the pieces in the Suite: according to the theorist Jean rousseau, the player should sometimes "imitate everything charming and agreeable that the voice can do", with "tenderness" and "delicacy", and sometimes sustain several independent voices at once, which requires " a great aptitude" and "plenty of practice". He may also combine melody and harmony in a finished style in which the chords, far from inhibiting the movement of the top line gives it foundation and richness. In the thirty-two couplets of the Folies d'Espagne (an old Iberian dance), Marais especially exploits writing in "broken chords": over a bass line which moves slowly, he superimposes a mosaic of quick notes on scales or arpeggios. Sometimes the music seems to proceed on its own, in accordance with the traditional style of the dances of the period sometimes unexpected modulations and suspensions go so far to suggest that the performer is improvising before us. The Tombeau pour Monsieur de Lully in particular may surprise us with its modern aspects.

Unfortunately, Marais' pieces for viol came at the end of an era: in the last years of the seventeenth century, the indispensible viols, without which no music for church or chamber would have been possible, and which were considered as the aristocrats of string instruments, were replaced in Italy by the violin family. Corelli brought this instrument's technique to a high point: in 1700, one year before the publication of this Second Livre de Piéces de Viole by Marin Marais he published his famous opus 5 which was to go through thirty editions and to inspire two generations of composers. As if by change, it contains a series of variations on the Follia theme, in which Corelli sums up the technique of the violin as he conceived it. The violin, more brilliant than the viol, supplanted it in its "jeu de melodie". The keyboard instruments - harpsichords and organs - pro much more suitable for the "jeu d'harmonie". Finally the difficulties of performance shown in Marais' pieces despite their perfection, point perhaps to the decline of the viol.

Was composer effected by this inescapable evolution? The fact remains that at the end of his life, he who had always been the defender of French music against the rising tide of Italian art, "the Ajax of music" who sustained " the assaults which the Romans, Venetians, Florentines and Neapolitans launched in particular concerts" (H. Le Blach), withdrew in silence: "Not long ago death has taken from us another famous musician which all Viol Players infinitely regret, namely M. Marets". He brought this instrument to a high degree of perfection. Besides his particular merits for the Viol, he had a great talent for composition, having made several Operas, or fine instrumental pieces, including the Tempête d'Alcionne, which is regarded with admiration. He died at a very advanced age, leaving two sons as worthy heirs of all his talents".

Translated by Frank Dobbins
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