It was mid-November when I set out to write this post. It was grey and cold and wet outside. Sort of unwelcoming. But it was so cosy inside our house, especially since I enjoyed welcoming music. When I heard these pieces for the first time, I thought of wood, grey-brown dried wood. Wood for the fireplace. Beech wood that gives a lot of embers keeping the heat for a long time. The fireplace keeps us warm and made this a welcoming house on such an afternoon.
Working for the court and the opera
The music I have in mind comes from France, from the late Baroque period. In 1701, the composer Marin Marais published his Second Book of Pieces for the Viol. He dedicated it to his mentors Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean de Sainte Colombe, whom we have met in an earlier post already. Marais was born in 1656 and from 1679 on, he worked at the French court of Louis XIV as a viol player, composer and teacher. He replaced the viol player Gabriel Caignet in the in the king’s chamber orchestra after the latter’s death. At the same time Marais worked for the opera in Paris. Both ensembles were directed by Lully. In 1704 he would succeed Lully as director of the opera.
“The highest point of perfection”
Marais developed an extremely refined solo viol playing and set new standards for future generations of musicians. His compositional style is characterized by the ample use of ornamental figures, his pieces are sets of miniatures. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote: “It can be said that Marais brought the viol to its highest point of perfection, and that he was the first to reveal its range and its beauty by the many excellent pieces he wrote for this instrument, and by the remarkable way in which he played them.”
Dances for noblemen and ordinary folks
Between 1975 and 1983, Jordi Savall recorded five albums including the most beautiful pieces from each of the five Books of Pieces for the Viol composed by Marais between 1686 and 1725. The “Pieces de Viole Du Second Livre” published in 1701 feature several suites all set in E minor. Those pieces I like best are the Préludes II.83 and II.96, the Sarabandes II.89 and II.100, the Courante II.99 and the Gavotte II.106. The names of the pieces betray their origin: walking dances danced at court and by ordinary people. The gavotte, a folk dance from the south-east of France, became especially popular under Louis XIV.
The solemn, graceful character of the music does not exactly entice me to dance – I am certainly no expert of Baroque dances. However, it has a pacifying effect upon me. The dark timbre of the viol contrasting with the delicate harpsichord is heart-warming – it glows in the dark like the embers in the fireplace.
© Charles Thibo