"Those who have heard excellent violists and good concerts of viols know that there is nothing more delightful, after good voices, than the moving strokes of the bow that accompany all the ornaments that are done on the fingerboard, but because it is no less difficult to describe their elegance than it is to describe that of a perfect orator, it is necessary to hear them in order to understand them."
In 1636 when the French theorist Marin Mersenne wrote this paragraph in his "Livre Quatri�me des Instruments" the viol was a relative newcomer to musical life in France. Yet Mersenne's comments give a clear insight into why, fifty years later, it was to be the most highly revered of all instruments. French taste, the elusive ‘bon go�t’ so often referred to by writers at the time, responded immediately to its unique blend of elegance, delicacy and, above all, an expressiveness akin to the human voice.
In England during these early decades of the seventeenth century the viol was already enjoying enormous popularity amongst the nobility and would continue to do so until the reign of Charles II when the violin family found favour with the king. The instrument initially found favour in England because of its physical resemblance to that most beloved of court instruments, the lute, the tuning of its six strings and the presence of frets on the fingerboard making it easy for lutenists to play yet having the greater expressive potential that a bow provides. Similarly, in France, the first virtuosi of the viol, Andre Maugars and Nicholas Hotman, were both lutenists and Mersenne again describes them in Harmonicum Libri (1635) as;
"...men who are very accomplished in this art." Maugars, interestingly, studied in England for a time, whilst of Hotman another important theorist, Jean Rousseau, says;
"The tenderness of his playing came from the beautiful bow strokes which he animated and sweetened so fittingly and with so much skill that he charmed all those who heard him, and it is this which began to give perfection to the viol, and to make it preferred over all other instruments." (Traite de la Viole. Paris 1687)
This subtle art of bowing, the mastery of which held the key to truly expressive playing, was the most precious skill which Hotman passed on to his pupil, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (died c.1700), that most elusive of French viol players. Contemporary writers give us some tempting glimpses into his life:
"He gave concerts at his home where two of his daughters played, one on the treble viol and the other on the bass, thus forming a consort of three viols with their father, which was much enjoyed. ..." (Titon du Tillet 'Le Parnasse Franyais'. Paris 1732)
Yetsuch descriptions are little more than fleeting images which can only paint a sketchy picture of a man for whom we do not even have a Christian name. What we do know, however, is significant in charting the continued development of the viol in France. Sainte-Colombe added a seventh string to the traditionally six-stringed instrument to extend its range a fourth lower and then introduced a metal winding for the gut bass strings, to make a brighter and more resonant sound. He also took standards of performance to new levels of excellence, his ability as a player being the subject of many written tributes paid at the time by theorists and musicians alike. His legacy to modern violists, however, are his Concerts a deux violes esgales, a volume of over sixty pieces for two bass viols, two of which can be heard on this disc. These are written in a style which is clearly inherited from a lute tradition, most obviously in the extensive use of chordal passages. However Sainte-Colombe's gift for creating marvellously emotive melodies in combination with often sumptuous and sometimes unexpected harmonies sets them apart from the work of his predecessors and makes them a delight to listen to.
Quite apart from the time spent in perfecting his technique on the viol and committing his compositions to paper, Sainte-Colombe was also a teacher dedicated to sharing his ideas with a group of talented students as one of them describes in this account; "His worth and his knowledge have made him sufficiently known, and if he has developed some pupils who surpass the ordinary, they are indebted for it to his unusual kindness and to the particular care he has taken in teaching them; and they must acknowledge frankly that they owe to him that fine hand position, those beautiful cadences, and finally that manner of drawing forth harmony, sometimes tender, sometimes brilliant, which agreeably surprises the ear."
(Danoville 'L'Artde Toucherle Dessuset Bassede Viole'. Paris, 1687)
One of Sainte-Colombe's pupils not only 'surpassed the ordinary' but was to become one of the greatest performer-composers of the time. Indeed, at a time when Louis XlV was the 'Sun King' of France, Marin Marais (1656-1728) was the undisputed ruler of a by then flourishing kingdom of French viol players.
"The empire of the viol was founded and powerfully established by 'fe pere Marais' "
(Hubert le Blanc 'Defense de la Basse de Viole'. Amsterdam, 1740)
His enormous achievement in reaching such exalted status was due not only to his talent and the quality of Sainte-Colombe's teaching but also to the age in which he was living. Titon du Tillet tells us that after six months of tuition the great teacher professed that he had nothing left to show Marais and that, indeed, his pupil was able 'to surpass him'. This gives a clear insight into the level of Marais' innate genius on the viol, a genius which Louis XIV was quick to recognise and keen to nurture. Thus the young prodigy, at the age of twenty-three accepted the position of 'Ordinaire de la Chambre du Roi', a post which required him to serve at court for six months in each year, leaving the rest of his time free to compose, teach and to give private concerts in the homes of the French nobility. The royal appointment not only gave Marais instant credibility, for the king’s fine artistic judgement was seen by all as the arbiter of taste, but allowed him to work with the finest composers and performers of his day. Indeed, he was, it seems, a soloist in the opera orchestra and was therefore closely associated with the great Jean-Baptiste Lully who gave him composition lessons and allowed him on occasion to beat time. An accolade indeed!
Amongst Marais' pupils, as well as talented young professionals such as his son, Roland. there were many members of the nobility for whom learning the viol was deemed one of the most desirable of accomplishments. It was for these 'amateur' players that he wrote his five volumes of 'Pieces de Violes', published between 1686 and 1725. These publications are made up of several large suites, some of them containing up to thirty stylised dance movements, preludes, and character pieces. These would never have been performed in their entirety; each suite contains pieces of varying difficulty and the performer would simply have chosen the movements best suited to his or her abilities. Many of Marais' students must have reached a very high standard, for in the introduction to his fourth book of 1717 he mentions that some of them have been complaining that his music is too easy! For them he wrote the ‘Suite d’un Go�t Etranger’, not a dance suite so much as a collection of thirty-three individual pieces which are, as the composer promised, highly demanding. Each is very different; from the somber, reflective La R�veuse, to the joyful, quirky charm of L’Arabesque, yet all are united in the genius of their conception.
One of Marais, finest pieces is his Tombeau pour Monsieurde Sainte-Colombe written in 1701 after the death of his teacher. This speaks more than words ever could of the depth of his love for Sainte-Colombe for he draws from the viol every ounce of its expressive potential to convey the nature of his grief. In this 'Tombeau' we have a fitting tribute to both men; to the devotion and kindness of the teacher and to the brilliance of his pupil in carrying the viol "... to its highest degree of perfection..." (Titon du Tillet 'Le Parnasse Franyais')
1993 Susanna Pell
Spectre de la Rose
Marie Knight, Baroque Violin
Alison Crum, Viola da Gamba
Elizabeth Liddle, Viola da Gamba
Susanna Pell, Viola da Gamba
David Miller, Theorbo and Baroque Guitar
Timothy Roberts, Harpsichord
Formed in 1991 by a number of Britain's finest exponents of Early Music, the Spectre de la Rose varies between three and seven members depending upon the repertoire performed. The individual members appear as soloists in concerts throughout the country, including in 1993 one of the most prestigeous events in Britain, the Sheffield Chamber Music Festival. The disc of Marais and Sainte-Colombe for Naxos is their first recording.
Reviewsa very enjoyable disc - BBC Music Magazine