Demachy is one of those composers of whom history tells us little. Nevertheless, he is one of the key figures of the French viola da gamba tradition during the reign of Louis XIV. According to Jean Rousseau (Traité de la Viole, 1687), he was a pupil of Nicolas Hotman (1610-1633), like Saint-Colombe (ca.1640-ca.1700).
Demachy left a single collection of 8 suites for solo viol in score and tablature, different from one another, and in various keys. They consist of two books, and are the first to be published), published in Paris in 1685. This is quite a significant work, since it is the first French publication to present pieces for solo viol, a year before Marais published his first book.
We know very little about Demachy apart from what can be gleaned from the Preface to this one publication. Historically, his position is paradoxical. There is something forward-looking about his devotion to the viol as a solo instrument, as opposed to its former use, which was predominantly in ensembles. Indeed, all Demachy's music was written for the solo bass viol, which was at that time gradually securing its position in France as the supreme instrument, thanks to its capacity for noble and refined expression - and Demachy undoubtedly played a part in its rise to favour.
Yet at the same time Demachy seemed to have a lingering loyalty towards an earlier age, one in which the lute was considered to be the noblest instrument. His proclaimed advocacy of tablature reveals a conception of the viol that remained fairly close to the lute - a sympathy borne out in some aspects of his actual writing for the viol, as well as in features of his playing technique, as we shall see.
His conservatism is perhaps exemplified by his rejection of the seventh string, lower than the others, which was added to the bass viol by that equally mysterious figure, Sainte-Colombe - an addition that very soon became integral to the ‘classical' form of the viol in France. A contemporary of Demachy's, Jean Rousseau (1644-1699), in a small pamphlet dating from 1688, reports Demachy as saying ‘that the seventh string used by Sainte-Colombe was sheer folly'. He presumably came to accept it, as his own Pièces de violle makes use of this very seventh string!
Demachy had convictions on two other issues that indicate a conservative attachment to the lute. First, Demachy advocated the use of two different positions for the left hand: ‘There are two left-hand positions on the viol, just as there are on the lute, the theorbo and the guitar. In the first position, the thumb is placed in the middle of the neck, with the first finger opposite it, always rounded. [...] The second position is used when making extensions: the thumb must be placed closer to the edge of the neck, with the second finger opposite it.' This technique differed greatly from that of his contemporaries, and on this point too Demachy launched an attack on Sainte-Colombe, who was the most illustrious of them. Jean Rousseau, a pupil of Sainte-Colombe, reports being told by Demachy that he had ‘chosen a Master who knew nothing about viol-playing' because he ‘didn't know his left-hand technique'.
There were, too, the virulent polemics aroused by Demachy's conception of the type of music most appropriate for the viol. He considered it to be a chordal instrument, and that melodic playing (jeu de mélodie) on the solo viol was undesirable. We know that 17th century French gamba players, like their English contemporaries, improvised divisions on a bass, and also played pieces of a more chordal nature (jeu d'harmonie). Demachy was strongly in favour of the second type, and was scathing about ‘those who wish to confine viol-playing to single lines without chords, which has never been accepted practice for solo playing on this instrument. [...] They claim to justify this by saying that chords prevent one from playing beautiful melodies and ornaments, thus hampering expressiveness. This would imply that the treble viol and other instrument of that kind would be preferable to all the chordal instruments I have mentioned. These people are certainly mistaken. For a man who is a true master of his profession, chords are not an encumbrance to the composition of beautiful melodies, nor to the execution of all the ornaments necessary for expressive playing.'
This view, expounded in Demachy's preface to his Pièces de violle, was attacked by Rousseau in his own Traité de la viole (1687): ‘Melodic pieces give great pleasure, and can even be most touching if well performed, and I do not understand why the author of the Preface gets so carried away over people who play melodic pieces, and even more so over people who compose them; for all the great masters, and first and foremost Mr Hotman himself, have been far more admired for simple airs played with all the delicacy of art than for harmonic pieces that obeyed all the rules and used chords at every possible moment.'
One of the qualities of Demachy's writing for the viol is the full use he makes of the instrument's characteristic resonance. Not only does he use keys matching the viol's natural harmonic range (D major and minor, A major and minor, the instrument being tuned in D/A), but he is also meticulous in notating ‘holds' (tenues) in his music. These require the player to leave his finger in position on the string after playing the specified note, which thus continues to sound while the following notes are played, sometimes for up to 15 seconds. The viol's great resonance was seen as one of its distinguishing features. More than 50 years after Demachy's Pièces were published, Hubert Le Blanc wrote a book with the quaintly comical title Défense de la Basse de Viole contre les Entreprises du Violon et les Prétentions du Violoncel (Defence of the Bass Viol against the Attacks of the Violin and the Arrogance of the Violoncello), in which he speaks out against the brilliant virtuosity then fashionable in violin playing. While the latter impressed people with countless expressionless torrents of notes, according to Le Blanc ‘old Marais and Forqueray senior played just one note, but managed to make it so resonant that it sounded like the great bell of St Germain; they did this by applying their precept of playing ‘in the air', whereby, after passing the bow across the string, they lifted it and allowed the string to continue vibrating.'
Like his lutenist contemporaries, Demachy supplies a list of symbols representing ornaments (18 in all!), and instructions on how to perform them. We find trills, mordents, and various kinds of vibrato (he specifies when one is to use one or two fingers). The most enigmatic of these symbols is what Demachy calls ‘le petit tremblement', indicated by a small comma. Demachy says that ‘on the lute it is called a ‘pull' [tiret]'. An explanation for this can be found in Charles Mouton's Pièces de luth sur différents modes: ‘pull the string with the left hand after plucking it once with the right.' Given that Mouton uses both the same term and the same symbol, it seems very likely that Demachy's ornament is to be played in the same way.
As mentioned above, Demachy strongly believed in the superiority of a form of notation called ‘tablature'. In this system, music is written down in a way that is specific to the instrument intended to play it. The strings themselves are represented by lines, and letters are used to indicate where the player is to put his fingers; rhythmical values are notated above the letters. The earlier 17th century solo viol music that has come down to us in manuscript was more often than not notated in tablature.
In fact, however, there was a growing demand for compositions printed in standard musical notation. The latter was used in two books of lute music by Perrine, published in 1679 and 1680. This may explain a curious feature of Demachy's publication: his Pièces de violle are divided into two distinct books, each containing four different suites: the first book uses normal musical notation, while the second is notated exclusively in tablature. Thus, Demachy's pieces were at one and the same time the first to be printed in France for the solo viol, and the last for the
instrument to be written in tablature.
This recording presents two suites in tablature (D major and minor) and two others in normal musical notation (G major and minor), which follow the classical form of the French dance suite at it existed toward the end of the 17th century: prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue, gavotte, menuet.
Each suite starts with a prelude, sometimes rather short. Some preludes are entirely in quavers, which readily lend themselves to an unmeasured interpretation, while others are written with changing rhythmic values, thus providing a more stable overall structure. As regards tempo, Demachy himself makes the interesting statement in his Préface that ‘the Preludes can be played as one likes, slow or fast'.
The allemandes tend to be the most complex movements harmonically and musically, while the courantes show Demachy's agility in juxtaposing bars of three beats against bars of only two. The sarabandes have a sublime, otherwordly quality, almost mystical, with a richer use of chords and ornaments than in the quicker movements. The gigues, in ¾ time, with their insistent dotted Rhythm, make use of the full compass of the instrument, leaping very often from higher strings to the lower ones, and vice versa.
The beauty of the gavottes lies in their elegant simplicity. The menuets have all the grace and refinement of the classical 17th century French style.
Let me end with the conclusion to Demachy's Préface: ‘My chief aim [...] has not been to set myself up as a critic [...] but to offer a challenging example to the skilful, so that they might follow the path I have marked out for them and share the fruits of their labours with the public. I shall consider myself extremely happy and well recompensed for my small endeavour when I see the results I expect from it; and that will in turn encourage me to go further.'