The all-French programme of music by composers Marin Marais and Antoine Forqueray recalls the Songs of the Auvergne and the beautiful French countryside. Trio Sonnerie delivers an expertly phrased and highly nuanced performance of Marias' La Gamme.
Marais' contemporary Forqueray provides a welcome addition to the programme. His own prowess on the viol inspired his fiendishly virtuosic Suite No. 1 which stretched the performers to achieve new heights. Each performer has the opportunity to shine with the clean, crisp lines leaving no room for anything other than top notch playing.
Trio Sonnerie (Monica Huggett director & violin, Emilia Benjamin viola da gamba and James Johnstone harpsichord) is one of the longest established and most highly regarded chamber groups working in Europe today.
The musicians bring to this repertoire ‘playing of real elegance' (The Independent) and ‘one could even go as far as to say musical bliss!' (The Times).
Towards the end of the first decade of the 18th century in Paris an unusual and ambitious project was under way for an imposing monument, surrounded by equally elaborate gardens. Le Parnasse Français, brainchild of the highly cultivated man of letters Titon du Tillet (1677-1762), was to be a celebration of the glorious succession of poets and musicians during the reign of Louis XIV. Increasing artistic ambition and rising costs lent the project an air of a mad folly and eventually it was abandoned. But even if the physical representation of such artistic giants as Corneille, Molière, Racine and Lully proved impracticable, Titon du Tillet set down his work in word. For this we can be grateful, for he provided us with vital biographical information about composers such as Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, Louis Couperin, De la Lande, Bernier, as well as Marin Marais.
Titon du Tillet tells us that, born in Paris on 31st May 1656, Marais studied first with Nicolas Hotman, then with the renowned viola da gamba virtuoso and pedagogue, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. According to Titon du Tillet, this opportunity was short lived for after a mere six months the older man realised that his pupil had surpassed him. In 1676 Marais became a member of Lully's orchestra, L'Académie Royale de Musique; three years later he was appointed the Ordinaire de la chambre du Roi pour la viole, and remained in royal service until his retirement 46 years later in 1725.
Marais' five books of Pièces de Viole, covering the period 1686-1725, demonstrate the pervasive and incremental influence of Italian style, highlighting the threat to French cultural autonomy expounded in Le Parnasse Français. Whilst his Premier Livre (1686) respected the classical sequence of dances following a prelude, the Quatrième Livre (1717), published six years prior to La Gamme, significantly includes a section entitled Suitte d'un Gout Etranger containing 33 pieces of diverse character, titles and keys. It is therefore not surprising to find Marais' continued exploration of Italian taste in his next publication.
In 1723, two years before relinquishing his post to his son Vincent, and five years before his demise, Marais published three works in a single volume (presented here in its entirety): La Gamme et autres morceaux de simphonie pour le violon, la viole et le clavecin. In scope and instrumentation they are unique in Marais' output. To be performed on the same instruments throughout- violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord - they explore the extraordinarily varied musical language of a mature composer. La Marésienne is a violin sonata with movements from the French suite mixed in equal measure with Italianate compositional idiom; Sonnerie is a chaconne on 3 notes - D, F, E - with a now emancipated independent viola da gamba part; and La Gamme, an ‘Opéra' of some 35 minutes of continuous music, alternating between trio and duo textures.
Titon du Tillet cites two works by Marais in Le Parnasse Français: ‘a pièce from his fourth book entitled Le Labyrinth, which passes through various keys, strikes various dissonances and notes the uncertainty of a man caught in a labyrinth through serious and then quick passages; he comes out of it happily and finishes with a gracious and natural chaconne. But he (Marais) surprised musical connoisseurs even more successfully with his pieces called La Gamme, which is a pièce de symphonie that imperceptibly ascends the steps of the octave; one then descends, thereby going through harmonious songs and melodious tones, the various sounds of music.'
In some ways La Gamme is, at nearly 900 bars in length, as unusual and unexpected to our ears as it must have been to contemporary audiences. Given Marais' increasing predilection for character pieces, it was a short step from the classical French suite to creating a larger canvas from contrasting musical units. In Le Labyrinth he had found success following a programmatic scheme; in La Gamme an ascending harmonic scale, while less harmonically adventurous, provided a unifying element, both in figuration and long term structure.
The 45 sections of over half an hour of musical thought, in the key sequence C, d, e, F, g/G, a, b, C/c/C, b, a/A, G/g, F, E, d/D, C, contain a myriad of changing characters, metre and tempi as well as instrumental textures. Dances and forms explored include an allemande, gigues, chaconnes, fugues, and rondeaux. The viola da gamba is by turns an obligato virtuoso - witness the extended F Major chaconne during the ascent - and a reinforcer of the continuo bass line. Transitions, often merely a single bar in length, ease us from one ‘holding pattern' tonality to the next position, or foothold, on this musical colossus. Acknowledging in his Avertissement (notably also given in Italian) the very considerable length of La Gamme, Marais suggests possible divisions of the work into two, three or even four sections, ‘so as not to bore the listener'. Whilst not anticipating ennui in our listeners, we have however transplanted his advice to our modern age by dividing the work into four separate tracks for ease of listening navigation.
Written on two staves, Sonate à la Marésienne comprises seven clearly delineated sections or movements within a continuous whole: prélude, allemande, courante, sarabande, chaconne, gravement, and gigue. The fifth section, echoing as it does the scale of the ‘Petit opéra' and foreshadowing the ostinato of the Sonnerie, is in asymmetrical binary form with the ostinato passing between bass and violin while becoming more elaborate in note value and rhythm.
The Sonnerie, written on three staves and again highlighting the viola da gamba, continues this exploration of ostinato form. Over the course of some 302 bars the harmonically static, hypnotic three-note ostinato evokes the ringing bells under a display of virtuosic, improvisatory writing.
Whilst many contemporaries considered Marais the foremost viola da gamba exponent of his day, there was a rival, some 16 years his junior, who now laid claim to his crown: Antoine Forqueray. ‘Crabbed, whimsical and odd' was Hubert le Blanc's assessment of this awe-inspiring performer. He went further: ‘The viol was viewed with favour by King Louis XIV ... the elder Marais for his Pieces, and the elder Forcroi for his Preludes preceding the Sonata. The one was said to have played like an Angel, and the other to have played like the Devil.' Some of this diabolic virtuosity is evident in his works for the viola da gamba, stretching the technical limits of any performer now or then. Antoine's son Jean-Baptiste, also a viola da gamba player, was clearly a chip off the old block in terms of musical talent. Given that Forqueray père was an intensely jealous man, proud, inflexible, cruel, and determined to be the greatest viola da gamba player ever, one can only imagine the sounds that filled the house during Jean-Baptiste's lessons. Their strained relationship came to a head when Forqueray père succeeded in having his son imprisoned and later attempted to banish him from the kingdom for ten years on charges of debauchery and stealing from the houses of his patrons.
Seemingly without any grudge, Forqueray fils published in 1747 his father's gamba music under the title Piéces de Viole avec la Basse Continuë Composées par Mr Forqueray le Pere. Forqueray père composed more than 300 pieces, of which 29 have survived - three were added by Forqueray fils. For no doubt sound commercial reasons they were published in two different versions: one for viola da gamba with basso continuo and the other as transcriptions for solo harpsichord, perhaps made with the assistance of his accomplished harpsichordist wife, Marie-Rose Dubois. We have chosen to dip into both versions, dividing up the spoils between viola da gamba and harpsichord solo.
© James Johnstone, 2012