Marin Marais: Notes and Commentary

Marin Marais was a French composer and viol player. He studied composition with Jean-Baptiste Lully, often conducting his operas. He was hired as a musician in 1676 to the royal court of Versailles, and in 1679 was appointed ordinaire de la chambre du roy pour la viole, a title he kept until 1725.

He was considered a master of the basse de viol, and the leading French composer of music for the instrument. He wrote five books of Pièces de viole (1686–1725) for the instrument, generally suites with basso continuo, and for these he was remembered in later years as he who “founded and firmly established the empire of the viol.” His other works include a book of Pièces en trio (1692) and four operas (1693–1709), Alcyone (1706) being noted for its tempest scene.

Titon du Tillet included Marais in Le Parnasse françois, making the following comments on two of his pieces,”La Gamme” and “Le Labyrinthe,” perhaps inspired by the labyrinth of Versailles: “A piece from his fourth book entitled ‘The 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 surprised musical connoisseurs even more successfully with his pieces called ‘La Gamme’ [The Scale], which is a piece 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.”

Marais is credited with being one of the earliest composers of program music. His work “The Bladder-Stone Operation,” for viola da gamba and harpsichord, includes composer’s annotations such as “The patient is bound with silken cords” and “He screameth.” The title has often been interpreted as “The Gall-Bladder Operation,” but that surgery was not performed until the late 19th century. Urinary bladder surgery to remove stones was already a medical specialty in Paris in the 17th century. Marais lived from May 1, 1656, to August 15, 1728.Excerpted from Wikipedia

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