top of page

Style & Spirit: 

The Importance of Gestures & Ornaments In the Music of Marin Marais 

Report of a presentation given by Tal Arbel at the VdGS conference Warwick UK, June 2008

I chose to open the presentation with audio examples of French music, which, although was not quite by Marin Marais (to the obvious surprise of everyone present) served as a way to bring us closer to the theme of the functionality of music VS music which was composed for the sake of artistic expression. The first example was a recording of Kyrie – the opening of the Messe de Notre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377) performed by The Hilliard Ensemble. This was followed by the ballade Adieu ces bon vins de Lannoys by Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474) from the CD The Garden of Zephirus performed by The Gothic Voices with Christopher Page. 

Both pieces are examples of functional music – music that aims to serve the text – either sacred or secular. It features clear use of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ intervals (as they were referred to at the time) and clear structure of the medieval double leading tone cadences. Here we find the rhetorical, original meaning of the Tenor voice, coming from the Latin word Tenere – to hold – to bring forward the text, with music used as a means to an end. 

In the first part of the Kyrie we can hear but one word, repeated by the composer many times with small changes to the music, each time adding different delicate ornaments, thus making this word stand alone and be delivered to the listeners as clearly as possible, with the ornaments helping to embellish and glorify it. The ballade by Dufay, although presenting a text of a full poem, was also composed in a style that uses intervals in order to express the text. This secular music functioned as part of the triangle of courtly love, with the poet singing to or about his unattainable mistress. There is an obvious difference between pure, good intervals, and those that are impure, dissonances. This way tension is created from the beginning of a phrase to its end, in accordance with the text. Here, too, using the shape of a ballade, the composer uses repetitions of both text and music. 

The next audio examples were two movements by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) from his opera Dardanus, with Marc Minkowsky conducting Les Musiciens du Louvre: From scene 1, Air de Troubles Cruels. This music was a dramatic change after what was heard before. It had obviously been composed in a totally different style, and chosen for this occasion because of some melodic similarities it shares with Marais’ preludes for viola da gamba and basso continuo. Here, everything already has to do with expression and drama. It is very theatrical, and the text is reflected in the composition in rhetorical ways. There are typical Baroque structures of harmony in the cadences, now with relations of the upper parts to the bass, such as 4-3 and so on. In the 1st Tambourin from scene 2 we could hear how instrumental music was used within vocal pieces. The instruments contributed to the drama with independent movements, either in overtures or with dances combined between the Airs. 

In order to emphasise the difference between things that are only functional and things that serve a purpose but give way to expression, we looked at two music stands that happened to be there at the venue: while the first one was very simple, the second music stand could hold music as well, but was made out of good looking wood with many ornaments engraved on it. 

Back to Marin Marais, not much is known about his personality, but periodic descriptions clarify  that he was considered a viol player of great technical perfection and a composer of refined style. The publications of his five books of Pièces de Viole took place in 1686, 1701, 1711, 1717 and 1725. Although Known to us almost strictly for his music for viola da gamba, Marais (1656-1728) was first and foremost a composer of operas. Even though they are not commonly performed nowadays, this is the genre that represents his style best. In his operas Marais, too, included independent instrumental pieces, which were no less important than the vocal movements. His four known operas are Alcide (1693), Ariane et Baccus (1696), Alcyone (1706) and Sémélé (1709). 

Marais worked with the great Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) as his assistant at the Academie Royale de Musique, and he later dedicated to Lully his first book of Pièces de Viole, as well as the famous Tombeau found in the second book. Marais was obviously influenced by Lully, and this connection, as well as his musical service at the court of Louis XIV, found their way into his compositions. It is said that Marais’ students were expected to play through his entire repertoire every two weeks, and this probably led to excellent familiarity and skill of performance of his style, which, although represented the French Baroque, also adopted at times some characteristics of the rising Italian violin style, of less noble refinement and greater extroverted virtuosity (as in the Grand Ballet from book III). The music of Lully, well known for his operas and theatrical pieces (clearly meant for a big, public stage), was also arranged for smaller ensembles, to be performed in more intimate spaces. It is no wonder then, that Marais included in his Pièces de Viole such pieces, which along with their dramatic character would suit a large performance venue, although they were composed for a small ensemble of two to four instruments, and were probably played as pastime more than in formal concerts. 

Lully died of an infection that was caused when he accidentally stabbed his own foot while conducting, holding the heavy stick – the Baton, which was in common use at the time. One can imagine, though, the impact of such conducting gestures on the performance and the general spirit of the performers. French music at the time of Louis XIV was all about gestures, which complies with the fact that it was mainly composed for dancing. This is its functional aspect, but as the music could also be seen as a mirror to social norms of life - in and outside the court, style, gestures and expression served an important, independent role. Many energies were therefore spent towards the presentation of things, the agreed gestures and their meanings, and so even though the structure of dance music was not a novelty, the expression in a performance of music - subtle, elegant, having many delicate nuances and yet not creating a feeling of over-participation – was something without which the music would not be interesting nor serve any goal. 

The combination of big dramatic gestures together with the refined elegance and precision is therefore what makes the style of French Baroque music so unique. Going through the repertoire of Marais, one can discover many gestures with deep rhetorical meanings behind them. Here, unlike in the much earlier styles we met, this rhetoric exists to serve nothing but itself. Here are a couple of examples of perceptions or indications that we may discover behind the simple notes of the music: 

Example 1 is the beginning of the viol part of the Tombeau for Saints Colombe from the second book of Pièces de Viole. In this short example we can find 3 representations of the sigh motive, described by the two appoggiaturas in the second bar (the first one written as such, and the second one practically played with the note C♮), and possibly by an appoggiatura starting the trill in the third bar. There is also a clear referral to the Passus Duriusculus, an old rhetorical musical term, used to describe a chromatic progression (ascending or descending) usually between four notes. The word Passus means a path, passage, pace or step, and the word Duriusculus (Durus, Durch) means either hard, difficult or through to an end. When such a motive comes across the rhetorical meaning can be that of suffering, the via dolorosa, etc. 

marais ex.1.png

Example 1: extract from Marin Marais’ Tombeau pour Monsieur de Sainte Colombe 

As for example 2, the beginning of the Prelude from the suite in a minor from the third book, one may argue it is a variation on the Pasuus Duriusculus as well: this would be fully enhanced had Marais noted in the beginning of the third bar an F# as the main first note, which, followed by an F natural, would make a full chromatic progression. Although I do not suspect there are any print mistakes in this case, I strongly believe that Marais had the Passus Duriusculus in mind and moreover, it would be safe to assume that so did the musicians who performed this music and the people who listened to it. 

marais ex.2.png

Example 2: extract from Marin Marais’ Prelude from book 3 

Before the beginning of a new season, many collections of new dances were printed and published for those who were returning to the city, be it Paris, from their summer vacation in the country, to be able to learn and prepare in time for the upcoming dance balls. When a performance of a dance by Lully, for example, was especially pleasing, the music was arranged (by composers such as André Campra) and notated as a dance with choreography. 

As in playing a musical instrument, the posture and basic movements of French dance can be quite challenging to learn, and difficult to maintain, mainly for inexperienced amateur dancers. As both composers and dance instructors wished to be successful in their business, they found that it was worthwhile to publish practical introductions for the reader to facilitate the performance of music or the choreography. Many of the people who would buy new printed music were amateurs, and therefore it was important to address them in a way that would ensure that they get their money’s worth, by encouraging them to take up a new tune or a new dance without having to spend anymore money on lessons. This is where supplying complimentary instructions came in use. 

Similarly, Marais wrote introductions to his own books, educating readers and players about the correct way to perform his ornaments, and generally presenting distinguished views on how his music should be played. In so doing Marais actually provided us with crucial evidence of performance practice techniques and norms, which might have been lost, had he not insisted on including them in his publications. These appear in the introductory notes to his books, in which he directly addresses the performer, as well as interpreting the many signs and annotations found in the music itself. These give a clear view of the way a viol player was expected to perform the music, with special regard to ornaments. Other French viol players and composers, although including fingerings in their music (namely Forqueray) were not as specific in their performance practice instructions, not to mention composers from other nationalities, who fully trusted the knowledge and good taste of the musicians. 

Here are two quotes, taken from the English translation of the playing instructions by Marais (by Ian Gammie, Corda Music Publications): 

From the first book of 1686: 


In order to suit the various styles of people who play the viol, I have until now issued my pieces more or less filled with chords. But having recognised that this variability had a bad effect, and that players were not performing them the way I had composed them; I have finally decided to issue them in the form in which I play them, with all the ornaments that should be added to them. And because simple melodies are to the taste of many people: I have to this end made several pieces, where there are almost no chords, one can find others where I have inserted quite a few, and several which are completely filled out (with chords), for those who like harmony, and who are more (technically) advanced; one can also find pieces for two viols, and several other novelties.

From the third book of 1711: 


The pleasing effect of the best pieces is infinitely diminished, if they are not performed in the style most suited to them, and not being able to give an idea of this style using ordinary notation I have been obliged to supply new marks which can guide players of my music to perform it as I intend. “e” for example means that you must express or swell the bow-stroke by putting more or less pressure on the string according to the demands of the piece and that can be sometimes on the beginning of the beat or on the value of the dot after the note according to where the mark is; in this way one gives feeling to pieces which would be too uniform without it. 

I finished the presentation with a live performance of an extract of Marais’ variations on La Folia*, which I had arranged for performance purposes, taken from the previously unpublished solo manuscript of Panmure. 

Tal Arbel.

London, June 2008 

* Published in the magazine of the UK viola da gamba society The Viol number 11, 2008. 

Revised 2020 

** The solo La Folia was recorded on Tal Arbel’s solo CD Gambit.

bottom of page