Marin Marais’s Works for Viola da Gamba

Marin Marais’s Works for Viola da Gamba

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Marin Marais (1656-1728) lived in Paris his whole life. That is, except for the many months of the year when he was stationed at Versailles as a musician for the royal court, a post he held for nearly four decades. His training was the absolute best available: composition and conducting from Jean-Baptiste Lully and viola da gamba from Jean de Sainte-Colombe. With that kind of pedigree, it’s no surprise that his music is thought to represent the best of the mid-Baroque period.

Although Marais did write a few operas (you can read about one of them in an earlier Copper column: ), he was and is best known for works for his own instrument, the bass viol or viola da gamba. Held between the knees like a cello and with the same range, a gamba has six strings and frets on its fingerboard. Marais’s pieces include solos, duets, and trios, usually in the form of suites. Several recent recordings celebrate these beautiful compositions.

Many of Marais’s suites were published in a multi-volume set called the Pièces de viole. Viola da gambist Atsushi Sakai has recorded Book One of that set, accompanied by Christophe Rousset in a release on the Aperté label. Sakai and Rousset move hand-in-glove, producing a nuanced interplay that is especially ideal for the preludes introducing each suite. The tradition was to play these as if they were improvised, focusing on the contrasting and ever-changing moods and motifs. Of course, the reality for performers is quite the opposite: it takes extreme coordination for two players to seem to be playing extemporaneously at the same time. For Sakai and Rousset, the result is as natural as a chat between two good friends.


The recording includes six suites and the Tombeau de Monsieur Meliton (a tombeau was a type of musical lamentation meant to pay homage to somebody, but we don’t know who Mr. Meliton was). Some of the suites in Book 1 require two viols, and for those, Sakai and Rousset are joined by Marion Martineau. Interestingly, both gambists are playing 21st-century instruments by maker Judith Kraft, done in the style of specific exemplars from around 1700.

While Marais’s far-wandering preludes and tombeaux are fascinating, there is much to be admired in the more regularly structured courtly dances such as this Gavotte for two viols and continuo. Sakai and company make an effective choice to keep the underlying pulse steady while not tightening the rhythm too much, allowing it to flow.


“Continuo” is a term that can be interpreted in many ways in Baroque music. In his new recording of Book 4 of the Pièces de viole, gambist François Joubert-Caillet is accompanied by his own string ensemble, L’Achéron, with another gambist doubling the bassline in the continuo to bolster the harpsichord. The result on this four-disc set on the Ricercar label is a pleasingly rich sound. Joubert-Caillet and his group have also recorded Books 1 – 3 in recent years, but the use of more players is especially appropriate for Book 4, which includes a suite for three viols playing in counterpoint. While the three gambists do not have the same cellular-level connection heard in the Sakai recording, it’s a vital and interesting interpretation.


Another reason to give the Joubert-Caillet recording a listen is because it he begins one of the suites a cappella, without continuo. If you’re a fan of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites, you might find it intriguing to hear an earlier (and decidedly French) approach to that genre.

In the Prelude to Marais’s Suite in D minor, Joubert-Caillet uses a delicate, almost lacy tone, allowing rubato to shape the rhythm of constant eighth notes. After the opening statement, a lutenist from L’Achéron joins in – so subtly at first that you wonder if your ears are playing tricks on you.


Much of Book 4 of the Pièces de viole, with a couple of Book 2 suites mixed in, can be found on Marais: Works for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord. Gambist Mélisande Corriveau is featured on this ATMA Classique recording, with Eric Milnes on harpsichord. The duo album boasts not only fine playing, but also particularly well-engineered sound.

The third movement of the Suite No. 1 in D Minor is a courante, a stately dance in triple meter. Marais, who was ahead of his time in his penchant for giving instrumental music programmatic names that evoked particular images, called this movement “La mignone” (The sweetheart). Corriveau plays with clarity and elegance, and just the right touch of romantic longing. Her instrument is a 1691 original by a renowned London maker called Barak Norman.


A good source for more programmatic movements is Marais at Midnight, part of the acclaimed Music from Aston Magna series on Centaur Records. On the recording, gambist Laura Jeppesen is accompanied not by a harpsichord but by a theorbo, a six-foot-long bass lute with sympathetic strings. Catherine Liddell handles that impressive instrument, which was a favorite among composers throughout the 17th century.

The album’s title comes from descriptions of the concerts that Marais and his colleagues would give for King Louis XIV and his family. Apparently they were quite the jam sessions. According to a report from that time, “those who wished, played, and those who wanted to, listened.” And they tended to last until midnight.

Jeppesen and Liddell create an easy collaboration, intimate and precise. The repertoire goes beyond the often-recorded standard-length suites and includes excerpts from the Book 2, Suite No. 3 in D Major, with over 20 movements, all of which have programmatic titles. This one is called “Les voix humaines” (The Human Voices). Cellist Lynn Harrell used to say that the cello was the instrument closest to the human voice; perhaps Marais was thinking something similar about the viola da gamba when he wrote this.


If you enjoy the mesmerizing pace of Marais’s slow movements, I recommend the movie about him, All the Mornings of the World. Starring Gérard Depardieu, the 1991 film unfolds very much like one of the composer’s prelude-style meditations. But King Louis also loved to dance, so you can bet that Marais’s skill at writing pieces like this rousing little theme-and-variation movement called “Le basque,” from Book 4, Suite No. 5 in A Major, was a big reason for his long employment in the royal household.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/portrait de Marin Marais, Musée de la musique, Paris.

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