The viol (or viola da gamba), a family of string instruments that was predominant prior to the advent of the violin family, has a singing if somewhat fragile tone that instantly seduces. Writing in the 17th century in his treatise Harmonie Universelle (1636–1637), Marin Mersenne described the instrument thus:
If instruments are judged according to their ability to imitate the human voice, and if naturalness in art is esteemed the highest accomplishment, then the prize must surely go to the viol, which imitates the human voice in all its modulations, even in its most moving nuances of sadness and joy. (Excerpt quoted by Catherine Cessac. Translation by Jaqueline Minett.)Outside the rarefied circles of French Baroque musicology and early music enthusiasts, the viol was perhaps lesser known as a solo instrument, I think, before a memorable film, Tous les matins du monde [All the world's mornings], brought this body of music to a wider audience in 1991 with a beautiful soundtrack, featuring the masterful playing of Catalunyan gambist Jordi Savall and the ensemble he founded, Le Concert des Nations.
I have been listening for the past few days to another, more recent recording by Jordi Savall, released in November 2003: a two-CD set titled Mr. de Sainte Colombe le Fils: Pièces de Viole. Mr. Savall delights us with six suites for the bass viol by the son of the famous gamba player and teacher, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. The father was portrayed masterfully in Tous les Matins du Monde as an enigmatic and reclusive master by French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle, the calm and forbidding foil to Gérard Dépardieu as his most famous student, Marin Marais. Sainte-Colombe's two daughters, who also played the viol, were shown in the movie (see the still shown here), but he also had a son, apparently illegitimate, who played and taught the viol in England for most of his adult life. The six suites for basse de viole of this Monsieur de Sainte Colombe le Fils were copied in the early 18th century by Philip Falle, a canon at Durham Cathedral, where the book (Durham, Cathedral Library, Ms. Mus. A. 27) has been preserved. (The liner notes, by Mr. Savall and French musicologist Catherine Cessac, are excellent.)
The sixth suite has only two movements, plus the lengthy "Tombeau pour Mr de Sainte Colombe le père," which is an example of this genre, a sort of musical elegy, that was not uncommon in the period. However, I think that this Tombeau is more poignant than others because it was composed by a son for his father. Actor Jean-Pierre Marielle, who portrayed the father-teacher in the movie (see above), is credited on the CD as récitant. As it turns out, in spite of the top billing and the exciting pictures of Marielle and Savall in the liner notes, Marielle's only contribution is to read the title of the Tombeau and the more descriptive movement titles. This is a terrible waste, because of the extraordinary quality of Marielle's voice: one wishes that he could have been given some Molière to recite, anything. As a listening experience, this CD is extraordinary, if you like the sound of the viol. If you are new to the instrument but you like pieces like J. S. Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, for example, you will probably enjoy it. It is not for every occasion: when I put it on while some friends were over to play cards, it was too somber. However, it's beautiful private listening.
Buy the recordings mentioned in this post at Amazon:
Tous les matins du monde (soundtrack)
Jordi Savall, Mr. de Sainte Colombe le Fils: Pièces de Viole (2003)