Marin Marais was the central figure in the French school of bass-viol composers and performers that flourished during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He spent his entire life in Paris, and the greater part of it in royal service. First appointed as Ordinaire de la Musique de la Chambre du Roi in 1685, he retained that post throughout the reign of Louis XIV and from 1715 to 1725 served under the Regency and Louis XV. His contemporaries recognized him as an outstanding performer and a composer of stature whose works for viols and the operatic stage were known beyond the boundaries of France.
These barest of facts represent almost the entire body of readily available information concerning a musician who was a major figure in French music during his lifetime. Little else about Marais' life, and even less about his music, has appeared in print. The most extensive account of his life and works was provided by Titon du Tillet in hisLe Parnasse francois (Paris, 1732). Dedicated to the greater glory of the practically divine Louis XIV, the work depicted an imaginary Parnassus of poetry and music over which Louis ruled with noble forbearance. The leading poets and musicians of the late 17th and early 18th centuries were given places around the throne in accordance with their importance. Marin Marais, in company with Jean-Baptiste Lully, Clément Marot, Isaac de Benserade, Phillipe Quinault, and Michel Delalande, among others, was included in the royal entourage. Le Parnasse francois is an invaluable source of information concerning poets and musicians of this period. In the case of Marais, it appears to have served as the most important single repository of contemporary information.
Titon relates that Marais was born in Paris on May 31, 1656, and died there on August 15, 1728. as a boy, he was a member of the choir of Sainte-Chapelle and in his teens studied the basse de viole with Hotman and Sainte-Colombe, both important figures in the early development of French string music. Marais entered the royal orchestra as a soloist in 1685 and about the same time became a member of the orchestra of the Académie Royale de Musique. In the latter position he played under the direction of Lully, who later became his teacher in composition. Marais spent the remainder of his life performing and composing, and also fathering nineteen children, several of whom became important figures in French musical life.
The list of works that Titon provides comprises of five volumes of Piéces de Violes (1686-1725); a book of Piéces en Trio (1692), which appears to be the first of their kind published in France; four operas: Alcide (1693), Ariadne et Bacchus (1696), Alcione (1703), and Semélé (1709); a Te Deum which Titon states was performed at the occasion of the convalescence of Monsieur le Dauphin, apparently in 1701; and a group of works, consisting ofLa Gamme, Sonnate a la Maresienne, and La Sonnerie de Sainte Geneviéve du Mont de Paris, that were perfromed sur le Violon, la Viole & le Calvecin and appeared together in folio in 1723. The last three works have not apparently survived. The Te Deum, described as in manuscript by Titon, appears to have suffered the same fate.
The instrument for which Marais wrote the major portion of his works is commonly referred to as the viola da gamba. Strictly speaking, however, it was the small bass of the viol family, which in the 17th and early 18th centuries included as many as nine different sizes of instruments, all called by the generic name viola da gamba. Marais' instrument--viola da gamba, bass viol, basse de viole, or, simply, "gamba"--was somewhat smaller than the modern cello and had frets and seven strings, tuned to A1, D, G, c, e, a d1. According to contemporary, Marais was recognized as the greatest performer on the bass viol of his era. Hubert le Blanc reported that Marais played the viol "like an angel," and Johann Gottfried Walther called him "an incomparable French violdigambist." Contemporary judgments of his prowess as a composer are no less enthusiastic. Joachim Christoph Nemeitz declared that Marais' works "were known by the whole of Europe." Titon stated: "One recognizes the fecundity and elegance of the genius of this musician by the quantity of works he has composed. One finds everywhere in them good taste and a surprising variety."
Although Marais' operas, trio sonatas, and other compositions were widely performed during his lifetime, the most significant part of his musical output is represented by the five books of Pièces de Violes that he produced over a period of forty years, between 1686 and 1725. These collections include more than 550 compositions for one, two, and three bass viols and figured bass. All volumes were originally published by the composer. The Pièces de Violes represent an accomplishment of great scope and originality. Historically, they constitute the full flowering of an established French musical tradition, the culmination of an art that had its origins in the 16th century. In sheer numbers the books surpass the production of any other composer for the bass viol. In musical variety and range of instrumental expression, they stand alone in the contributions to the literature for that instrument.
*Excerpted from "Marin Marais's Pieces de Violes." by Clyde H. Thompson,The Musical Quarterly, vol. 46, No. 4, 1960.
Biography by Clyde H. Thompson