Du Sieur De Sainte Colombe
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Sainte Colombe has until recently been a rather mysterious figure. It was known that in this time he enjoyed a reputation as an exceptional virtuoso, but none of his music was known. Thanks to him, the range of the viol was extended downward by the addition of a seventh string, thus according with the instrumental development of the 17th century, which liked contrasts in range, timbre and sonority. The Sieur De Sainte Colombe stands at the head of a whole succession of French composers who gave his letters patent of nobility to the Bass Viol, including notably Caix D'hervelois, Forqueray and Francois Couperin. But his most direct disciple was Marin Marais, and an anecdote from the pen of Titon du Tillet tells us about the links between the two men: "seeing after six months that his Pupil could surpass him, he told him that he had nothing else to teach him. Marais, who was passionately fond of the Viol, still wished to take further advantage of his Master, to perfect his playing ; and since he had access to his house, he took the time in Summer, steal into the endosed garden, where Sainte Colombe was shut up in a little wooden cabin that he had made on the branches of a Mulberry tree, to play his viol in greater tranquility and with greater delight. Marais would crawl under this little cabin ; there he would hear his Master and take advantage of certain passages and of particular bowings which the Masters of Art liked to keep to themselves ; but this did not last long since Sainte Colombe noticed it and put himself on his guard against being heard any more by his Pupi". A modest man, Sainte Colombe sought none of the official posts with which his so-called pupil was to be rewarded. We know only that he was famous for his art, no doubt as an amateur, in the best sense of the word, and that he organized chamber music concerts in his private salons.
Along with Lully, the great figure who dominated the century, along with lutenists, harpsichordists and organists in full evolution, the violists remained the kings of an aristocratic instrument which found refuge in intimacy but which did not arm itself for the struggle with the increasing vogue for the violin Family, imported from Italy. The five Concerts A Deux Violes Esgales Du Sieur De Sainte Colombe thus constitute a real revelation: for the first time, we can hear the music which corresponds to the immense reputation of its composer, a rare example of the solo viol before Marin Marais. The unique manuscript which contains sixty-seven of these Concerts had passed through the hands of various collectors without being lost or damaged, until its discovery by the musicologist Paul Hooreman in the private library of Alfred Cortot at Lausanne around 1966. There is little to indicate the date of the manuscript, except that it contains some pieces by Lully which were written in 1687. It is not known whether it was composed at one time or whether it was the result of a compilation stretching over several years. Sainte Colombe did not bother to publish his music; without seeking glory he must have been devoted to his art with genial spontaneity, composing for himself and his entourage, as is suggested by the titles of some of the Concerts.
Sainte Colombe's style of playing impressed his contemporaries to the extent that Hubert le Blanc, in his Defense de la Basse de Viole (1740), could write that he was capable of 'imitating the most beautiful vocal ornaments'. It should not be forgotten that instrumental music was only just emerging from the vocal music of the Renaissance and that the vocal discoveries in the area of ornamentation left lasting marks on future instrumental repertoire. But by the second half of the 17th century instrumental music had been emancipated from the forms of vocal music. As concluded Pere Mersenne, the composer could take 'the liberty of using everything that he thought of, without expressing a single word'. The tradition then of instrumental ensembles of amateurs or professionals created a real instrumental repertoire which required regular meetings, in other words rehearsals; thus academies were formed, with famous virtuosi It is possible that Sainte Colombe founded or belonged to one of these circles. To play 'en concert' meant playing by several instruments without seeking any opposition between them. The French-style 'Concert' was also the dance suite: beginning as music for dancing it became music for listening. It was a form that broke away from its original function to become chamber music: leaving aside everything, preferably in the evening when calm favours attentive listening, and follow, note by note, the thread of this music with its unexpected detours. If on first hearing we expect the logic of the straight line and a clear development, if we expect music to be an entertainment in sound, which flees contrasts and flows in an obvious way we will be disappointed. If, on the other hand, we like surprise, freedom, sudden changes from gravity to playfulness or from improvisation to strict composition, in short a true 'adventure in sound' which we must follow step by step without being deflected by any distraction, we will be fully satisfied by the richness of these Concerts. Moreover we must train our ears to be as aware as possible of the smallest subtilities of development.
Concert Bourrasque 'because it begins with a gust of wind', like a strong wind which blows in successive blast. The interest of this group, composed like a mosaic, lies less in the complex elaboration of each piece than in their interaction one with another. A series of short motives reveal the viola da gamba's expressive possibilities - tormented, joyous, grave and simple: the possibilities are often related to the instrument's register: the low register is sombre, rather disturbing, the high register, with its velocity is more joyous while retaining still a little melancholy veil, and the chords have a striking strength. Nearly every note has its own sonority and the passage from one to the other contains subtilities that Sainte Colombe's contemporaries must have especially appreciated.
Concert Le Raporte 'because I brought it partly from tablature to music' - The introduction is hesitant, with rests and suspensions, longer notes whose successors cannot be predicted. Suddenly a ternary rhythm in the form of gigue, very dance-like, played "de concert" by the two viols intervenes and is continued without interruption until the cadence that marks the end of this first piece. The passacaglia called 'la belle' proceeds gently in contrast with the preceding jerky rhythm and the Chacone offers a moment of even greater complexity, which requires of us more 'of the suite spirit' to understand what can at first hearing seem like a veritable maze. We might compare this quest to reach the summit, on which suddenly we seem to be entirely lost in the universe of sound, with that which Mozart followed in some of his sonatas.
Concert Le Retour 'because we must return to the repetition sign before starting what is in gigue' - The beginning sounds like a serious call, quite unlike the hesitant character of the preceding Concert. The second viol carries the response, but without waiting for the dialogue to proceed and develop, there arises a kind of 'exuberant noise in which the two viols let themselves go, at full volume, with tremolos', played with rapid bowing. Two improvised measures are followed by a limpid and bare melody on the two viols. This reprise of the 'noise' ensues and it is this 'return' which determined the title of the Concert. We can then 'begin what is in gigue', but this only lasts for a few bars, as an introduction to a Menuet, which has a delightful melody in the high register on the second viol. The gigue represents the strength and accord of the two instruments which is fortified by the repetition of notes that solidly assert the tonality. The Courante is a real race which each runs for his own benefit. An unexpected cadence introduces the Balet tendre. Sainte Colombe shows a genius for varying the accompaniment on the reprise of the theme, introducing new dissonances and quick figures which entirely change to orginal character. The pianette, with a quick rhythm, gives way to quest for very subtle colour: a veiled sliding which corresponds well with the definition of this dance - 'in slippers'. Another 'return' to the by now familiar minuet ends this Concert. Again this is a mosaic of very well-contrasted elements, while progress by successive touches but also by repetition. Sainte Colombe never settles down into one mood or exploits his strotes of inspiration: he offers them then immediately passes on to something else. There is never any feeling of security but constant disorientation.
Concert Tombeau. Les Regrets - A supple phrase, with a descending melodic line introduces meditation: rests, modulations, chromatism and unexpectedly romantic dissonances ; a slow descent to the lowest register. The Quarillon is a piece of rhythmical character: an inexorable march, interrupted by a series of descending scales which sound 'Charon's call'. Les pieurs represent one of the highest points of this music. There every note is important since it is expected as the outcome of the preceding one : accidentals, dissonances and chromaticism illustrate the depths of pain. We follow this route until a slow, dramatic ascent into the high register, like a great surge of hope, with a melodic line whose beauty is enhanced by the sonority of the instruments ; it descends again via detours with the same chromaticism to the final cadence. The Joye des Elizees, with its leaping rhythm, provides a contrast to all this dramatic intesity : the Concert ends on a note of joyful simplicity.
Concert La Dubois - The introduction has a free air, with very supple melodic lines, in which the two viols, in their own way, combine or follow quite independent paths. Everything in the harmony, the reconciliation of the notes which cause dissonances. This is the domaine of individual freedom, of improvised and hold appearance. There is no possibility of refuge in an extended logical harmonic progression. Two gigues en bourrasque bring us back to reality. The first settles into a dance tune in which simplicity seems to prevail : but the second section is complicated by a closely-woven instrumental dialogue, with an imposing volume of sound. The second Gigue suggests a race which each viol starts while momentarily recalling the dance tune. The Menuet again shows Sainte Colombes skill in constructing melodies of charm and simplicity, where we are happy to rest for a moment. The final Chacone is the most carefully constructed and complex piece, for the opening theme, in slow triple time, is rather difficult to follow and gives rise to a large and very dense fresco. The construction is rigorous and animated by an extremely powerful blost : if we may be permitted another bold comparison, it would be with Beethoven's Grosse Fuge. A Gavote ends this Concert with a simple dance tune. In publishing the music of Sainte Colombe, Paul Hooreman offered a challenge, when he wrote : 'it presents one great drawback : it is difficult music and, apart from the fact that it requires viols with seven strings, I do not know whether there are many players today capable of performing it'. Jordi Savall and Wieland Kuijken have accepted the challenge, with as much sensitivity and competence as skill.
-Marie Madeleine Krynen (translated by Frank Dobbins)