Marin Marais

Marin Marais was a French composer and virtuoso viol player of the Baroque period. Marais was renowned as a remarkably refined viol player who wished to raise the level of viol performance in the French opera orchestras. 

Marais was the son of a shoemaker, and although his exact birth date is unknown, he was baptized on 31 May 1656. His uncle, Louis Marais, was the vicar of the Church of  St Germain-l’Auxerrois in Paris, under royal patronage. It was there in the choir school that Marais received his earliest musical training. Marais remained with the choir school, under the direction of François Chaperon, until 1672. Among his fellow students was Michel-Richard de Lalande. It is also likely that Marais began learning the viol while there.

Marais continued his studies with the famous bass violist Sainte-Colombe and is rumoured to have surpassed his teacher’s skills within a mere six months. By 1675, Marais had already begun performing with the Paris Opéra orchestra, which was under the direction of Lully. While with the Opéra, Marais received the opportunity to perform in the premiere of Atys in 1676 for the court.

Marais married Catherine Damicourt in 1676 and continued to perform with the Opéra, where he became an ordinaire of the musique de la chambre du roi (a regular of the music from the king’s chamber) in 1679. During this time, Jean Baptiste Lully also provided Marais with lessons in composition. This led him to successfully compose his first set of works for viol and an Idylle dramatique, which was performed for the court in Versailles.

Marais was known as an incredibly refined viol player who wished to raise the level of performance in the French opera orchestras. He was also eager to use solo instruments to create a variety of timbre, as were his contemporaries Collasse and Campra.

As one of the first great French soloists, Marais captured the attention of audiences and it has been said that he played ‘like an angel’, gaining the respect of the public and his contemporaries. Though he possessed much virtuosic skill, this was always outshone by his musicality.

Marais continued to have much success in the genres of instrumental and dramatic music, though he also composed motets. He composed a total of four operas, all in the form of tragédies en musique, following in the style of Lully. By the end of the 17th century, his works also became well known outside of France, especially after the premiere of his Tragédie en musique Alcyone in 1706.

In the same period, Marais was promoted to conductor of the Opéra orchestra, replacing Campra. He also befriended Nicolas Bernier, who married Marais’ daughter, Marie-Catherine, in 1712.

Despite the success of his previous compositions, Marais’ Sémélé (1709) was a great dissapointment. Further, the viol virtuoso Antonine Forqueray came into the spotlight, resulting in Marais’ retreat from the public.

Marais’ operas never included the increasingly popular Italian influences. In addition, he avoided the opera-ballets form, unlike his contemporaries. He was instead inspired by the model of Lully’s music and enjoyed illustrating the words from the libretto, a trait that was also shared by Collasse, Desmarets and Charpentier. Marais’ music contains many contrasts, between major and minor and between tessituras, to convey the emotions of the text. He was also not afraid to use dissonance or unique harmonies.

In order to properly perform the works of Marais, greater virtuosity was asked of the players, especially the strings. The most notable moments in his operas include the earthquake in the last act of Sémélé and the tempest in Alycone. Occassionally Marais would make use of simple popular melodies, such as the sailors’march in Alycone, though the majority of his music is much more complex and features brilliant use of counterpoint. Despite his incredible technical skills, the feeling and mood of his music never takes second place to the technique; virtuosity was always used for the sake of the music.

Not only did Marais leave his mark in the field of composition, anticipating great composers such as Rameau, but he also expanded the repertoire and technique for the viol. Marais composed many works for himself to perform at concerts, including five books of works for viol and continuo, 39 suites (consisting of 596 pieces) for two and three viols, a groundbreaking trio Pièces en trio pour les flûtes, violons et dessus de viole (1692), La gamme et autres morceaux de symphonie pour violon, viole et clavecin (1723) and 45 unpublished works which can be found in the Panmure Collection in Edinburgh (c1680).

The suites contain pieces in a wide variety of lengths and styles, all of which were appropriate for the dances of polite society. The shortest of the suites contains just seven movements, while the longest contains 41. They also contain complex pieces such as preludes, chaconnes or passacaglias, which encase the shorter and simpler movements.

In addition to the suites, Marais composed ‘character pieces’ which focus on a technical difficulty, a description, or on an autobiographical moment. Examples of the character pieces which focus on difficulty include the fantasias, bourrasques, caprices and the 32 variations on a theme by Corelli. Some of the descriptive pieces depict the sounds of bells, blacksmiths or exotic marches. The works from this genre which  have the most variety are his autobiographical pieces, which range from tombeaux (dedicated to Lully, Sainte-Colombe and one of his sons) to Tableau de l'opération de la taille, which depicts the medical procedure of bladder stone removal. These character pieces are generally very free in their form, style and harmonics.

Marais was also very active as a teacher and though he never wrote a treatise on viol, he supplied much information in the prefaces of his works, which give detailed information over the performance practice, which was very French in style.

Marais died in Paris in 1728.

Marin Marais had 19 children, of which several played bass viol, most notably Roland and Vincent Marais. Roland was the best known of the two but Vincent had spectacular technique that surpassed even that of his father, though he lacked in musicality and maintained a lifestyle that did not allow for a virtuoso career. Marin’s grandson, Nestor-Marin, was also a bass viol player and held a position at the court (from 1747).


Left: Detail of Portrait of Madame Henriette de France playing a bass viol in King Louis XV's court, by Jean Marc Nattier

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