Sieur de Sainte Colombe

Few figures in French musical history are more enigmatic than Sieur de Sainte Colombe. There is no record of his dates of birth or death (1640?-1700?). We do not even know his Christian name. There is some evidence to suggest that he lived in Paris, and he is accounted, on somewhat firmer grounds, among the foremost bass viol players of the late 17th century. Music scholars usually refer to three successive generations of French viol player-composers. We learn from contemporary reviews that Sainte Colombe belonged to the second, that his teacher was Nicholas Hotman and that he numbered Marin Marais and Jean Rousseau among his pupils. He also appears to have been a successful innovator. In his Traité de la Viole, an important treatise on the viol published in 1687 and dedicated to his master, Jean Rousseau writes: "... we owe to him this beautiful port de main [fingering technique] which brought viol playing to perfection [and] allowed him to imitate the greatest qualities of the human voice ...; we also owe to M. de Sainte Colombe the 7th string which he added to the viol. Finally, he ... introduced the use of silver-spun strings in France, and he continually works to find anything to improve this instrument, if it were possible."

Writing in the early 18th century - a generation later - the historian Titon du Tillet relates in his book Le Parnasse François that Sainte Colombe gave private concerts in his house, in which two of his daughters played: "one the treble viol, the other the bass, forming with their father a three viol consort, which was a pleasure to listen to." From the same book comes the engaging story of the cabin in the mulberry tree, where Sainte Colombe had retired to play the viol "without distraction" while Marin Marais lay concealed beneath, avid to learn more and perfect his skill. While the account is probably anecdotal, what is certain is that Marais composed a Tombeau de M. de Sainte Colombe, which he included in his second book of pieces for bass viol and figured bass and published in 1701, apparently some time after Sainte Colombe's death.

With two minor exceptions, the 67 Concerts a deux violes esgales (Concertos for two bass viols) are Sainte Colombe's only surviving works. Their existence was unknown until 1966, when a copy of the manuscript was discovered in the large musical collection belonging to the celebrated pianist Alfred Cortot. Recently, two other manuscripts containing pieces by Sainte Colombe have been identified - one in the National Scottish Library in Edinburgh, the other in the library of the abbey of Saint-Philibert de Tournus.

The publication of the Concerts in 1973 fired the interest of a handful of early music lovers and performers, spurred research and inspired a number of recordings. However, its was Alain Corneau's film Tous les matins du monde, released in 1991, that made Sieur de Sainte Colombe a household name and took his music to the top of the French charts.

The film, based on a novel by Pascal Quignard, is a fictional treatment - built around the mulberry tree anecdote - of the relationships between Sainte Colombe, his two daughters and his pupil, Marais. Quignard's inventions are coherent both internally and with the larger historical context. Sainte Colombe acquires an identity, a face, a soul; his introverted, erudite, aloof style is contrasted with the showy, bombastic, inflated music of Louis XIV's court at Versailles. It is the consistency between this serious, reserved and uncompromising character and the music we hear that gives the film portrayal its credibility.

The Concerts a deux violes esgales are not really concertos at all, in the modern sense of a composition for solo instrument(s) and orchestra, but in fact suites - a set of movements in the same key based on or derived from dance rhythms and often preceded by a prelude. By 1700, the standard dances were the allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, with additional dances, if any, placed between the last two. They could also be shortened to suit the occasion. Suites occasionally included a chaconne or passacaglia, which in Sainte Colombe's day involved a compositional technique in which a continuously repeated, often eight-bar, bass line or harmonic progression provided the basis for a set of uninterrupted variations.

Where the suite was concerned, Sainte Colombe generally kept his own counsel. His departures from the traditional form were the rule rather than the exception. His choice of the term "concert" as opposed to "suite" may have reflected a desire to break away from conventional structures. While the use of descriptive titles (as opposed to the names of the dances) to identify the various movements of French baroque suites was not uncommon, with Sainte Colombe some of the movements are themselves representational, that is the music serves to depict, characterise, or portray scenes, events and emotions. His concerto, Tombeau Les regrets, is a case in point; this is not a composition written in memory of a dead person, real or imagined, but a "Memorial to regret". The movements are descriptive pieces with 'programmatic' titles like "Chimes", "Charon's call", "Tears", "Elysian Joy", and Elysium.

The manuscript is prefaced by a Table alphabétique, an alphabetical table of contents. Neither the table nor the concertos themselves are in Sainte Colombe's hand but are the work of a contemporary copyist, who must have been close to the composer. The table includes short descriptions - in terms which are sometimes difficult for us to interpret - of the character of each piece ("Le trembleur, this song represents someone who is trembling") as well as of its distinguishing features in terms of choice of movements and departure from the 'normal' suite structure ("in this concerto there are two gavottes, one gay and one slow").

The bass viol is no longer regarded as a direct descendant of the mediaeval fiddle and the precursor of the modern cello. This misconception was of course based on its resemblance to the violin family's bass instrument. However, the viol differs from the cello in several key respects. In common with the lute and the guitar, it has a fretted neck, and the bow is held palm upwards. Other distinguishing features are the width and length of the neck, deeper sides, light body construction and a weaker, more nasal tone. The strings are also tuned differently.

It is now generally accepted that the viol family has its roots in the Spanish vihuela, which evolved in the 15th century, probably under Moorish influence. In Spain, there were two types of vihuela, a vihuela de mano, which like the lute and guitar was plucked, and the vihuela de arco, which was bowed. Both these instruments found their way to Italy, where the first true viol, based on the vihuela de arco, rapidly took shape. Not only was the viol was perfectly suited to the polyphonal music of the time. It could also imitate the human voice as no other instrument, an ability which remained its defining characteristic during its lifetime. From Italy, the viol spread - mainly via the courts - to all parts of Europe.

We make a primary distinction between renaissance and baroque bass viols. However, marked differences within each class evolved in response to the various musical styles cultivated or preferred in countries like France, England and Germany. The development of music and instrument-making was driven by a process of creative interaction, and the bass viol flowered at different times in different places. While Sainte Colombe's 'invention' of the seventh string and his use of metal overwinding for the three lowest strings were key innovations, they formed part of a process of development which continued throughout the bass viol's 250-year history.

The viol's floating, transparent tone was an ideal medium for the polyphony that characterised renaissance and baroque music. It was no coincidence that interest in the instrument faded as baroque music gave way to the galant and 'classical' styles and their demand for a more uniform tone. The growing Italian predilection for the violin family, already apparent at the start of the 17th century, hastened the viol's decline in Europe, although the bass viol continued to retain a certain popularity until the late 18th century. The famous player and composer Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) gave his last concert in London just before he died. There, one might say, the viol rested, until its reawakening almost 200 years later.

Bodil Asketorp 1995

translation Stewart Shield