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May 31 Composer Birthday: Marin Marais

May 31 Composer Birthday: Marin Marais featured image

Marin Marais was a French Baroque composer and viol player. A “viol”, or “viola da gamba”, is a Baroque instrument that is played like a cello, but has a few differences: the back is flat, not curved, and the shoulders are quite sloped, and not rounded like a cello’s. Also, the holes in the front of the instrument are “C-holes”, not “F-holes” (yes, they are called that, and yes, I know its sounds a bit inappropriate), and have more strings (five to seven) than the usual four on a cello. The full Italian name is “viola da gamba” (“viol for the leg”), and is pronounced like the word “vile” (but really, has a lovely sound).

Marais studied with Jean-Baptiste Lully (the guy who pounded his counting stick into his own foot, thus dying from subsequent infection) and had an awesome gig as a musician at the court of Versailles, being appointed “ordinaire de la chambre du roy pour la viole”, a title he kept for 46 years. He was one of the first composers to write program music, meaning, pieces that had a narrative, as opposed to a classical form such as a sonata – music for music’s sake. He wrote a work called “The Bladder-Stone Operation” for viola da gamba and harpsichord, which included annotations like “The patient is bound with silken cords” and “He screameth”, which are read by a narrator. (And I thought Erik Satie had strange instructions).  I was a bit queasy researching this work, as there was no anesthesia in the Baroque era.

I found an English translation of “The Bladder-Stone Operation” presented by Early Music Alberta, featuring Josephine van Lier, viola da gamba; Marie Giesbrecth, harpsichord; and Dustin Maloney, narrator. This would be a good work to program around Halloween.

Marin Marais was born May 31 in Paris, France, and died August 15, 1728, also in Paris.

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