In the early seventeenth century Italian music with its emphasis on text and monody swept into the French musical establishment, supplanting the older chanson-style and encouraging the newly-emerging air de cour away from polyphony towards homophonic textures. With this stylistic influence came another change—the gradual hegemony of the violins. While the viol and violin families were both invented at much the same time, the 1480s, they had quite different characters and served distinct purposes: the viols were used primarily for domestic music-making, while the violins were used for public, larger-scale performance and were favoured by professionals. Although courts tended to have complete families of both instruments, they were rarely mixed; bands tended to use all one family or the other.
By the end of the 17thcentury, however, there was a distinct move towards preferring the violin family, most likely because of their brighter and more penetrating tone. Inevitably the viol specialists began to feel threatened, and in 1740 a lawyer called Hubert le Blanc published his A Defence of the Bass Viol against the Ventures of the Violin and the Pretensions of the Violoncello. As the booklet for this deluxe 3CD set puts it: “The first part discusses the typically French conflict between the pieces from the French-styled suites and the Italianate sonatas. The second describes the arrival of the violin in France and the third is an eloquent pleading of the case for the bass viol at a time when the instrument’s star had nearly set”. The timbral distinction between these families is quite apparent, one only has to compare Bach’s Art of Fugue as performed on viols (Fretwork, HMX2907296), and violins (Keller Quartet, ECM1652). It is not difficult to understand why performers would incline towards the incisiveness of the violins, but the eventual loss of the melancholy gravitas of the viols can only be regretted.
This new 3CD box set from the Ricercar Consort takes advantage of modern extended CD duration to combine two earlier issues, firstly a single CD called le Tombeau de Monsieur de Saint-Colombe centring on music for solo and duo bass viols with and without continuo by Saint-Colombe himself, his son, and his pupil Marin Marais (as immortalised in the movie Tout les Matins du Monde). The second component of the box was previously released as a package called Défence de la Basse de Viole…. The first disc in the new set is among the loveliest viol playing I’ve ever heard, richly sonorous and profoundly affecting. It declares unambiguously just what it was that the viol apologists treasured. The second CD illustrates the gradual transition in French music from the suite to the sonata, while remaining timbrally in the viol world, and the third introduces the new music written for the violin family, including a Concerto “le Phénix” for four cellos and continuo by Michel Corrette—and it is quite true, the listener really does notice the change in sonority when the cellos arrive.
While today we can only sympathise with the futile propagandist zeal of M. le Blanc, this CD box shines on several counts: it introduces the listener to largely unfamiliar repertoire of real quality; the performances are among the best I’ve heard, quite up to the benchmark established by Jordi Savall; it provides a fascinating insight into the musical attitudes of the late French baroque; and it is very generous in running-time. The entire package is beautifully presented and the extensive liner notes are highly informative. A real treasure.