M. de Sainte-Colombe

(1630? - 1700?)

French composer and gambist. Sainte-Colombe has until recently been rather a mysterious figure, and even today little is known of him other than that in his time he enjoyed a reputation as an exceptional virtuoso. It was suggested a few years ago that he was in fact Augustin Dautrecourt, a musician from Lyon living in Paris, but it seems this was a mistaken lead. Possibly he was a certain Jean, sieur de Sainte-Colombe, bourgeois de Paris, who had the two daughters Titon du Tillet attributes to the composer, who counted an organist among his closest friends, who lived in the same parish as many other violists who lived not far from the Louvre and whose name may be found on various documents alongside those of city and court musicians. A pupil of Nicolas Hotman, he was active sometime between 1660 and 1690, but he never held a post in any of the royal institutions.

Titon du Tillet is indeed the principal source for most of the information we have concerning M. de Sainte Colombe. he mentions the two daughters, who "played, one the treble viol, and the other the bass viol, and together with their father formed a consort of three viols." These two daughters have been identified as Françoise and brigitte and has having married into artistic Protestant families. Rémond de sainte-Mard, in his Réflexios sur l'Opéra, is the only source for "a son of Monsieur de Sainte Colombe born out of wedlock, who lacked th necessary imagination to lie." This son is identified as Mr. de Sainte Colombe le Fils, who, probably on account of his religious beliefs, settled in England.

In any event, several later gambists claimed to have studied under Saint-Colombs, among them notably Marin Marais , who paid him homage through a Tombeau included in his Pièces de viole of 1701, and Jean Rousseau, whose Traité he dedicated to Sainte-Colombe. According to Hubert Le Blanc, in his Défense de la Basse de Viole (1640), Sainte-Colombe was capable through his art of "imitating the most beautiful inflections of the voice," a supreme compliment in that era. Indeed, through ornamentation and the way musical lines are spun out, his compositions are closely related to vocal art, but he also exploits to perfection the possibilities of his instrument and draws on rich harmony.

It should be remembered 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 a lasting influence on the instrumental repertoire. But by the second half of the seventeenth century instrumental music had been emancipated from the forms of vocal music. As Père Mersenne concluded, the composer could take 'the liberty of using everything that he thought of, without uttering a single word'. A tradition of instrumental ensembles made up of amateurs or professionals sprang up, fostering a genuine instrumental repertoire which required regular meetings and rehearsals; thus academies were formed, with famous virtuosos. 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.

Along with Lully ,the great figure who dominated the century, along with lutenists harpsichordists and organists in full evolution, viol players remained the kings of an aristocratic instrument which sought out intimacy and did not arm itself for the struggle with the increasing vogue for the violin family imported fron Italy. The Sieur de Sainte-Colombe was the first of a number of French composers who brought the viol considerable prestige, the most noteworthy being Caix d’Hervelois, Forqueray and François 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 in order to perfect his playing; and since he had access to his house, he chose his moment in summer, and stole into the enclosed garden where Sainte-Colombe shut himself up in a little wooden hut that he had made on the branches of a mulberry tree, to play his viol in greater tranquility and with greater delight. Marais positioned himself under this little hut; there he would hear his master and take advantage of certain passages and of particular bowings which the masters of the art liked to keep to themselves; but this did not last long since Sainte-Colombe noticed it and took precautions against being heard any more by his pupil.' A modest man, Sainte-Colombe sought none of the official posts with which his pupil was to be rewarded. We know only that he was famous for his skill, no doubt as an amateur, in the best sense of the word, and that he organised chamber musk concerts in his private salons.

Thanks to Sainte-Colombe, the range of the viol was extended downward by the addition of a seventh string, bringing it into line with the instrumental developments of the seventeenth century, which sought strong contrasts in range and timbre and cultivated a full and rich sound.

His principle body of work consists of 67 concerts for two equal viols ( Concerts a deux violes esgales ) and they are something of a revelation: for the first time, we can hear the music behind the immense reputation of its composer, a rare example of the solo viol before Marin Marais. The single manuscript containing sixty-seven of these concert passed through the hands of various collectors without being lost or damaged and was finally discovered 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 continuously at roughly the same time or whether it is the result of a compilation stretching over several years. Sainte-Colombe did not bother to publish his music; seeking no fame he must have been devoted to his art with the spontaneity of his special genius composing for himself and his entourage, as is suggested by the titles of some of the concerts.

A Partial Sainte-Colombe Discography |  VIID: Chamber and Keyboard Music up to Rameau