I have on occasion spoken disparagingly of the quality of classical music in Paris, but last night Susie and I went to a simply lovely concert that forces me to withdraw my disapproval. An organization of early music ensembles formed by young students and graduates of music schools in France has been putting on something called Festival Marin-Marais after the great seventeenth century viole player who was played by Gérard Depardieu in the beautiful film about Sainte-Colombe, Tous les Matins du Monde. [In the film, Depardieu’s son plays Marin Marais as a young man.] The festival consists of eighteen concerts, between September and November. We went to the Temple du Foyer de l’Ȃme on the curiously named rue du Pasteur-Wagner just north of Place de la Bastille. The concert, devoted to music of the seventeenth century, combined the efforts of two groups: Atys, six young women, three of whom play baroque violins and three of whom play violas da gamba, and Quadrivium Consort, five young men who play natural trumpets [no valves or keys] and a variety of oddly shaped cornets. The concert featured music by several composers of whom I had never heard, such as Johann Vierdanck and Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky. It was a delight. Early music is alive and well in Paris.
To get into the concert, I had not only to pay for tickets [dirt cheap – ten Euros each] but also fill out a form which asked, among other things, what instrument I play! This got me two cards, with our names on them, which apparently will gain us entrance to the remaining concerts. I was so delighted that as we left I dropped a fifty Euro bill in the collection basket.
Because we got there early, we were able to sit in the front row, and once again I observed something I have noticed before. What follows is a bit of inside baseball, so those not enamored of early music can surf on over to the Huffington Post. Baroque violins [and violas] differ from modern instruments in three notable respects. They use gut strings, not metal strings; they use bows differently constructed; and they do not have chin rests. The consequence of the first two differences is that they make a softer, less brilliant sound. The absence of the chin rest makes it harder to play in the higher positions. [In first position, the player makes use of the open strings and supports the instrument with the thumb under its neck. To shift to higher positions, you must move the left hand up the neck, until finally, in the very highest positions, it looks as though the performer is trying to stick her finger in her right ear. The chin rest is designed to allow the performer to clamp the violin between the chin and the shoulder and hold it so that the left hand is free to move up and down between positions.] I watched the three women playing baroque violins, and I think I am correct that not once did they ever have to play in anything but the first position, even though the music they were playing was on occasion quite complex. I came away thinking that with a little practice I could play that music.