Marin Marais: Le Labyrinthe (the Labyrinth); Cassandra Luckhardt – Elisabeth Reed – Katherine Heater

Marin Marais: Le Labyrinthe (the Labyrinth), from Book IV, published in Paris, 1717. Cassandra Luckhardt, viola da gamba, with Elisabeth Reed, viola da gamba, and Katherine Heater, harpsichord.
In the first half of the 18th century, the French player-composers dazzled audiences with their varied and beautifully crafted compositions as well as their technical abilities.
In 1717, Marin Marais published his fourth book: a monumental and diverse collection of music for the viola da gamba. One of best known of the suites in this book is the “Suite d’un Goût Etranger” (Suite in an unusual style) which contains a dizzying array of character pieces, reminiscent of a “cabinet of curiosities” in literature and art, such as the Cabinet Bonnier de la Mosson, hidden within the architectural maze of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.
The centerpiece of this “curious” suite is a daring and virtuosic composition entitled “The Labyrinth.” Labyrinths were well-known throughout Europe since the middle ages, and between 1672 and 1677, Louis XIV commissioned a spectacular labyrinth at Versailles, consisting of 39 stations based on Aesop’s fables, and 333 sculptures, accompanied by a beautifully engraved guide book (source: the 1679 edition of Perrault’s Labyrinte de Versailles, and Wikipedia). As each station was based on a particular story, the Labyrinth by design incorporated a narrative program. Marias was a pioneer in “program music,” and for his musical maze, Marais creates a brilliant and evocative set of programmatic scenes, and although the program is not accompanied by a description, as in his “Tableau de l’Opération de la Taille” (the operation for the removal of the bladder stone), the basic program is clear enough: a person is trapped in a maze, and as the person explores the maze, the frustration and confusion of the avenues that are closed off are represented by increasing dissonance and harmonic complexity; whereas, a new path is set forth by an ever-changing ritornello. The final escape from the maze takes the form of a harmonically stable and free-spirited chaconne. The work begins in A Major, and, as the journey progresses, the maze explores the remote keys of F Sharp Minor, C Sharp Major, D Sharp Major, C Minor, and F Major, before using the relative minor, D minor, as an easily accessible pivot point to return to the beginning key of A.
Although the work is frequently described as a rondeau, the composition incorporates a few innovative features: the rondeau is not simply repeated, but musically transformed in order to more properly represent a new path: each return to the original theme starts out with the same hopeful affect, but in a different key, summing the experiences of the previous failures in order to eventually solve the puzzle. In this respect, Marias borrows from the previously well-established Italianate principles of ritornello fragmentation and development, but Marais reinvents these techniques to suit the French style. Three-quarters of the way through, at 8:03 in the video, we are presented with a remarkable, musicological “Aha!” moment—the solo viol plays a searching soliloquy, as if suddenly realizing the secret way out of the maze, then kicks up his or her heels through the concluding chaconne, possibly encountering a topiary or two along the way. Marais can thus be tentatively credited with the first instrumental “aha! moment” in the history of music.
In composing the Labyrinth, Marais would of course have been familiar with the most famous example, the story of Ariadne, particularly since he had presented his opera (or tragédie en musique) “Ariane et Bacchus” at the Académie Royale de Musique in 1696, and the labyrinth at Versailles was the talk of the town. Although there are a few examples of labyrinth pieces prior to 1717, particularly in German sources, Marais likely developed the concept on his own: with its innovative and original program, its unusual modulations, its fiery technical challenges and brilliant chaconne—a chaconne which could stand alone as a remarkable work— “Le Labyrinthe” is unique in the repertory for solo instruments in the baroque.
Perrault’s original guide book may be viewed online here:…
And the original prints of Marias’ works for viola da gamba are available on IMSLP:…
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