Some Variations on a Musical Theme

Ever since I first watched it as a teenager, I’ve been a huge fan of Tous les Matins du Monde.  The 1991 film is a dramatisation of the relationship between the French baroque composer Marin Marias (played by the late Guillaume Depardieu and in some scenes by his father Gerard) and his teacher the mysterious Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle).   

The plot of the film is framed with a lot of sadness.  Sainte Colombe, the master, is sad due to the loss of his wife; Marais is sad because his voice is breaking and he can no longer sing in a boys’ choir.  Marais pesters Sainte-Colombe for viol lessons and the latter capitulates only because he is touched by Marais’s sadness.  But Marais is a brat and disrespects Sainte-Columbe’s philosophy (and daughters) and makes him angry and sad.  But ultimately Marais is sad as a result of his shallowness and misdeeds.  And that’s pretty much it!!   

I would forgive anyone who has seen this film and thought it morose, depressing, and short on dialioge.  Indeed it is all of the above!  But I like to get past that and enjoy the music, and I find that taking some time to consider and appreciate the soundtrack brings one back into the film’s compelling story, whose central character is surely the music itself.   

Or perhaps the music forms two characters: one paralleling the sad, regretful and puritalical Sainte-Colombe (this character dominates), and the other the amitious future court composer Marais.  Very little is known of the real Sainte-Colombe and this adds intrigue to the experience of seeing him re-enacted as the reluctant teacher and widower.   

One of the most popular scenes from the film, however, includes music composed by neither Marais nor Sainte-Colombe.  The young upstart Marais visits Sainte-Colombe to audition to be his student and is asked to improvise on Folies d’Espagne (The Follies of Spain), and the hauntingly beautiful result is as follows.   

Here Depardieu is miming over the great contemporary Catalan viol player Jordi Savall, whose adaptation and performance of much of the music for the film are highlights.  I’ve always enjoyed this scene and the piece is variously called La Folia/Follia, Les Folies, or Folies d’Espagne.   

One of the oldest known European musical themes, Follies‘ composer is not known and it is thought to originate from Iberia in the late 15th century.  More than 150 composers have incorporated it into their music in some way or other, but many baroque composers have focused on composing variations of the theme itself rather than simply incorporating it into something else.   

Sound good?  Here’s a version of the theme arranged by Marin Marais’s other teacher (not dealt with in the film), the also-great, Florenese baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully.   

This version is fairly conservative, but it’s relative simplicity leaves the theme free to be enjoyed on its own terms.  For something quite different, have a listen to Antonio Vivaldi‘s later, punchier, and considerably more expressive variation.   

There are plenty of other versions available to listen to on youtube, but I shouldn’t push it.  If you’ve been so kind as to listen to the three posted here, I suspected you’ve had enough of it by now!   

Tous les Matins du Monde won seven César awards in 1992 including Best Music Written for a Film for Jordi Savall’s arrangements and was nominated for a Golden Globe the folllowing year.  Tragically, Guillaume Depardieu died of pneumonia in October 2008 aged 37.

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