Tous les matins du monde le Roi danse. Music in the Sun king’s era through French films.

Now, we have this man. And the man is a king, mind you. A great king. One who, allegedly, dared to say that He was the State. And, by the way, there is this tale of this man not really being the king, but a twin, or a lookalike, the real king being imprisoned behind an iron mask…well, that is literature after all. We, here, discuss History, it seems. And History is all about facts, isn’t it?

Well…facts are good for your health and all that. But sometimes you need to fantasize, adorn or simply fill the gaps between fact and fact. That is what dangerous people such as writers, playwrights and filmmakers do when historical fact is not what they need (or just not enough) to tell a story. And sometimes we can take advantage of such mischief to try to understand the facts.

So… we have this king. The king had a Kingdom he was supposed to rule, yet he also liked to dance. That, the way in which dancing can help ruling a kingdom, is part of the story that Gérard Corbiau, the French director, brought to life back in 2000 through his film “Le Roi danse”. Almost a decade before, another Frenchman, Alain Corneau, had tried to show us the meaning of music in the same age in the Cesar Award winning film “Tous les matins du monde” which spoke not about the king himself, or politics, but about music outside his court’s gilded cage, and the ambitions of those who wanted to be inside that cage.

Corbiau’s film, probably the lesser from the strictly artistic point of view, offers more to the connoisseur in the field of History (or, at least, historical based fiction). It is not about the Sun King himself, but about the musician who dominated great part of his reign, Jean Baptiste Lully, and his relations with both the king and other XVII century rock star, playwright Moliére. And in it we can find one powerful statement (apocryphal, unfortunately)from the king which could help us understand both his way of practicing politics and the importance of music and, significantly, dance during his lasting reign. Arguing with Lully, his Chief Musician, about the former role in his court (and Lully’s sexual preferences…but that is another story) the Sun King says that music has a part in the new order he is trying to instate, because it is the incarnation of universal harmony. “It is useful to me” says the king. “It is useful to the State” (which was more or less the same)…”and to God” (hence the argument about Lully’s tastes that were giving trouble to the king with the religious party in the Court). The aim is that France, who Louis XIV envisioned as the supreme power in Europe, had to have the best music in the continent…and obviously the most respectable. And Lully was very good at complying with the first, then not really as good with the second.

“Le Roi danse” depicts a dancing king, always keen on getting into the stage and show his prowess to the Court while, at the same time, sending powerful political messages through the choreography, music and wording. Even the wardrobe was designed to fulfill a purpose, usually to show the king’s magnificence. Louis was an absolutist ruler and so his ruling must be exerted in absolutely every possible way, music inclusive. During his reign, French music rose to the height of the European stage, fighting the Italian influence with purely (or so perceived) French traits: the prominence of dance and ballet, and above all, a rival for the Italian opera. First, in a joint.venture between the two artistic geniuses available, Lully and Moliére who together created the new genre: “la comédie ballet”, this being a development from the classic “ballet de court”, the cornerstone of French music up to that moment. Lully’s compositions were impaired to Moliére’s words, always humoristic and quite often satirical, in which some of the political views of the king were interspersed in a sometimes not-so-subtle way. Later on, Lully would eventually follow with his own evolution to Opera, the “tragédie lyrique” based upon the works of some of the best playwrights in France, next to Moliére himself, as Racine and Corneille.

Interestingly enough, given the known facts, the film suggests a break up between the partners prior to Lully’s success with the new tragédies. He is depicted at this point in his life as a paranoid who wants the king’s attention just for his music alone, and distrusts Moliére. Also despising his deteriorating health, Lully plots with the king to get rid of his friend accusing the playwright of being sick…which in fact, Moliére was. He coughed, he spat…not the powerful man he once was, not the image France wanted at the time. And, yes, Moliére was put aside by the king.

Probably my favorite scene in the film is that in which Moliére dies on the stage during a performance of  his counterattack on Lully: “Le Malade imaginaire”; he played an hypochondriac but, unlucky man, he was really sick. He had a bout of hemoptysis on stage during the fourth night of his last play, dying a little later, at home. That’s a fact…yet the way it is shown in the film gives the distorted fact a new strength. The forceful performance by Tcheky Karyo gives the whole scene an unforgettable scent of pathos.

So exits the scene Moliére, so the success will go finally, and entirely, to Lully. Master of the Court’s music, his Tragédies were all the rage, and he kept on composing music for his Master, the Sun King, trying to provide an ever-increasing brilliance to his reign. He died, and so begins the film, almost absurdly: he injured his own foot with his conducting staff, then refused to have the leg amputated on the grounds that a dancer’s leg couldn’t be amputated. Gangrene took its toll, finally, at a time when his star was in decline and the religious party was, again, on the rise at Court. Just a year before, Louis have made a point of not inviting his old crony to perform at Versailles; yet Lully’s injury came while he was conducting a Te Deum on the occasion of celebrating the king’s recovery from surgery: the loyal courtier to the bitter end.

In fact he was so loyal not only to the king but to the State (in case the latter was not in fact the former…or vice versa) that he fought his own kind all along his life: being an Italian (Giovanni Battista Lulli was his real name) he behave like a French, pushing forward his adoptive nation’s political goals by his own means and helping to create a truly French music, different and almost opposite to the Italian dominant trend, especially in the Opera field, where his innovations in text composition, massive ballets and combination of arias and recitatives, giving less importance to singing and more to acting and dancing, departed far away from the until then successful tendencies.

As good as “Le Roi danse” depicts music at Court, “Tous les matins du monde” does the same with the music outside it. But, surprisingly, and somewhat fittingly, it begins with the same approach: and old courtier and favoured musician is getting to the end of his life, and he remembers his past life in a long flashback which comprises almost the entire length of the film. The exact same technique (perhaps not coincidentally) in both films. But in this case, the musician was a local kid, the viola da gamba virtuoso Marin Marais.

What surprised me most of “Tous les matins…” was the silence. In a film almost two hours long, dialogues are few, short and often brisk (even brusque, especially on the part of Monsieur de Sainte Colombe), with music and silence filling the void. Even Marin Marais proposes a couple of times to his Master that the essence of music could be silence, to the amusement (or disgust, it is difficult to tell from the restraint interpretation given by Jean-Pierre Marielle) of the latter.

Story make short, a great musician (Sainte Colombe) embittered by his wife’s death secluded himself in his country house where he plays and composes in solitude. In time, he teaches the Viola da gamba to his two daughters and have some gigs, thus attracting the Court’s attention. Summoned by the King (so interested in music as we’ve seen) he refuses to attend the Court but a young virtuoso is instead sent from there to learn from him. This ends in disaster, because Sainte Colombe is not a patient teacher and Marais a tad too much haughty to be a good pupil.

Love (or lust) interferes when Marais and Sainte Colombe’s oldest daughter begin a relation. She helps him secretly spying on his father while he is playing but, more at ease at the Court, Marais soon grows tired of her, and leaves. She will get ill while her father, relentlessly, pursues his music (and, by the way, his wife’s ghost whom he could see sometimes when playing) and Marais becomes an applauded and rich Court musician. After her dead, Marais finally gets in touch, on cold night, with his old Master, and learns what has to be learned…

Quite apart from “Le roi danse”, no Court life in here. No fight for power. The story is told by Marais, now and old man and teacher himself, as an example for his pupils. Is all about music and what lies in it, and nothing about Court’s music and what lies inside Versailles, yet it tells us interesting things about music in that age… and is relations with Power. Marais is all Court: haughty mannered, ambitious, cold-hearted. He is a viola da gamba virtuoso and yet Sainte Colombe will not teach him because he cannot feel music in his pupil, just technique without feeling. At Court, technique was far more important, as claiming to be a virtuoso could put you in the King’s (and he being the Sun king, being the focus could be as dangerous as rewarding), and ambition and refined manners and a high self-regard were paramount to get to the top: we’ve already seen how Lully betrayed Moliére. Top of the list there was very limited space. He will get whatever he can from Sainte Colombe (daughter inclusive) just because it is an instrument to his ascension in the Royal favour.

On the contrary, Sainte Colombe represents a musician who is no friend of the crowned paraphernalia. He lives for his music and his memories, and doesn’t want to be part of Louis power politics. He is solicited by the king because he is a virtuoso; furthermore, he is also an innovator who has added an extra string to his instruments to reach the whole spectrum of Human voice and whose compositions were highly regarded. This, obviously, fitted perfectly in Louis intentions on putting French music at the head of European arts, as part of his pretension to political hegemony. But when the harsh player rejects all summons, the King just let him go, with grace. He couldn’t afford to lose an argument with a subject, but probably also thought that paying that much attention to a commoner could be, in fact, a sign of weakness on his part. So allegedly amused by Sainte Colombe’s resistance he drops his summons…only to, this is just a suggestion, plot with his courtiers to get Marais taught. He was, after all, a young and very promising musician himself, the son of a humble cobbler, who surely will abide to his King’s will in his own benefit.

If ever was a plot, it worked. Sainte Colombe’s music wasn’t lost and Marais became, on time, ordinaire de la chambre du roi pour la viole, position he will kept for forty-six years, learning also from Lully and attempting even some operas, although he is best known for his viola da gamba works. Meanwhile, Monsieur de Sainte Colombe fought his ghosts far from the Court’s glitter, trying to find a sense in a life that was meaningless for him after his loss but for what he could get off the music. Not interested in power, money or position he just played. HIs work, nonetheless, became a piece in Louis schemes both by his lasting impression in Marais’ own works, and the innovations he brought, both technical and in composition, to his field of expertise; the glory of his music was, after all, the glory of France and its Sun king.

The title of the film (which is based upon a novel written by Pascal Quignard, who also wrote the adaptation for the screen) “Tous les matins du monde”, “all the mornings in the world”, comes from something Quignard makes Marais to say both in the novel and the film. Tous les matins du monde sont sans retour: all the mornings in the world never return. At the end, Marin Marais came to understand this, as he finishes his story and sees his old teacher’s ghost, proud at last, asking him to play the song he wrote for Madeleine, daughter and lover respectively. When everything is gone, music still remains. Thus happens to Louis XIV in the long run, today well-known as Versailles builder, even though that honour should bestowed on Le Vau, and d’Orbay as architects, Le Brun as designer and Le Nôtre as landscape designer. HIs political work faded as France went to turmoil and the absolute power he built, with the help of Lully, Moliére, Sainte Colombe, Marais and the like, turned into liberté, egalité, fraternité amidst much bloodshed. The music his musicians made for him, to make shine his France and himself, is still there, moving, alive, inspiring. The morning of French glory is never to returned, as it happens to all the rest. Its music, however, never fully went away, and it is always around us, waiting for someone to hear and get in touch, just as Sainte Colombe’s wife.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

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