Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe: Recueil de pièces pour basse de viole seule from the Manuscrit de Tournus, ca. 1690


  • Artist(s): Silvia De Rosso
  • Composer(s): Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe
  • EAN Code: 7.46160915982
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Instrumental
  • Instrumentation: Viola da Gamba
  • Period: Baroque
  • Publication year: 2023
SKU: C00762 Category:

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The successful film Tous les matins du monde had the undisputed merit of bringing the world’s attention to the figure of Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe and to the viola da gamba in general, since Sainte-Colombe provided substantial contributions to the repertoire of this instrument. Still, the film’s plot was explicitly (and fully legitimately) grounded on a fictional work, a novel telling the history of Sainte-Colombe with references to what was, by then, known about him. Fortunately, a virtuous circle was ignited by the film, prompting new and meticulous research on his figure and effectively bringing to light some hard facts about his life.
Indeed, the last sentence may be an overstatement, since the painstaking research undertaken by Jonathan Dunford and others suggests some very likely hypotheses and discards some previously believed myths about Sainte-Colombe’s identity, but no undisputable evidence has resurfaced allowing us to establish with absolute certainty the milestones of his biography.
Still, Dunford’s tentative narrative seems rather convincing, and, with the proviso that it does not advance any claims to the status of established fact, it can be fruitfully recalled.
Firstly, an error must be dispelled: due to a reading error, combined with a hasty identification, information can frequently be found according to which Sainte-Colombe’s true name would be Augustin D’Autrecourt. For one thing, the correct spelling (according to a careful reading of the manuscript whence this information is drawn) should be Dandricourt; and, secondly, research on Dandricourt’s life and status seem to rule out the possibility of him and Sainte-Colombe being the same person.
A more likely possibility is that pointed out by Dunford himself, who combed the French National Archives finding evidence about a “Jean de Sainte-Colombe bourgeois de Paris”, who was in good relationships with a renowned organist, by the name of Nicolas Caron.
Furthermore, this Sainte-Colombe had two daughters – just as was stated about Sainte-Colombe the musician in other sources, mentioning the fact that they played the viol with them. They made up, together, a consort of three viols, as maintained by Evrard Titon du Tillet in his Parnasse François (1732). It is also worth mentioning that the Sainte-Colombe family used to live in the very same streets where also Marin Marais resided, and a few steps from the residence of another famous violist, Du Buisson.
Whilst these elements, taken together, would seem enough to make a proof, there is a piece of evidence to the contrary, which should give us pause: namely, that in none of the sources is Sainte-Colombe cited as a musician, but only as a “bourgeois from Paris”. Surely, if he was the famous violist, that should have been mentioned? There may be an explanation for this reticence, however. It seems that Sainte-Colombe belonged in the Protestant branch of the Sainte-Colombe family (originally from the Béarn region); at a time when Protestantism was much frowned upon in the French society, it is more than likely that Sainte-Colombe wished to keep a low profile. Other elements concurring in establishing some likely facts about his life include some mentions about a son, probably illegitimate, known as “Sainte-Colombe le fils”, and the dating of the Tombeau de Sainte-Colombe, a posthumous homage to the violist written by Marin Marais, which allows us to establish a likely date for the musician’s death between 1686 and 1700.
All of these elements, clearly, need further research and corroboration; however, they make up a jigsaw puzzle which seems to reveal, among the lines, the true face of the mysterious Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.

Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe remains an enigmatic figure in the history of the viola da gamba. He is best known for his “Concerts à deux violes esgales,” the first of his works to have been rediscovered in 1973. However, he was also the most prolific composer for solo viola da gamba, with over 200 solo pieces collected in various volumes, in addition to the 67 Concerts à deux violes esgales.

Although not all pieces are preserved in autograph manuscripts, they can be easily attributed to the same composer due to consistent classification by modes and keys (D, G, C) and specific technical and stylistic characteristics. Some pieces even appear identically in multiple manuscripts.

Among his most notable students were Marin Marais, Nicholas Hotman, and Jean Rousseau. The latter dedicated his “Traité de la viole” to Sainte-Colombe, crediting him with adding a seventh string to the viola da gamba and introducing the use of wound strings. While these claims are not absolutely certain, there is ample musical evidence supporting the use of the seventh string in French music from the second half of the 17th century onwards. This addition further enriched the viola da gamba’s low harmonics, giving it a more nuanced and melancholic timbre compared to the six-string version.

The Tournus Manuscript (“Recueil de pièces pour basse de viole seule,” circa 1690, manuscript M.3 from the Tournus Municipal Library) inspired the programme on this CD and was discovered in 1992 by the librarian of the Tournus Municipal Library. The same year, Alain Corneau’s film “Tous les matins du monde” was released, telling a fictionalized account of Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe’s life. Louis Bertholon, then deputy mayor and musician, noticed similarities between the film’s music and the pieces contained in the discovered volume. Specialized musicologists were consulted to compare the writing, and the non-autograph work was attributed to Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. The city of Tournus and the General Council of Saône-et-Loire subsequently published a facsimile edition (Minkoff Publisher) to provide access to these pages for viola da gamba players and Baroque music enthusiasts.

This collection comprises a significant number (153) of suite movements, including preludes, allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, petite pièces, chaconnes, ballets, and gigues, with some featuring their respective doubles (varied versions of the same piece). Although the pieces are divided by key (D minor, D major, G major, G minor, and C major), they are arranged randomly and were likely intended to form a sort of notebook or archive for reference rather than specifically designed suites for performance.

Significant emphasis is placed on D minor, the key in which 97 of the 153 pieces are composed, a choice I have deliberately maintained throughout this CD. In spite of tonal homogeneity, in my opinion Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe succeeds in eschewing the need for further variety of sound. In turn, I attempted to find a sequence of pieces so as to create a unified, grand narrative.

The prelude is the most frequently encountered movement within the collection, allowing the composer to unleash his creativity and delve into even the most remote concerns. In the manuscript’s first part, there are two types of preludes: one with a regular, measured form, primarily built on arpeggio sequences, and the other with an unmeasured form, with plenty of irregular runs and groups. Unpredictable phrases lead to exploring the full range of the instrument, focusing on deep, resonant sounds rather than high-pitched tones, stirring profound emotions.

Allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, and gigues adhere to the typical dance structures of the period, while petite pièces and gavottes are notably short, as if capturing a fleeting thought on paper. Ballets come in two forms: one very brief, similar to petite pièces, and the other longer, akin to measured preludes. In the chaconne, the composer brings together all the details characterising the dances just described, creating a bass ostinato which cannot but move the listener.

The seventh string is used frequently in most pieces, not only for rhythmic purposes or for highlighting cadences but also melodically, sometimes darkening passages previously heard in a higher register or continuing a conversation that, starting with exclamatory episodes, suddenly envelops itself in intimate and reflective thought, or vice versa.

The complexity of these nuances often makes this music initially challenging to read and analyse. Many pieces feature irregular notation (sometimes with extra or missing notes) and lack indications of bowing or phrasing (at least in the pieces contained on this CD), making the music, particularly the preludes, resemble a puzzle: offering multiple interpretations depending on the performer’s feelings in the moment. Ongoing research and study of the music increase the mystery surrounding this composer while also igniting the desire to shed light on these pages, which have been almost entirely forgotten for centuries.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023


Silvia De Rosso is an Italian violist. She studied with Roberto Gini at the Conservatory of Music in Parma and graduated with honors in 2015.
She participated in master classes given by Alfredo Bernardini, Christophe Coin, Roy Goodman, Bettina Hoffmann, Monica Hugget, Ton Koopman and Matteo Cicchitti.
In 2014, she ranked third in the "Premio Fatima" of Vicenza and was mentioned for the MA Festival of Bruges.
She is interested in Baroque singing and follows courses and master classes with Lia Serafini and Patrizia Vaccari.
After careful historical, philological and technical researches, she made a copy of the Ciciliano bass viol model (the one which is preserved at the Muziekinstrumentenmuseum of Brussels) under the supervision of the luthier Riccardo Favero and a copy of a fourteenth century fiddle under the supervision of the luthier Fabrizio Lepri.
She plays in important baroque music festivals in Italy and in Europe like: York Early Music Festival, Imago Sloveniae, Festival de Música de Compostela e os seus Camiños, Festival Stare Glasbe Early Music Festival Brezice, Festival of Ancient Music in Warsaw, Grandezze & Meraviglie di Modena, Ravenna Festival and many others collaboration with many ensembles and orchestras.
Extremely flexible, she plays with all kinds of viols: bass, tenor, sopran, fiddle and also violone and baroque doublebass.
With Musica & Drama ensemble, D.S.G. ensemble and the Orchestra of Cappella Musicale Arcivescovile of the St. Petronio Basilica in Bologna she participated in the recording of “Messa a 12 G. A. Perti in S. Petronio” (Dynamic). She was part of the Ensemble Modo Antiquo for the “Frescobaldi Madrigals Book 1 vol. 6” recording (Brilliant Classics: Frescobaldi Edition) and playing in the San Pietro Ensemble she took part in the recording of “Sacred Liturgy in Bologna” (Urania Records).
She taught viol at the Renaissance Music Course in the Conservatory of Ferrara and in 2014.
At the present, she teaches viol at the historical “Scuola Musicale of Milano” (Italy), in which she deals with the design of personalized paths for the improvement of professional and amateur musicians and she directs “ArcoVerso Ensemble”, a consort of viols composed by her students.