Tous les matins du monde

This movie, released in 1991 in France and in 1992 in the US, is the result of a collaboration between a novelist, Pascal Quignard, a director Alain Corneau, and a musician, Jordi Savall. Corneau wanted to do a movie on music and the 17th century; he met Quignard, who had already written about the viol, and suggested that they do the story of Marin Marais (1656-1728), one of the best viol players and composers of the time, and his teacher Sainte Colombe. Quignard had discovered the music of Sainte Colombe through a recording made by Jordi Savall in 1976. Quignard wrote the book, Corneau took the book and worked with Quignard and Savall to make the movie. Savall plays the music on the soundtrack.

The subject of the movie is the life of the French viol player and composer Sainte-Colombe. What little evidence there is on his life was woven into a fictional narrative by Pascal Quignard in a novel written specifically for this project. He then adapted his own novel for the screen, in collaboration with Corneau and with advice from Savall.

The casting is as follows: Gérard Depardieu plays Marin Marais when old, Guillaume Depardieu (son of Gérard) plays Marais when young, Jean-Pierre Marielle plays Sainte-Colombe, Anne Brochet plays Madeleine, the elder daughter of Sainte-Colombe.

The title comes from a sentence in the novel: "Tous les matins du monde sont sans retour," meaning literally "all the mornings of the world [leave] without [ever] returning." It can be translated as "Each day dawns but once."

The Historical Evidence

We have only few pieces of information on Sainte-Colombe, although they are enough to place him as one of the most important figures of the French bass viol school.

Titon du Tillet's book contains a large number of anecdotes on various French musicians of the 17th and early 18th century. The text on Marin Marais begins as follows (rough translation mine):

"It can be said that Marais brought the viol to its highest point of perfection, and that he was the first to reveal its range and its beauty by the many excellent pieces he wrote for this instrument, and by the remarkable way in which he played them.

It is true that before Marais, Sainte Colombe had brought some fame to the viol; he gave concerts in his house, in which two of his daughters played, one the treble viol, the other the bass, and they formed with their father a three viol consort, which was a pleasure to listen to, even if it was made of rather ordinary symphonies and few chords.

Sainte Colombe was actually Marais' teacher; but when he realized after six months that his pupil could surpass him, he told him that he had nothing more to show him. Marais loved the viol passionately, and wanted to learn more from his master to perfect his skill on this instrument; and since he had some entry into his house, Marais took the time in summer when Sainte Colombe was in his garden, locked up in a little wooden cabin he had built between the branches of a mulberry tree, so as to play the viol without distraction and more beautifully. Marais slipped under the cabin; he could hear his master, and profit from special passages and bow movements that the masters of the art like to keep to themselves. But this did not last long, as Sainte Colombe noticed and took care not to be heard by his student. Sainte Colombe nevertheless always gave him credit for the amazing progress he made on the viol; and once, as he was attending an occasion where Marais was playing the viol, he was asked by some gentlemen what he thought of his playing, and he answered that there were pupils who could surpass their masters, but young Marais would never find anyone to surpass him."

The Book and the Movie

Quignard could not miss the reference to the daughters, and the phrase "since he had some entry into his house." The story line of the movie is imagined on the basis of these two "facts." Whether Titon du Tillet's story is itself true or just a story, we will never know. As for the wife, I don't think we have any evidence on that. One of Sainte Colombe's pieces is a Tombeau les Regrets, but it is not known for whom or why it was composed. To me, no liberties were taken with the truth because the truth is so slim: Quignard's inventions are, however, coherent both internally and with the larger historical context.

The book is very short (a 45 minute read), written in a terse and suggestive language, often reminiscent of 17th century French. The movie took a similar approach, and emphasized the same themes. Among the themes is the almost human quality of the viol, and how it can render almost any human expression. The book recalls the known fact that Marais sung as a boy in a choir, and was kicked out when his voice changed: his love of the viol is then explained as a "transfer" to a new voice. Interestingly, Jordi Savall himself took up the cello after he stopped singing in a boys choir.

Another theme is linked to the historical background: around the middle of the 17th century, a peculiar kind of Catholic movement emerged, called Jansenism (sort of crypto-calvinists, really, brooding about predestination and all that). These people, austere, metaphysical, detached from the world, rejected the unheard of extravagance and pomp of the court of Louis XIV, who in the end had most of them exiled or imprisoned. The book and the movie link Sainte Colombe to the Jansenists explicitly (although there is no historical evidence), and his black dress, his cold appearance, his hate for the world's pomp is set in contrast to young Marais' search of pleasure, fame and success. In the end, Marais is redeemed, in spite of his worldly success, by his love of the viol. The language of the book and the movie's dialog are also best understood in the context of the 17th century, which was the defining moment for French literature, when the canons of classicism (restraint, elegance, respect for rules) were set by the newly created Academie Française, writers such as Boileau, dramatists such as Corneille. This may be hard to appreciate for non-French speakers, but they may nonetheless try to listen to the clipped, luminous diction and the sparse, laconic dialog (in striking contrast to the richness and splendor of the music).

There are references to the visual arts of the 17th century, at least as much as there are to the music, literature, religion of the time (which I mentioned in my previous long post). Two stand out (for me): one reference is explicit. The painter Lubin Baugin, who appears in the movie played by one of France's best actors (Michel Bouquet), did exist (1612-1663), although he is fairly obscure. He painted sacred and mythological subjects, but there are also 4 still life paintings of his, including the one with wafers in the Louvre, which features prominently in the movie.

The other reference is not explicit: but particularly the last scene, with the two musicians in the little wooden cabin, playing by candlelight, strongly evokes the paintings of La Tour, where figures are lit by a single source of light, a small candle often in the center of the painting: there is a beautiful St.Joseph working on his carpentry, and young Jesus standing to the right, holding a candle: his hand protects the flame, so the source of light itself is invisible. (Actually, a detail of that painting is on the cover of Charpentier's leçons des ténèbres by the Concerto Vocale). The director and screenwriter admitted to going on "scouting" expeditions to see the La Tour paintings at the Louvre. There are also reminiscences of Le Nain's peasants, in the poor, quiet household scenes. Austerity (the first word uttered by Marais as he starts remembering his master) is the key word here, in the literary as well as pictorial references, the flip side of the Grand Siècle and the magnificence of Louis XIV.

The Soundtrack

The soundtrack is available on Auvidis-Valois V4640. It features mostly bass viol music, as one would expect, by Marais and by Sainte-Colombe.

One of the recurring pieces in the movie is the Tombeau les Regrets by Sainte-Colombe, mostly played by a single viol except in the last scene; it is with this music that Sainte-Colombe tries to evoke (quite literally) his dead wife. The tombeau is a peculiar French tradition of musical homage to departed friends or family: Marais wrote some for Sainte-Colombe and Lully, who both played a big role in his life.

Also featured are le Badinage from Marais' 4th book (during the budding love affair; badinage, by the way, is a word meaning idle chat, or verbal flirt: it conjures up Marivaux and Musset) and la Reveuse from the same (in Madeleine's last scene). The Folies d'Espagne from Marais' 2d book appear in the scene where Marais is tested by Sainte-Colombe.

Another piece of music used in the movie is the 3d Leçon des Ténèbres of François Couperin, sung by Montserrat Figueras and Maria-Cristina Kiehr, heard as the camera glides through the interior of the church of Saint-Étienne du Mont in Paris (the director was aware of the inaccuracy involved, since that music was composed some 50 years later, but he could not resist including it).

The piece which Marais is shown directing in a splendid setting (actually a 19th c. remake, in the offices of the Bank of France in Paris) is Lully's Marche pour la cérémonie des Turcs. It will be noted how he directs with a large staff, such as the one with which Lully hit himself in 1687 (the foot developed gangrene and Lully died as a consequence).

(This section adapted from a post by "Russ in Heidelberg").
The song Une Jeune Fillette was one of the all-time favorites of the Renaissance and early Baroque. There are a number of Reformation hymns written to this tune; Scheidt, Hassler, Vulpius, Kugelmann, etc. all used it. Frescobaldi used it under the guise of "l'Arie di Monicha" for a mass and a whole set of cembalo partitas. The accompaniement on the soundtrack is a note-for-note (or nearly so) performance of one of the Fantasie over this theme by Eustache Du Caurroy.

The tune was used to set a variety of different texts.

The Novelist

Pascal Quignard has written a number of novels, notably le Salon de Wurttemberg. He has always been fascinated by the bass viol. He discovered Sainte-Colombe's music in Savall and Koopman's 1976 recording, reissued on CD.

The novel for the movie has been published:

Quignard, Pascal
Tous les matins du monde : roman / Pascal Quingard
Paris: Gallimard, c1991
134 p. ; 21 cm

(This section from Roland Hutchinson).
It has appeared in an English translation which includes explanatory and historical footnotes that even I, a specialist in the viola da gamba of the period, found useful (The footnotes are better than the translation, IMHO. But the translation is definitely better than the subtitles of the movie!):

Quignard, Pascal
All the world's mornings / Pascal Quignard ; translated by James Kirkup.
London : Quartet Books, 1992
St. Paul, MN : Graywolf Press, 1993

The Director

To be filled in.


Two aspects of the movie have been criticized: one is the casting of Depardieu père in the role of the aging Marais. It is not a part where he moves a lot, nor can use his physical presence much. The movie opens on a close-up of his bloated face as he dozes off while hapless student is harassed over a rendition of the Sonnerie de Sainte-Geneviève. The movie is narrated with his voice-off, and he does appear briefly at the end for a last scene with Madeleine. Those hoping for the same kind of acting as in Danton or Germinal will be disappointed.

The other problem with the movie is the fact that none of the actors, except Depardieu fils, make any attempt to simulate correct bowing and fingering when they are pretending to play the viol. The younger Depardieu has some training as a cellist, so he fares better in that respect. Some gambists, and other viewers as well, found this very distracting if not annoying. This (and a few other small details) was taken as a sign of sloppy movie-making, all the more jarring from a director obviously careful and thorough.

Those points are well-taken. Personally, I was not bothered by the fingering too much, even on a second viewing, when I paid specific attention to it. Perhaps the music in the movie is more than the product of actors' gestures, more than accompaniment. I noted that there weren't a lot of scenes where the fingers could be seen, and often the music is heard even as the scene changes and no one is seen playing the viol anymore. It is as though the music takes on a life of its own in the movie, and I took it as such, somewhat detached from the actual movements of the fingers.


The success of the movie was phenomenal. In France, 2 million tickets were sold in the first year. The movie was distributed in 31 countries at least. The soundtrack went platinum (over 500,000 copies): it put the bass viol on the map, and made Savall an international star.

The movie is available in video (ask for it by its English name All the Mornings of the World).

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François Velde