2007   APRIL 7   #097

Norgine Ltd present "Tableau Of A Lithotomy" by Marin Marais

1. Tableau Of A Lithotomy (3:25)
2. A Representatives Visit (5:55)

I discovered this gatefold sleeve single in a charity shop (thrift store) some years ago. It was the cover illustration that caught my eye. You don't often see surgical instruments on a record sleeve!

The record was made by Livingstone Recordings on behalf of pharmaceutical company Norgine to push their decidedly unglamorous purgative products. The inside and back of the sleeve shows these digestive enzymes and bulk laxatives in all their vivid colours. But the real fun starts when you play the disc.

One side features 'A Representatives Visit,' a reinaction of a Norgine salesman selling Normacol "the easy to use bulk laxative" to an ironically tight-arsed sounding GP. It's uncomfortable to hear them discussing constipation, bulky mass and spastic colons. But flip it over and you're in for a real treat. Here you can witness the first ever recording of the tortuous "Tableau Of A Lithotomy - a musical description of a bladder operation", which will have a similar effect on your mouth as Normacol will have on your bowels!

This would-be gallstone gavotte was written by 17th century French composer Marin Marais to demonstrate the versatility of the Viola de gamba, a curious seven-stringed precursor to the ‘cello (imagine a baroque equivalent of the fuzz bass). The suitably haunting string sound could be likened to a dodgy out-take from an early ELO album or perhaps a rehearsal of Ron Geesin’s "Music From The Body", but in reality is much weirder.

But, strange as it was, it offered no suggestion of an actual operation taking place, so a voice-over was added, and this gives the record much of its appeal. In a deliciously over-the-top "voice of doom" style, a ham American actor (not unlike Leonard Nimmoy) describes the operation using cod olde English language, which has to be heard to be believed. "The patient mounts the scaffold and is boundeth with cords of silk" he proclaims as the Viola de gamba player goes bonkers, but it all slows down when we learn "the surgeon makes his incision...blood floweth...one’s voice faileth..."

As a softening-up tool to sell laxatives this unhappy scenario hardly helps the medicine go down (as it were), and surely anything manufactured by Norgine would be rendered unnecessary anyway after hearing it. Listen and see what you think!

The sleeve text reveals:

'Some 250 years ago a French composer, Marin Marais, wrote - to the best of our knowledge - the only musical description of a surgical operation. He called it "Le tableau de l'operation de la taille" or "Tableau of a Lithotomy". This most unusual offering was taken from an old edition of the Library of the Conservatory of Music in Paris. It is the first modern performance and the first recording.

The verbal commentary which you will hear with the music, announcing the phases of the operation as it progresses, consists of the composer's original annotations.

Marin Morais (1656-1728) - the greatest player of the viola de gamba of his time - was a pupil of Lulli and a soloist in the Royal Chamber Ochestra at the time of Louis XIV. He wrote profusely and brilliantly for the viola de gamba, but his compositions for this 7-stringed instrument are in such complicated polyphonic style that they defy transcription for the 4-stringed violin-cello and today, unfortunately all but forgotten.

Our recording was made by the famous Dutch viola de gamba player Carel Boomkamp, accompanied by the French harpsichordist, Denyse Gouarne.'

- Contributed by: David Noades

Images: Front Cover, Back Cover, Label (courtesy of Fraser Berry)

Media: 7"
Album: Tableau Of A Lithotomy
Label: Norgine
Catalog: NL 4681/2
Date: 1960s