Voices from the 18th Century: Marin Marais and ‘A Description of the Removal of a Stone’



Apparently, salted meat was to blame for gallstones suffered by the nobility in early 18th-century France. The situation was bad enough that it required a surgical procedure. And if you think surgery is painful and dangerous today, back then there was no anesthesia to help out.

Marin Marais included a kind of ode to the gallbladder operation in his fifth book of pieces for the viola da gamba (1725). Entitled Le tableau de l’opération de la taille (“A Description of the Removal of a Stone”), the single-movement work includes brief blow by blow descriptions in the score, giving a detailed (and cringe-inducing) account of what must have been a terrifying procedure.

The appearance of the apparatus.
Shuddering at the sight of it.
Resolving to climb onto it.
Achieving this.
Descending again.
Solemn thoughts.
Securing the arms and legs with silken cords.
Now the incision is made.
The pincers are inserted.
Now the stone is pulled out.
Now the voice dies away to a croak.
Flowing blood.
Now the cords are removed.
Now one is carried to bed.

The recovery.

(Translation: © 1983 Decca)

Pictured above is William Cheselden (1688-1752),  pioneer of the lateral lithotomy. Marais’ piece begins with a mention of the ‘apparatus’ which is known today as the lithotomy surgical table (not unlike the table with stirrups used in childbirth). However, Cheselden did not perform his first gallbladder operation until a few years after Marais published his composition.

The famous individual in France known for the procedure was Frère Jacques Beaulieu (1651–1720), of alleged Frère Jacques nursery rhyme fame.

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  • John Griffiths57

    Please note that the operation was for removal of a bladder stone, not as stated above,a gallsone