Jean – Marie Leclair (1697 – 1764)

Until a relatively recent date musicologists and historians weighed the merits of the composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries against Bach, singling out for praise those qualities that most reminded them of the science – and the genius – of the Cantor of Leipzig. Now, however, that the works of these lesser masters have been firmly placed within the esthetic and historical context of their age, we can more clearly appreciate that which is peculiar to them and judge them on their own terms. Though Jean – Marie Leclair has not always been able to escape the inevitable comparisons with Bach, the sophistication of his musical language, the lushness of his harmonies and the richness of his orchestral writing are today esteemed for their own dominant figures of eighteenth century French music.

The son of a skilled haberdasher and amateur musician, Leclair was born in Lyon on May 10, 1697, one of six siblings, five of whom were also to become musicians. He is often called “the elder” to distinguish him from a younger brother also known as Jean – Marie who enjoyed a musical career in their native city. Nothing is known of his early masters though we do know that for a decade Leclair performed both as a dancer and a violinist. His stage debut most certainly took place early in life, for at age nineteen he wedded a ballerina of the Lyon Opera, Marie – Rose Casthanie. Soon thereafter we find the man who was to become the most travelled French musician of his day in Rouen; in 1722 he joined the Teatro Regio of Turin as premier danseur and ballet master. For all of his responsibilities he found time to compose three intermezzi for Semiramide, an opera by Giuseppe Maria Orlandini.

Leclair came to Paris in the fall of 1723, There, after having obtained the necessary permissions, he published his First Book of Sonatas for Violin with Basso Continuo dedicated to Monsieur Bonnier, Treasurer-General of the Etats de Languedoc. Bonnier, a wealthy financier, was to be his first protector, while his son quickly became Leclair’s prize pupil. The following year he returned to Turin where he took a position as “premier danseur” at the Teatro Regio. It was there that he made the acquaintance of Joachim Quantz and studied violin technique under Giovanni Battista Somis, a student of Corelli, an encounter which was to launch his career as a violinist. According to his first biographer, “noticing his uncommon aptitude for the violin, at which he was already proficient, (Somis) gave him to understand that the violin would probably carry him further than would the dance.” Leclair soon returned to Paris where Bonnier-fils, who styled himself Bonnier de la Mosson, had succeeded his farther. In 1728, Leclair paid him tribute with his Second Book of Sonatas for Violin and/or Traverse Flute.

In France the violin fell well short of the prominence it enjoyed in the hands of the great Italian composers and virtuosi. Although it had become well established in orchestras as early as the middle of the previous century the instrument had virtually no following in the chamber repertoire. Under the impetus of the Italian style, violin technique had only recently begun to develop through the efforts of Louis Francoeur and Jean – Baptiste Senaille. But Leclair’s first two books stood out both for their originality and their difficulty of execution, as the musical public were quick to recognise. On publication in 1734 of the Third Book of Sonatas for Violin, dedicated to the King, Sere de Rieux was to write : “Leclair is the first composer who, imitating nothing, has created something fine and new, something that is distinctively his own.”

After a stay in Cassel where. For the first time, he met Pietro Antonio Locatelli, himself a pupil of Corelli and a great violinist in his own right, Leclair – whose wife had died several years earlier – married Louise Roussel in September, 1730, Mme Roussel was the engraver (engraving was then a skilled trade highly prized by woen) of his Second Book and would later go on to engrave all of his works, even after their separation; their daughter, also named Louise, continued in her mother‘s footsteps. Among those who witnessed their marriage we find the names of the Bonnier family, Jean – Baptiste Forqueray and Andre Cheron. Cheron was a composer and theoretician who gave Leclair instruction in counterpoint; it was to him that our violinist dedicated his first collection of concerti.

Leclair pursued a virtuoso career both at home and abroad. From 1728 on he had become a regular performer at the “Concert Spirituel”, France’s first public concert venue, where the precision and refinement of his playing won him an enthusiastic following. In 1734 he was appointed Premier Symphoniste du Roy; in gratitude to Louis XV he dedicated hi Third Book of Sonatas to the monarch. But dark clouds had begun to gather in the person of Jean – Pierre Guigon, a francisized violinist from Piedmont and pupil of Somis who had entered the king’s service. Guigon, too, performed at the “Concert Spirituel” with considerable success. The two violinists often confronted one another in musical jousts to public acclaim. As Marc Pincherle has written, on such occasions “between Leclair and Guigon, there was no clear victory” for “their performing styles differed profoundly, Leclair’s being more precise, more technically delicate, more cerebral, whil Guigon’s was more colourful, more fanciful”. Leclair, who was growing increasingly withdrawn and irascible, found he was no longer able to tolerate the competition. In spite of an agreement which provided for alternate appearances at the Chapelle and at the Chambre du Roi, he resigned from the king’s service in 1736 never again to perform at the “Concert Spirituel”. However two of his younger pupils, Pierre Gavinies and L’Abbe le Fils continued to perform his works.

In 1737Leclair travelled to Holland where he was warmly received by the Princess to Orange at Leeuwarden. It was to this accomplished musician who had studied harpsichord with Handel that he dedicated his Fourth (and last) Book of Sonatas. In Amsterdam he once again encountered Locatelli, with whom he established a cordial professional relationship, and whom he ultimately convinced to publish in Paris the concerti and caprices of his Arte del Violino. In 1740 we encounter him at the Hague conducting the private orchestra of the wealthy adventurer Francois du Liz. Three years later, following the bankruptcy of his benefactor, Leclair returned to Paris where hr vowed to “savor in peace his reputation and esteem of men of good will”. Soon, however, he removed to Chambery where Don Felipe, Infante of Spain, had established his court. Don Filipe was an impassioned musician who, it was said, rose at four o’clock to practice the cello or the treble viol. In 1745, Leclair dedicated to him his second collection of concerti, many of which had won favour with the prince.

Then, back in Paris once more, Leclaire devoted himself to the composition of his sole opera, Scylla and Glaucus, staged at the Academie Royale de Musique on October 4, 1746. Shortly thereafter he entered the service of the Duc Antoine de Gramont, who had been his pupil, assuming directorial duties at the duke’s private theatre at Puteaux. There he composed or reworked the arias, the dances and the musical divertimenti that were later in the scores he was called upon to conduct. It was there too that he may have contemplated composition of an opera to be called “Arion”, based on the libretto by Louis Fuzelier, already set to music by Matho.

“Leclair’s character embodied simplicity most often combined with an earnest, reflective spirit. He loathed tumultuous applause; however he had none of the feigned modesty that seems only to crave praise, nor the presumptuous vanity that gives rise to resentment.” So wrote Louis – Abel Fontenay in his Dictionnaire des Artistes, published in 1776. But despite being a man of culture – he was a reader of Ovid, Virgil, Moliere and Milton as well as works of history – and having become more temperate in his behaviour, Leclair’s misanthropy deepened with advancing age. In 1758 he left his wife to take residence in tumble-down dwelling in the rue Careme-Prenant, in a remote, neglected district, declining an offer of hospitality form the Duc de Gramont.

It was there on October 22, 1764 – the same year that saw the passing of Locatelli, Rameau and the Marquise de Pompadour – that he was stabbed to death in circumstances which, despite a thorough investigation, were never elucidated. Jaques Paysant, the gardener who discovered the corpse the following morning, became the first suspect; he had been twice imprisoned and his testimony contained several apparent contradictions. But the murderer was almost certainly Guillaume-Francois Vial, Leclair’s nephew whi unsuccessfully “persecuted his uncle in order that he might cause him to enter into the service of the Duc de Gramont.” Leclair’s death had a powerful impact; a commentator was to write that the murderer or murderers were “monsters who belonged neither to their country nor the century.”

Leclair published only instrumental music ; thirteen opuses of sonatas and violin concerti, as well as duo and trio sonatas. His output, relatively modest for the day, and the high technical and musical level of his writing won him acclaim as the “Corelly de la France.” Stylistically and formally, however, his twelve concerti – opus 7 number 3 bears the inscription £solos may be performed by the flute or the oboe” – followed closer in Vivaldi’s footsteps. Even though they were not the first of their kind written in France, they represent a significant advance over the adaptations previously essayed by such composers as Jaques Aubert and Boismortier. Each consists of three movements, alternating tutti and soli. In the fast movements, as Marc Pincherle note “turns of phrase inspired by L’Estro Armonica, La Stravaganza and Le Quattro Stagioni abound; themes based on repeated notes, syncopation, the “lombardian manner” themes built of the tonic chord, sequential development, from abrupt and impetuous unison passages.” The slow movements frequently consist of italianate melodies but they often follow French inspiration in their lilting airs or their dances in moderate tempo.

But the musical material is far more extensively developed than in Vivaldi. With Leclair tha violin works against the orchestra more than with it as a partner. The soloist passages are written with a keen eye to violin technique :  arpeggios, double and triple stops, bariolages, leaps and virtuoso passage work lend colour, breadth and variety. The orchestral writing is already symphonic, the intermediate voices finely wrought, and Leclair is quite at home with counterpoints as testified by the Allegro non troppo of Concerto  opus 7 number 2 following several measures of Corellian adagio. But for all his life-long familiarity with Italian music, Leclair remained French to the core in his overarching concern with form, while his more lyrical passages evince a certain reserve. At the same time, his technical prowess never descends into mere virtuosity for its own sake, making his music a telling embodiment of “les gouts reunis”, the aesthetic injunction of the age.

In conclusion, let us yield to the temptation to quote Georges de Saint-Foix, who has recently couched his praise of Leclair in the glowing comparison alluded to above : “His violin concerti, and his flute concerto, with all their spirituality, their liveliness and their touches of genius prove to us, with the richness and the well-turned phrasing that are his alone, that he possesses knowledge of both solo instruments and of the symphonic science. We are tempted to call him, for the technical power of his skills, the French Bach.”

Taken from the sleeve notes of the Arion recording : JEAN-MARIE LECLAIR CONCERTOS with soloists Monica Huggett and Claire Guimond.

The notes were written by Francois Filiatrault and translated into English by Fred A. Reed..