Jean-Marie Leclair

(10 May 1697 - 22 October 1764)

Early 18th-century French composer, violinist, teacher and dancer Jean-Marie Leclair was one of the most pivotal figures in violin technique and is considered to have founded the French violin school.

Not much is known about Leclair’s childhood, except that he was born in Lyons on 10 May 1697. By the age of 19, Leclair was already successful as a violinist, dancer and even at lacemaking. In 1716 Leclair’s name could be found among the list of dancers of the Lyons Opera. He married one of the other dancers, Marie-Rose Casthagnié the same year. It is also quite possible that Leclair performed as both a violinist and dancer in Rouen under the Patron Mme Mezangère, though some scholars are skeptical of this.

Evidence exists of Leclair’s activities in Turin in 1722. It is possible that he travelled to Turin to gain employment at the royal wedding festivities. In addition, while in Turin he acted as a ballet master, despite not holding an official position. While still uncertain, it seems that Leclair studied violin with G.B. Somis at this time, based on a 1726 entry in J.J. Quantz’s diary regarding a visit to Turin in which he wrote that the violinist Leclair was studying with Somis.

The next year, Leclair left Turin for Paris, where he was fortunate to receive the patronage of Joseph Bonnier, one of the richest Frenchmen. Leclair was working on his Sonatas Op. 1 at this time, a set of works noted for their originality. One of his contemporaries stated of his sonatas that they ‘appeared at first a kind of algebra capable of rebuffing the most courageous musicians’. This is likely in reference to the demanding technique which the works required. Leclair was also described as ‘the first person who, without imitating anything, created beautiful and new things, which he could call his own’.

The first person who, without imitating anything, created beautiful and new things, which he could call his own.

After the publication of his Op. 1 sonatas, Leclair composed some ballets that were used as postludes to two operas at Turin’s Teatro Regio Ducale in 1727; unfortunately these scores have been lost.

His second book of violin sonatas was published in 1728, the same year he performed twelve times at the prestigious Concert Spirituel. He was continually asked to return as he always received a very positive and enthusiastic response from the audience after performing his own sonatas and concertos.

Leclair soon travelled to London and Kassel. In London, a book of his sonatas was issued by John Walsh and in Kassel he had the opportunity to perform at the court with Pietro Locatelli in an overstated battle of French and Italian musical styles. Leclair’s playing was described as angelic, with a beautiful tone and much rhythmic freedom. This was in contrast to Locatelli, who purposely played ‘like a devil’ with a scratchy tone and left-hand pyrotechnics. The exaggerated nature of the concert was designed to entertain the journalists, who happened to be fascinated by this diversion of styles.

Leclair and Locatelli continued to work together for a while, and it is quite likely that Leclair followed Locatelli to Amsterdam. Locatelli’s influence can be heard in Leclair’s op. 5 sonatas. During this period Leclair also studied with André Chéron, a respected Parisian composer, harpsichordist and conductor. It was to Chéron that Leclair’s op. 7 was dedicated.

Leclair remarried in 1730 after the death of his wife, who died before giving birth to a child. He married Louise Roussel on 8 September and together they had one child, also named Louise. Leclair’s wife Louise engraved his op. 2 and all of his future works. In addition, their daughter Louise also became an engraver and later married the painter Louis Quenet.

Leclair was appointed ordinaire de la musique du roi by Louis XV in 1733 after the publication of many of his works in Paris. In turn, Leclair dedicated his third book of violin sonatas to the king. His most famous work is the sixth sonata (in C minor, later named ‘Le tombeau’) from this book. With his newfound popularity, Leclair was able to associate in the circles of the most talented French musicians. He befriended the viol player Antoine Forqueray, while Pierre Guignon was his rival.

Despite the fact that the court favoured the older style of French music, including the chamber music of Lully and the sacred music of Lalande, Leclair was granted permission to perform at least one of his concertos, after which ‘his delicate and brilliant playing was greatly applauded’. Following an argument with his rival Guignon in 1737 regarding their joint directorship of the king’s orchestra, in which the two agreed to rotate monthly with the orchestra, Leclair decided to leave Paris. He conducted the first month with the orchestra, and when it was Guignon’s turn, he resigned.

Leclair’s next appointment was at the court of Orange in the Netherlands under Anne, Princess of Orange and daughter to George II of England. The princess herself was a talented harpsichordist, having trained under Handel.  Leclair later dedicated his op. 9 to her and she decorated him with the Croix Néerlandaise du Lion. Leclair returned to the court for three months out of every year between 1738 and 1743. He spent the rest of his time in The Hague, where he had been appointed maestro di cappella for François Du Liz, a wealthy citizen with 20 musicians at his disposal. Unfortunately, Du Liz declared bankruptcy in January of 1743 and Leclair returned to Paris to publish his fourth (and final) book of sonatas. He played for the Spanish Prince Don Philippe in Chambéry in 1744 and also dedicated his op. 10 to him.

After returning to Paris, Leclair did not travel much, besides the occasional trip to Lyons. He lived from a pension from the Bonnier de la Mosson family and taught violin and composed. Inspired by Rameau, who began his operatic career at the age of 51, Leclair composed his only opera Scylla et Glaucus, which was premiered in the fall of 1746 at the Académie Royale de Musique. He was 50 years old at the time of the premiere and wrote in his dedication, ‘today I enter upon a new career’. The style of the opera was also quite similar to Rameau’s style, though it received mixed reviews and was pulled from the theatre after just 18 performances.

Leclair joined the private theatre at Puteaux of his former student Antoine-Antonin, Duc de Gramont as composer and musical director. This ended in 1751 when the duke was forced to sell his Puteaux estate for financial reasons. A number of Leclair’s vocal and instrumental works were composed for the duke, though the only surviving work is the vocal part of one ariette, Sadler and Zaslaw (1980-1).

After splitting from his wife in 1758, Leclair bought a small house in a dangerous area of Paris and was murdered in 1764, late in the evening while returning to his home. There were three suspects at the time, the gardener, his nephew Guillaume-François Vial and of course his ex-wife. It is clear to scholars and authorities that the nephew was the murderer, based on preserved evidence. Leclair had had a falling out with his nephew, a violinist and the author of L'arbre généalogique de l'harmonie (1767).

Leclair was able to modify the older Italian Corellian sonata form in a way that pleased the French. He included elements of Lully and Vivaldi, and though his written and playing styles were clearly French, he used Italian violin technique, including the long Tartini bow. His students furthered his advancements in violin technique. These included L'abbé le fils, Elisabeth de Haulteterre, Petit, Geoffroy, Guillaume-Pierre Dupont, Jean-Joseph Rudolphe and, perhaps, Gaviniès and Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. His influence was seen well into the 18th century and he is considered the first great violinist of the French violin school.

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