About this Recording
8.557440-41 - LECLAIR: Chamber Music with Flute (Complete)
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Jean-Marie Leclair (L’aîné) (1697–1764)
Complete Flute Chamber Music


Jean-Marie Leclair did not settle immediately into his true calling. Born in Lyon in 1697 to a family of lace-makers, he had mastered that craft by the age of nineteen; meanwhile he had met his wife-to-be while both were dancers in the Lyon Opera. In 1722 he was engaged as ballet-master and first dancer in Turin, but by the following year he was in Paris, where the publication of his first set of twelve sonatas for violin and continuo, Op. 1, confirmed his success as a composer and violinist. Apart from a few extended sojourns to patrons in Holland and Spain, Leclair spent the rest of his life in Paris.

The music of Jean-Marie Leclair exemplifies the values and aspirations of the Age of Enlightenment: clarity and rationality; balance, harmony and proportion; and avoidance of excess or exaggeration. From a portrait engraved in 1741, when he was in his mid-forties, Leclair looks out at us with a confident, open gaze; a smile plays about his firmly set mouth; his eyes glint with intelligence. Barring the period dress and the wig, he looks like someone you would gladly sit down with today for conversation, a meal, or a game of chess.

Or a rehearsal…Indeed, as we prepared this music for performance and recording, we often found ourselves feeling not tired, but refreshed and alert after an hour or two in the company of Monsieur Leclair. Bach typically looks out from his portraits with a sterner mien, and a performer might understandably be intimidated by his formidable genius, but with Leclair one feels that it might actually be possible to do the music justice.

Leclair is generally credited as the founder of the French school of violin playing. He expanded the violin’s technique to include left-hand tremolo (which evolved into what we now call vibrato), double trills, and a meticulously notated variety of articulations; he was renowned for the sweetness of his sound, and for the purity and brilliance of his multiple stops.

Given his dedication to furthering the technique of the violin, it is intriguing that in eight of his 48 sonatas for violin and continuo Leclair confined himself to the range and technique of the flute, carefully pointing out in each case that “Cette Sonate peut se jouer sur la Flûte Allemande”. Only in the final movement of the C major Sonata Op. 1, No. 2 does the tessitura occasionally pass below the range of the traverso—most notably at the end, where the flute stops short while the continuo completes the final cadence. Leclair presumably composed these eight sonatas with an eye to increased sales; but whatever the motivation was, we flautists are for ever grateful to have such genial works available to us.

As a composer, Leclair’s principal accomplishment, no doubt abetted by his sojourn in Italy, was the adaptation of Corelli’s lyricism and Vivaldi’s dramatic concerto style to French tastes. Leclair’s sonatas typically bear such conventional Italian tempo designations as Adagio, Allegro, Andante and Presto—but the movements themselves often take such typically French forms as the allemande, courante, sarabande, gavotte, or gigue. Leclair’s Allegros often have an Italian energy to them, but the sequences seldom run their course as predictably as Vivaldi’s do. Instead they are likely to be interrupted, extended, ornamented, or varied in the manner of Leclair’s great predecessors Couperin and Rameau. The resulting irregularity may have provoked the complaint from a contemporary commentator who declared that the sonatas of Op. 1 “appeared at first a kind of algebra capable of rebuffing the most courageous musicians”. But the irregularities have a beguiling way of balancing themselves out, and we always land, safe and sound, at the double bar, in the right key.

Like many composers, Leclair had definite opinions as to how his music should be performed. These he conveyed to his public through Avertissements placed after the title page of each collection of works. For example, in Op. 9 he berates performers who “change the tempos of two rondos made for each other, and play the major faster than the minor”, adding that one can perk up the major without speeding it up. He also inveighs against “the confusion of notes that are sometimes added to melodic and expressive passages, and which serve only to disfigure them”. Accordingly, in the 42 movements of this recording project, I have added only a very few modest embellishments, although I have not stinted on the expected simple ornaments such as appoggiaturas, mordants, coulés, and cadential trills.

Given the care with which Leclair designated those sonatas also playable on the flute, it is puzzling that he neglects to mention, in either the title page or the Avertissement of Op. 2, that No. 8 is a trio sonata for flute, viola da gamba and continuo. This is an unusual instrumentation—among the myriad composers publishing music during the eighteenth century Vester found a mere dozen who wrote for this combination. This is surely due to the decline of the viola da gamba as it was being superseded by the more powerful violoncello. In the second movement of this trio sonata Leclair exploits the two sustaining instruments and the harpsichord to demonstrate his contrapuntal skill with a finely crafted three-part texture.

The final, and exceptional work that completes our survey of Leclair’s chamber music for flute is the sprawling Deuxième récréation de musique, Op. 8, for two flutes or two violins and continuo. This grand suite, or ouverture, in the (mostly) solemn key of G minor, comprises seven movements and, notwithstanding Leclair’s description of the piece as “d’une exécution facile”, brilliantly exploits the technical and expressive resources of the flutes. No less an authority than John Solum, noted traverso player and author of The Early Flute, counts the magisterial Chaconne as “one of the greatest single movements ever conceived for the flute”.

The date of his first wife’s death is not known, but in 1730 Leclair married a skilful engraver by the name of Louise Roussel, who published all his subsequent works. In 1758 the two separated, and Leclair bought a house in an unsavory suburb of Paris, where he lived alone in spite of offers of lodging from well-placed friends. He had a ne’er-do-well nephew, described as a violinist of small talent, whose requests for help Leclair had repeatedly rebuffed. Leclair was stabbed to death as he returned home late on an October night in 1764; the nephew was the prime suspect, but was never convicted. One could hardly imagine a more incongruous end to a life spent in the service of the highest art.

Fenwick Smith

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