About this Recording
8.570888 - LECLAIR, J.-M.: Violin Sonatas, Op. 1, Nos. 1-4 (Butterfield, McGillivray, Cummings)
English  French 

Jean-Marie Leclair (1697–1764)
Violin Sonatas, Book 1, Op. 1, Nos. 1–4


The violin family of instruments was born and bred in Italy and Italians were the first to exploit the violin’s solo voice. In France it took much longer for the violin first to shake off its image as the instrument of the lower classes and eventually to usurp the viol’s favoured position amongst the nobility. So, although a few French composers published violin sonatas before him, it was Leclair who established himself as the founder of the French School of violin playing with his four books of Sonatas, Opp. 1, 2, 5 and 9 and his two sets of Concertos, Opp. 7 and 10.

Leclair was born in Lyon, the son of a lacemaker, and though he was brought up with his father’s trade he also studied dancing and the violin. In acquiring these latter two skills together he was following the French dancing-master tradition but the years he spent in Italy inspired him to write music that brought about that fusion of the French and Italian styles, les goûts réunis, that was such an important aspiration of the age in which he lived.

In 1723 he came to Paris where he was fortunate to come under the patronage of one of the wealthiest men in the city, Joseph Bonnier, and this enabled him to publish this first book of violin sonatas, a publication which was received with great admiration. Leclair, however, felt that he had more to learn and Quantz tells us that in 1726 he was studying in Turin with Somis. Subsequent encounters with other virtuosi, in particular Locatelli, heavily influenced his development as both performer and composer and it is notable how much more technically adventurous his third (1734) and fourth (1743) books are. This, however, has had the unfortunate effect of the almost complete neglect of his first two books by violinists and this is a great pity because they contain such a marvellous synthesis of Italian lyricism and French elegance.

There is one composer whose influence permeates Leclair’s Op. 1: Arcangelo Corelli. This influence is less surprising when one considers that such was the popularity of his only set of violin sonatas of 1700, Op. 5, that it was reprinted over fifty times in the eighteenth century. Time and again passages of certain movements recall the master yet Leclair’s native French accent is always unmistakeable.

Of the twelve sonatas nine have four movements in the typical Italian sonata da chiesa slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement. Two have just three movements and one has five. Only three sonatas contain a complete movement in a contrasting key, though four movements have a tonic major or minor section within them, and, in general, Leclair’s use of harmony is fairly conservative. The composer gives no instructions as to which instrument or instruments should play the continuo but four movements have a separate bass stave and it is clear from the style of the writing and the range employed that a viola da gamba is required alongside a harpsichord. This gives him the opportunity to give variety to repeated phrases by changing the octave at which the bass-line plays since the gamba extends to a low A, a third lower than the cello.

We do have the composer’s thoughts on tempo. He was clearly irritated by some violinists who played his music too fast since he commented in Book 4 that “…by the term Allegro I by no means intend a movement which is very fast; I intend a gay movement…This advice is directed only to persons who may have need of it”. As was typical amongst French composers, Leclair wrote out his own ornamentation, so only occasionally has this been added to. Given the composer’s background it is unsurprising that many dance movements appear in this set but it is significant that all but one have Italian titles; he clearly wanted to show where he had received much of his musical training. Ten of these sonatas, however, contain a movement in rondeau form and this is where the French-style music is mostly to be found, either gently lyrical and elegant or energetic and in a folk style.

Although by Italian standards this set is relatively straightforward violinistically, it contains plenty of technical challenges that were new in France. There is frequent use of up- and down-bow staccato, double- and triple-stopping and arpeggiated chordal sequences and even one instance of the use of the left-hand thumb, and Leclair added some fingerings to help those who might have struggled with the demands he was making.

Sonata No. 2 in C major is one of two which Leclair suggests can be played alternatively on the flute so double-stopping and chordal writing are omitted and the G string mostly avoided although in the last movement alternative versions are occasionally offered for the two instruments. The opening movement sounds like Corelli with French ornaments and the Corrente also has a strong French accent. The rondeau-form Gavotta is full of Gallic charm and this work is rounded off with a light-hearted Giga.

Both slow movements in Sonata No. 3 in B flat major are strongly Corellian; the Adagio has written out Italian-style florid ornamentation and the Largois strongly reminiscent of Corelli’s Sonata No. 5 (also in G minor). The Allegros are humorous and energetic, the first one employing up-bow staccatos and concerto-style sequences whilst the second is an exuberant Gavotta in which the gamba either ornaments the bass-line or tries to compete with the violin.

Sonata No. 1 in A minor has a more serious and noble feeling, opening with music that perfectly marries the French and Italian styles. The Italianate Allemanda exploits the gamba’s range with repeated phrases at different octaves. The wistful French-style Aria (rondeau) contains a few bars of gentle duetting for the gamba (prefiguring the Musette in No. 8) and offers opportunities for the use of the rubato for which Leclair was famous and the Giga returns to Italianate flamboyance, leaping from string to string.

Sonata No. 4 in D major, the only one with five movements, opens with a lyrical Italianate Adagio that is inflected with French ornaments and the Allegro that follows again exploits the gamba’s range to the full, playing with the register. The Andante is the only movement in the set with an ostinato bass and this contrasts so beautifully with the singing violin line. The fourth and fifth movements are rustic in character with the gamba given an independent line, but whereas the Gavotta is energetic the Minuetto has a more gentle and lilting quality.

Adrian Butterfield

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