About this Recording
8.570889 - LECLAIR, J.-M.: Violin Sonatas, Op. 1, Nos. 5-8 (Butterfield, McGillivray, Cummings)
English  French 

Jean-Marie Leclair (1697–1764)
Violin Sonatas, Book 1, Op. 1, Nos. 5–8


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. 5, the first of two in A major, has only three movements in a fast-slow-fast arrangement. Its Italianate opening Allegro is contrasted with an exquisitely delicate French-style Sarabanda and this work is rounded off with the only presto movement in the set, a Giga that sounds as though it has been composed by a Scottish fiddler.

Sonata No. 6 in E minor is the second of two in this set that Leclair assigns alternatively to the flute and, unlike in No. 2, there are no alternative passages for the two instruments. The slow movements have a yearning, elegiac quality and the Aria (Affettuoso) has an unusually large number of dynamic markings which seem to indicate the need for a particular flexibility of tempo, the rubato for which the composer was famous. The Vivace is the one of the few contrapuntal movements in the set outside the fugal ones in No. 12 and cleverly combines several strands of musical ideas, whilst Corelli’s influence is clear in the last movement particularly in the use of an echo to finish the whole work.

The slow movements of Sonata No. 7 in F major have a glowing, lyrical quality coloured with French-style ornaments, the Aria (Rondeau) having a particularly singing bass-line, and these are beautifully contrasted with the energetic Allegro dances. In the Giga Corelli’s influence is once more clear in the leaping violin figures and the soft ending.

Sonata No. 8 in G major once again combines the French and Italian, a warm, lyrical opening Largo coloured with French ornaments followed by an Italianate Vivace with a miniature Corelli-style cadenza to finish. The gentle Musette, one of the jewels of the whole set, allows the gamba to become a full duet partner, leaving the harpsichord to provide the drone. The concluding Gavotta (Rondeau) also has a strong folk character which is given contrast by a subdued minore section.

Adrian Butterfield

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