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ClassicsOnline Home » LECLAIR, J.-M.: Violin Sonatas, Op. 1, Nos. 5-8 (Butterfield, McGillivray, Cummings)
Adrian Butterfield, Alison McGillivray and Laurence Cummings bring a wealth of
expertise to their elegant interpretations of Leclair’s First Book of Violin Sonatas in which
the French composer drew on Corelli’s path-breaking examples. While enlivening French
chamber music with Italianate vivacity, Leclair also revels in the ornamentation, love of
lyricism and touches of pastoral colour characteristic of his native land, while nodding
here to the Scottish style of fiddling or there to the gentle sound of a shepherd’s bagpipe.
Volume 1 (Sonatas Nos. 1–4) are available on Naxos 8.570888.
By Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
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
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
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
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
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LECLAIR, J.-M.: Violin Sonatas, Op. 1, Nos. 5-8 (B...