Aidan Phillips - Jean-Marie Leclair, French composer?

Aidan Phillips - Jean-Marie Leclair, French composer?

A subject that captivated writers on music in the eighteenth century was the dispute over so-called ‘national styles, or the music most characteristic of the nations of Italy, France, Germany and England. Nowhere was this more prominent than in the Guerre des Bouffons and the disagreements between the Lullistes & Ramistes, the conservative followers of Lully and the progressive supporters of Rameau. On 1st August 1752, an Italian troupe of actors, bouffons, under the direction of Eustachio Bambini, gave a performance at the Opera of Pergolesi’s intermezzo La serva padrona. This performance is thought to have sparked a ‘musical and literary dispute’ on the relative merits of French and Italian opera known as the Guerre des Bouffons or Querelle des Bouffons. The dispute continued from 1752 until approximately 1754. Although these disputes were essentially French and largely developed in Paris, they had wider repercussions; no one could impugn the musical taste of the Italians themselves as the masters of modern musical style, but a French composer in Italy writing in the Italian style was rather a different matter. If one is to comprehend fully the music of Jean-Marie Leclair in its proper historical and aesthetic context, it must therefore be considered relative to these stylistic disputes.

Surveying the works themselves, it is striking how much of Leclair’s music is written in the Italian genres of concerto and sonata. This has often given rise to assertions that – his French lineage notwithstanding – Leclair was first and foremost a composer of Italian music. Indeed, his biography would suggest as much, as would numerous accounts by his French contemporaries. Leclair was born on the 10th May 1697 in Lyons in southern France, an environment much closer to the Mediterranean than the fashionable salons of Paris. According to Léon Vallas, the Italian style ‘penetrated the musical life of Lyon at an early date’, and this must have influenced Leclair in his earliest developments as a musician. Indeed, when the time came for Leclair to leave Lyon, he chose to move east to Turin, shunning the northward, Paris-bound trajectory that might have been expected of a young French musician.

Once established in Italy, Leclair received the best training that the Italian school had to offer, namely the tutelage of Giovanni Battista Somis (1686-1763). Somis, himself a former pupil of Archangelo Corelli (1653- 1713), was established in the Piedmontese capital as a violinist and composer. Studying with Somis, Leclair must have been immersed in the concerti of Corelli, Albinoni, and particularly Vivaldi, and his music reflects this familiarity in its use of thematic types and outlines of a uniquely Italian style. The influence of Vivaldi is particularly clear in Leclair’s concerti opus VII, and opus X, but sonatas by Somis, Händel, Locatelli, and Corelli also left indelible marks on Leclair’s music. By modeling his own music on the works of these Italian masters, Leclair identifies with the same influences as Bach, Telemann, and Handel, musicians who – regardless of their nationalities – belong truly to the Italian school.

However, this embrace of Italian tradition flew in the face of contemporary French musical thought. In the beginning of the eighteenth century, conservative French composers were scrutinizing the nature of instrumental music as never before, re-examining its very basis along two clear lines of inquiry. First, there was an interrogation of the notion of good taste, or le bon goût. This was generally thought – in these conservative circles – to be epitomized by the pure and elegant style of Lully. The ‘grotesque extravagances of chromaticism and coloratura’ so idiomatic to Italian music were held in contempt. Indeed, the aesthetic ideals of the Italian baroque that had been so influential throughout Europe during the seventeenth century were never welcomed in France. As a result, the concerto form never appeared in French music properly, and was never assimilated into the French musical style (although elements of the concerto principle did infrequently appear in some French scores).

Leclair’s concerti, opus VII and opus X, were therefore likely to be the first violin concerti written by a French composer, and they rode a tide of newfound French enthusiasm for the Italian concerto. The great success of the performances of Vivaldi’s concerti at the concerts spirituels in Paris in the late 1720s could very well have inspired Leclair to write his own set of concerti. Speculation aside, it is clear that Leclair’s French success was at least in part due to – and almost certainly amplified by – the late adoption of the concerto principle in France.

The second line of inquiry in French musical thought of the early eighteenth century was along philosophical lines, and can be seen as a rejection of the primacy of instrumental music. Scholars argued that all meaning in music came from text alone, and that instrumental music was – as a result – but a vague and poor copy of vocal music. Jean-Jacques Rousseau even went so far as to say in his definition of sonata form in the Encyclopédie:

Would all the follies of Mondonville’s violin move me as much as two sounds of the voice of Mme. Le Maure? Instrumental music animates song and adds to its expression, but does not take its place. In order to know the meaning of all this confusion of sonatas, with which we are overwhelmed, it would be necessary to do what that clumsy painter did who was obliged to write below his figures: “This is a tree”, “this is a man”, “this is a horse.”

Rousseau’s point is made stronger rhetorically by the fact that Mondonville’s music was renowned much more for its virtuosity than for its musicality.

Again, Leclair seems to set himself against the prevailing aesthetic school of the time in France. Far from shunning the genre, Leclair’s output contains much pure instrumental music. While it is unfair to characterise French music of the early eighteenth century as being without any instrumental chamber music, composers tended to favour the harpsichord, lute, and viola da gamba in their works. Leclair reserved ‘higher artistic purpose’ for the violin, elevating it from its previous role as an accompanying instrument for theatre and dance. The technique of figurations, modulations, and forms with which Leclair wrote for the violin come directly from the Italian school.

Of course, this is not to say that there were no French elements at all in Leclair’s compositional output. Throughout the solo sonatas for violin and continuo (opuses I, II, V, IX, and XV), there are many movements in the French form of the pièce, a sharp formal contrast to the Italian sonata. These pièces were written in the form, rhythm, and style of traditional dances, many of them the rondeau – that most typically French dance. Opus I of Leclair’s solo sonatas alone contains twelve pièces en rondeaux. These movements show Leclair’s familiarity and natural ease when composing in the style of Couperin, Rameau, Marais, the Forquerays, and in particular – the great conservative himself – Lully. It is clear from Opus I alone that movements en rondeau most frequently appear in Leclair’s sonatas in the third or fourth movement. It is also notable that while they are often called aria, gavotta, or allegro in keeping with contemporary Italian practice, their substance is sure-footedly French.

The manner in which Leclair would have expected a performer to play his sonatas is similarly French. Many of his sonatas and concerti call for the use of notes inégales, a practice unheard of outside of French musical culture. Indeed, the playing of notes inégales was a practice believed by Couperin only to be applicable to French music. He wrote:

We [the French] write [music] differently from the way we perform it. . . . The Italians, on the contrary, write their music in the true values that they intended. For example, we dot several successive scale-wise eighth-notes, and yet we write them as equal.

The musicians who played Leclair’s music in the early eighteenth century clearly thought of it as French music, worthy of French interpretation. Furthermore Leclair must have known that his music would be received in this light for he took great pains to write out ornamentation in the slow movements of his sonatas, in the French tradition. Had Leclair expected the ‘foreign treatment’, he need not have bothered with such excesses – ornaments were always embellished by the performer in the Italian school.

Ultimately, trying to label a composer by ‘school’ or ‘national identity’ often results in being thwarted by the vagaries of history and style, and tends towards oversimplification. However, Leclair’s unique biography – indeed, his position geographically and stylistically between the French and Italian schools during a time of great change for both – must factor into any consideration of his music’s success. While we have no sources indicating Leclair’s own views on the theoretical topics of his day, his music is inherently synthetic of the various styles and forms he was exposed to over the course of his life. As such, Leclair’s works were perfectly placed for success in early eighteenth-France.

Aidan Phillips is a harpsichordist who studied at the Royal College of Music, where he held a Junior Fellowship. He performs as a soloist and with many early music ensembles.


F.T. Arnold, The art of accompaniment from a thorough-bass (London, 1961)

J-M. Leclair, Ouvertures et sonates en trio pour deux violons avec la basse continue (Paris, 1753)

J-M. Leclair, Premiere recreation de musique Opus VI – Deuxieme recreation de musique Opus VIII (Paris, 1737)

J-M. Leclair, Premier livre de sonates à violon seul avec la basse continue (Paris, 1723)

J-M. Leclair, Quatrième livre de sonates à violon seul avec la basse continue (Paris, c.1753)

J-M. Leclair, Second livre de sonates à deux violons sans basse (Paris, c.1753)

J-M. Leclair, Second livre de sonates pour le violon et pour la flûte traversière avec la basse continue ­(Paris, 1743, second edition)

J-M. Leclair, Six concertos pour violon et orchestre Opus VII (Paris, 1737)

J-M. Leclair, Six concertos pour violon et orchestre Opus X (Paris, 1743)

J-M. Leclair, Sonates a deux violons sans basse Premier livre (Paris, 1730)

J-M. Leclair, Troisième livre de sonates à violon seul avec la basse continue (Paris, 1734)

N. A. Zaslaw, ‘Materials for the life and works of Jean-Marie Leclair L’Aîné’ (Ph.D. dissertaion, Columbia University, 1970)

N. Zaslaw, Leclair: (1) Jean-Marie Leclair (

M. Signorile, Mondonville (


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