Friday 15 December 2017

Vive la France - celebrating their patriotic icons

Jean Marie Leclair
Jean Marie Leclair

George Hamilton

To France for a couple of musical yarns, about two very different personalities who both happened to be born on this date. Claude Rouget de Lisle was an early one-hit wonder.

His lasting achievement was composing what would become the national anthem of France – La Marseillaise.

It really should have been called Le Strasbourgeois, for it wasn't in the south of France but in the city in Alsace that would become the seat of the European parliament that this revolutionary marching song came to be written.

Rouget de Lisle was a captain in the army there.

He answered the call of the Strasbourg mayor to come up with something stirring that would boost the local battalion's morale.

Rouget de Lisle provided The Battle Hymn of the Army of the Rhine, which caught on immediately. It was perfect marching music, and would become the unofficial anthem of the French Revolution.

The song got the name when a band of auxiliaries from the south of France sang it when they marched into Paris to join the revolution. The locals acknowledged it as the volunteers' song, the song of the men from Marseille – La Marseillaise.

The other notable French composer born on this day was around a little earlier. Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764) was well known as a violinist as well. He was a big name in his day, performing right across Europe.

Leclair would go down in history as the "angel" of the violin, a reference to a concert he was supposed to have given alongside another contemporary star – the Italian, Pietro Locatelli – both of whose 250th anniversaries are this year.

Locatelli's style was brash and extravagant, Leclair's more subtle, both reflecting their musical backgrounds. Locatelli was said to have performed his elaborations "like the devil", all scratchy excitement. Leclair's more subtle approach earned him his "angel" epithet.

The vivid elegance of Leclair's musical personality resonates through the chamber music that is the greater part of his legacy. His output also included a single opera Scylla et Glaucus, the tale of a water nymph and a sea god from Greek mythology that didn't do terribly well at all but is still championed by exponents of early music. There was also an opera ballet, a form of entertainment popular at the time.

Jean-Marie Leclair came to a sorry end. An evening playing billiards ended when he was stabbed to death. His body was found the following morning by his gardener, who immediately became a suspect. But nobody was ever charged, and the case remains one of music's unsolved mysteries.


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