Pietro Locatelli (1695-1764) Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder (1697-1764)

Pietro Locatelli (1695-1764)                   Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder (1697-1764)

This year marks the 250th death anniversary of two violin legends: Pietro Locatelli (1695-1764) and Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder (1697-1764). While Locatelli’s milestone falls today (30 March), Leclair’s death anniversary is in October.

Pietro Antonio Locatelli was born in Bergamo, and comparatively little is known about his early years, apart from the fact that he held the title of virtuoso in the cappella musicale of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore there. He was probably taught in his hometown by Ludovico Ferronati and Carlo Antonio Marino, and composition by Francesco Ballaroti. In 1711 he left for Rome, where his teachers included Arcangelo Corelli. Here is where he began to compose music, with his 12 Concerti Grossi Opus 1, in 1721.

1723 to 1728 were spent travelling through what is today Italy and Germany, during which he wrote most of his violin concertos and capricci. Historical accounts are sketchy, but his performances of these works certainly seem to have built his reputation as a virtuoso across Europe.

In 1729, Locatelli moved to Amsterdam where he lived to the end of his life. Here he found himself at the epicentre of European music publishing, and he got a lot of his own music published in Amsterdam and in neighbouring Leiden. His library with over a thousand documents is a testament to his deep interest in the arts and sciences: literature from Dante onward, treatises on mathematics, theology, history, geography, the collected works of Corelli, and paintings by Dutch, French and Italian masters.

Locatelli’s music can be broadly divided into three categories: works for his own performance as virtuoso; chamber music and works for small ensembles; and works for larger ensembles.

His Capricci in particular are virtuosic showpieces, played a lot in the high register, and with double-stopping, chords and arpeggios with wide fingering and overextension of the left hand, harmonics, trills in two-part passages (for example in his Trillo del Diavolo or Devil’s Trill), double trills and varied bowings. They certainly inspired Niccolò Paganini a generation later; Paganini’s Capriccio Op.1 nr.1 is similar to Locatelli’s Capriccio nr. 7.

Thus we have an almost seamless line of Italian violinists or the ‘violinisti’, embodying the Italian violin school: Corelli of Rome, Vivaldi of Venice, Somis of Turin, Tartini of Padua, Geminiani of Lucca, Veracini of Floerence and Locatelli of Bergamo, passing on the torch to Paganini and others.

This was in contrast to the French school, and Locatelli’s counterpart here was Jean-Marie Leclair (known as the Elder to distinguish him from his younger brother of the same name). Born in Lyon, he was a ballet dancer there before going off to study violin under Giovanni Battista Somis in Turin. He returned to Paris where he was employed briefly as ordinaire de la musique by King Loius XV. Subsequently he worked at the court of several nobles, including Anne, the Princess Royal and Princess of Orange, daughter of King George II of Great Britain, a fine harpsichordist herself, and a pupil of Handel. Like Locatelli, he gained great renown as a violin virtuoso and composer, and also like him he toured Europe giving concerts and gaining acclaim as he went. He met an ignominious end, stabbed to death under extremely mysterious circumstances, and motives ranging from a family feud to professional rivalry to financial gain have been ascribed to his murder.

The two titans, Locatelli and Leclair, are believed to have met in Kassel in Germany, and there is an account of them giving a concert together there on 7 December 1728. What transpired between them? Was it a ‘high noon’ moment, like the face-off between keyboardists Handel and Scarlatti, Mozart and Clementi, Beethoven and Wölfl, or Liszt and Thalberg? Or was it more like a ‘friendly’ match? Did they perform one of the many sonatas for two violins that Leclair wrote?

There was certainly a ‘pamphlet war’ between the French and Italian styles of playing, especially in Paris, and it began decades before, with Abbé François Raguenet in 1702 with his ‘Paralèle des italiens et des françois, en ce qui regarde la musique et les opera’. While Raguenet seemed to be in awe of the Italian style, de la Viéville argued that the Italians “use too many spices, pleasing to the taste at first, but ultimately destructive of it”. The French philosopher Denis Diderot joined the fray as well.

This is an existing written account of the clash of the titans: “Once he [Locatelli] and Leclair were at the court of Kassel at the same time, prompting the court jester to say that both of them ran like rabbits up and down the violin, the one playing like an angel, the other like a devil. The first (Leclair) with his practised left hand and through his neat and lovely tone knew how to steal hearts, while the second (Locatelli) brought forth great difficulties and mainly sought to astound the listener with his scratchy playing. But as far as being steady in the saddle and playing in time went, the French musician could, unless he applied himself with utmost attention, be easily unhorsed by the Italian.”

The imagery of ‘the Angel and the Devil’ (sounds rather like the Dan Brown novel) has persisted to this day. But perhaps the gladiatorial rivalry and blood-sport was more a figment of the imagination of the ‘spectators’, the audience, than in the minds of the protagonists themselves; at least one account seems to indicate that Leclair “sought to perfect his art” by further contacts with Locatelli in Amsterdam. Music has the power to unite even angels and devils!

(An edited version of this article was published on 30 March 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)