Sunday, March 3, 2019

Who Killed The Composer? Leclair's Mysterious Murder

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins,
and Ivana Truong

Who killed composer, violinist, and dance master Jean-Marie Leclair? His ex-wife? The gardener? The Duke of Gramont? His son-in-law? His younger brother? The hard part about figuring out who killed Leclair is that he was disliked by so many people that the list of possible suspects with some kind of motivation was pretty long.  When he died in 1764, it seems not too many people were sorry to see him go.
Jean-Marie Leclair, the elder

         A beautiful duet with Perlman and Zukerman, Leclair's "Sonata No. 5"

Jean-Marie Leclair was a French violin virtuoso and composer. Throughout his life he was an accomplished musician and, like so many composers, his strong personality made many enemies. So when he was found murdered with three stab wounds in his back, it wasn't unexpected. But, who did it?

Jean Marie Leclair was born in Lyon, France, and began playing violin and dancing from an early age. He performed with the Lyon Opera, and later moved to Turin to continue his dance training. He was Master of the Ballet at the Turin Opera when he published his first set of violin sonatas in 1723. In 1728, his first wife died. In 1730, Leclair married Louise Roussel, a music engraver who would help him publish the rest of his compositions. Beginning in 1738, Leclair entered the service of Princess Anne of Orange from the Netherlands, who was a harpsichordist taught by Handel. Eventually, he returned to Paris, where he was hired by his last patron, the Duke of Gramont.

Anna von hannover prinses van oranje.jpg
Princess Anne of Orange

In 1758, he and his second wife divorced. After the divorce, he lived alone in a northeastern suburb of Paris that was known to be dangerous. Despite offers of lodging from the Duke of Graymont, Leclair stayed in his less than ideal neighborhood.

At approximately 6:00 AM on October 23, 1764,  Leclair's gardener, Jacques Paysant, gathered a group of neighbors to go into the composer's house after discovering an open gate and his employer's wig and hat on the ground. Seeing Leclair dead with three stab wounds in his back, they immediately call Louise Roussel, his former wife, and Louis Quenet, a musician, as well as Leclair's son-in-law.

Map of Le Marais, Paris, France
During his last years, he lived in the northern part of Le Marais in Paris

The first suspect is the gardener, Paysant. His testimony was found to have several inconsistencies. He misreported the time, and he told the police that Leclair had no money and didn't own a watch. Both statements were found to be false. When he discovered Leclair's body, he stated that Leclair probably died from a colic attack, a spasm of pain from a muscle contraction, despite the obvious stab wounds and blood. He even suggested that the composer's patron, the Duke of Gramont, could be the murderer! However, the dishonesty of Paysant could also be explained. He had a previous police record for minor crimes and might have been nervous that he would be suspected. In the end, Paysant was released and it's likely he wasn't the killer.

Coat of Arms of Duke of Gramont

image from

The next suspect is Leclair's son-in-law, Louis Quenet. He came to Paris as a musician and would often ask Leclair to get him a position serving the Duke of Gramont. When Leclair continuously refused, he became bitter and would often write insulting letters to Leclair, several of which were found in Leclair's apartment. He even insulted Leclair to the police and surgeon who performed the autopsy, saying Leclair "had only received what he deserved, having always lived like a wolf." When questioned he gave a false alibi and was even discovered trying to alter witness' testimonies.

When investigating Quenet, police began to suspect a plot involving Leclair's ex-wife, Loiuse Roussel. She was close with Quenet, and it was known she disliked Leclair after their failed marriage. She had recently fallen into hard financial times, so she stood to gain from his death. In fact, after the murder, she published Leclair's remaining compositions and sold off his belongings.

In the end, the investigation was ended without arresting a murderer and the case remains unsolved to this day. Was it the jealous son-in-law, the resentful ex-wife, or the lying gardener?

Those three people have historically been the main subjects of suspicion. I (Andy) wonder if it was Jean-Marie's younger brother, also named Jean-Marie. Jean-Marie, the younger brother,  was also a violinist and composer.  The murdered composer was known as Jean-Marie Leclair, the elder. His younger brother was known as Jean-Marie Leclair, the younger.  I might imagine the younger brother saying, "No, I'm not the jerk you think I am, I'm Jean-Marie, the younger".  With the elder Jean-Marie out of the way, the younger Jean-Marie could possibly claim his own reputation without having to shuck off the bad reputation that preceded him.

Chaccone composed by Jean-Marie Leclair the elder

The article "A Finale Marked Presto: The Killing of Leclair" goes into much more detail and even has some interesting opinions on who the killer really was. It is very well researched and much of the information in this blog post came from this article. If you're interested in learning more, I would highly recommend it.


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