Le Violon Noir

Italian conductor Guido Rimonda, a violin virtuoso, owns an exceptional instrument: the Leclair Stradivarius, built in 1721.
Just like every Stradivarius violin, this too inherited its name from its most famous owner: Jean-Marie Leclair, considered the father of the French violin school, “the most Italian among French composers”.
But the instrument also bears the unsettling nickname of “black violin” (violon noir): the reason lies in a dark legend concerning Jean-Marie Leclair himself, who died in dramatic and mysterious circumstances.

Born in Lyon on May 10, 1697, Leclair enjoyed an extraordinary career: he started out as first dancer at the Opera Theatre in Turin – back in the day, violinists also had to be dance teachers – and, after settling in Paris in 1728, he gained huge success among the critics and the public thanks to his elegant and innovative compositions. Applauded at the Concerts Spirituels, author of many sonatas for violin and continuous bass as well as for flute, he performed in France, Italy, England, Germany and the Netherlands. Appointed conductor of the King’s orchestra by Louis XV in 1733 (a position he held for four years, in rotation with his rival Pierre Guignon, before resigning), he was employed at the court of Orange under Princess Anne.
His decline began in 1746 with his first and only opera work, Schylla and Glaucus, which did not find the expected success, despite the fact that it’s now regarded as a little masterpiece blending Italian and French suggestions, ancient and modern styles. Leclair’s following employment at the Puteaux Theatre, run by his former student Antoine-Antonin Duke of Gramont, ended in 1751 because of the Duke’s financial problems.

In 1758 Leclair left his second wife, Louise Roussel, after twenty-eight years of marriage and collaboration (Louise, a musician herself, had copper-etched all of his works). Sentimentally as well as professionally embittered, he retired to live alone in a small house in the Quartier du Temple, a rough and infamous Paris district.
Rumors began to circulate, often diametrically opposite to one another: some said that he had become a misanthropist who hated all humanity, leading a reclusive life holed up in his apartments, refusing to see anyone and getting his food delivered through a pulley; others claimed that, on the contrary, he was living a libertine life of debauchery.

Not even the musician’s death could put an end to these rumors – quite the opposite: because on the 23rd of October 1764, Jean-Marie Leclair was found murdered inside his home. He had been stabbed three times. The killer was never caught.

In the following years and centuries, the mystery surrounding his death never ceased to intrigue music lovers and, as one would expect, it also gave rise to a “black” legend.
The most popular version, often told by Guido Rimonda himself, holds that Leclair, right after being stabbed, crawled over to his Stradivarius with his last breath, to hold it against his chest.
That violin was the only thing in the world he still truly loved.
His corpse was found two months later, still clutching his musical instrument; while the body was rotting away, his hand had left on the wood a black indelible stain, which is still visible today.

The fact that this is indeed a legend might be proved by police reports that, besides never mentioning the famous violin, describe the discovery of the victim the morning after the murder (and not months later):

On the 23rd of October 1764, by early morning, a gardener named Bourgeois […] upon passing before Leclair’s home, noticed that the door was open. Just about that time Jacques Paysan, the musician’s gardener, arrived at the same place. The violinist’s quite miserable abode included a closed garden.Both men, having noticed Leclair’s hat and wig lying in the garden, looked for witnesses before entering the house. Together with some neighbors, they went inside and found the musician lying on the floor in his vestibule. […] Jean-Marie Leclair was lying on his back, his shirt and undershirt were stained with blood. He had been stabbed three times with a sharp object: one wound was above the left nipple, one under his belly on the right side, and the third one in the middle of his chest. Around the body several objects were found, which seemed to have been put there deliberately. A hat, a book entitled L’élite des bons mots, some music paper, and a hunting knife with no blood on it. Leclair was wearing this knife’s holster, and it was clear that the killer had staged all of this. Examination of the body, carried out by Mister Pierre Charles, surgeon, found some bruises on the lumbar region, on the upper and lower lips and on the jaw, which proved that after a fight with his assassin, Leclair had been knocked down on his back.

(in Marc Pincherle, Jean-Marie Leclair l’aîné, 1952,
quoted in
Musicus Politicus, Qui a tué Jean-Marie Leclair?, 2016)

The police immediately suspected gardener Jascques Paysan, whose testimony was shaky and imprecise, but above all Leclair’s nephew, François-Guillaume Vial.
Vial, a forty-year-old man, was the son of Leclair’s sister; a musician himself, who arrived in Paris around 1750, he had been stalking his uncle, demanding to be introduced at the service of the Duke of Gramont.
According to police report, Vial “complained about the injustice his uncle had put him through, declared that the old man had got what he deserved, as he had always lived like a wolf, that he was a damned cheapskate, that he begged for this, and that he had left his wife and children to live alone like a tramp, refusing to see anyone from the family”. Vial provided a contradictory testimony to the investigators, as well as giving a blatantly false alibi.

And yet, probably discouraged by the double lead, investigators decided to close the case. Back in those days, investigations were all but scientific, and in cases like this all the police did was questioning neighbors and relatives of the victim; Leclair’s murder was left unsolved.

But let’s get back to the black stain that embellishes Rimonda’s violin. Despite the fact that the sources seem to contradict its “haunted” origin, in this case historical truth is much less relevant than the legend’s narrative breadth and impact.

The violon noir is a uniquely fascinating symbol: it belonged to an artist who was perfectly inscribed within the age of Enlightenment, yet it speaks of the Shadows.
Bearing in its wood the imprint of death (the spirit of the deceased through its physical trace), it becomes the emblem of the violence and cruelty human beings inflict on each other, in the face of Reason. But that black mark – which reminds us of Leclair’s last, affectionate and desperate embrace – is also a sign of the love of which men are capable: love for music, for the impalpable, for beauty, for all that is transcendent.

If every Stradivarius is priceless, Rimonda’s violin is even more invaluable, as it represents all that is terrible and wonderful in human nature. And when you listen to it, the instrument seems to give off several voices at the same time: Rimonda’s personality, as he sublimely plays the actual notes, blends with the personality of Stradivari, which can be perceived in the amazingly clear timber. But a third presence seems to linger: it’s the memory of Leclair, his payback. Forgotten during his lifetime, he still echoes today through his beloved violin.

You can listen to Rimonda’s violin in his album Le violon noir, available in CD and digital format.

(Thanks, Flavio!)

Living Machines: Automata Between Nature and Artifice

Article by Laura Tradii
University of Oxford,
MSc History of Science, Medicine and Technology

In a rather unknown operetta morale, the great Leopardi imagines an award competition organised by the fictitious Academy of Syllographers. Being the 19th Century the “Age of Machines”, and despairing of the possibility of improving mankind, the Academy will reward the inventors of three automata, described in a paroxysm of bitter irony: the first will have to be a machine able to act like a trusted friend, ready to assist his acquaintances in the moment of need, and refraining from speaking behind their back; the second machine will be a “steam-powered artificial man” programmed to accomplish virtuous deeds, while the third will be a faithful woman. Considering the great variety of automata built in his century, Leopardi points out, such achievements should not be considered impossible.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, automata (from the Greek, “self moving” or “acting of itself”) had become a real craze in Europe, above all in aristocratic circles. Already a few centuries earlier, hydraulic automata had often been installed in the gardens of palaces to amuse the visitors. Jessica Riskin, author of several works on automata and their history, describes thus the machines which could be found, in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, in the French castle of Hesdin:

“3 personnages that spout water and wet people at will”; a “machine for wetting ladies when they step on it”; an “engien [sic] which, when its knobs are touched, strikes in the face those who are underneath and covers them with black or white [flour or coal dust]”.1



In the fifteenth century, always according to Riskin, Boxley Abbey in Kent displayed a mechanical Jesus which could be moved by pulling some strings. The Jesus muttered, blinked, moved his hands and feet, nodded, and he could smile and frown. In this period, the fact that automata required a human to operate them, instead of moving of their own accord as suggested by the etymology, was not seen as cheating, but rather as a necessity.2

In the eighteenth century, instead, mechanics and engineers attempted to create automata which could move of their own accord once loaded, and this change could be contextualised in a time in which mechanistic theories of nature had been put forward. According to such theories, nature could be understood in fundamentally mechanical terms, like a great clockwork whose dynamics and processes were not much different from the ones of a machine. According to Descartes, for example, a single mechanical philosophy could explain the actions of both living beings and natural phenomena.3
Inventors attempted therefore to understand and artificially recreate the movements of animals and human beings, and the mechanical duck built by Vaucanson is a perfect example of such attempts.

With this automaton, Vaucanson purposed to replicate the physical process of digestion: the duck would eat seeds, digest them, and defecate. In truth, the automaton simply simulated these processes, and the faeces were prepared in advance. The silver swan built by John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803), instead, imitated with an astonishing realism the movements of the animal, which moved (and still moves) his neck with surprising flexibility. Through thin glass tubes, Merlin even managed to recreate the reflection of the water on which the swan seemed to float.



Vaucanson’s Flute Player, instead, played a real flute, blowing air into the instruments thanks to mechanical lungs, and moving his fingers. On a similar vein, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a little model of Napoleon was displayed in the United Kingdom: the puppet breathed, and it was covered in a material which imitated the texture of skin.  The advertisement for its exhibition at the Dublin’s Royal Arcade described it as a ‘splendid Work of Art’, ‘produc[ing] a striking imitation of human nature, in its Form, Color, and Texture, animated with the act of Respiration, Flexibility of the Limbs, and Elasticity of Flesh, as to induce a belief that this pleasing and really wonderful Figure is a living subject, ready to get up and speak’.4

The attempt to artificially recreate natural processes included other functions beyond movement. In 1779, the Academy of Sciences of Saint Petersburg opened a competition to mechanise the most human of all faculties, language, rewarding who would have succeeded in building a machine capable of pronouncing vowels. A decade later, Kempelen, the inventor of the famous Chess-Playing Turk, built a machine which could pronounce 19 consonants (at least according to Kempelen himself).5

In virtue of their uncanny nature, automata embody the tension between artifice and nature which for centuries has animated Western thought. The quest not only for the manipulation, but for the perfecting of the natural order, typical of the Wunderkammer or the alchemical laboratory, finds expression in the automaton, and it is this presumption that Leopardi comments with sarcasm. For Leopardi, like for some of his contemporaries, the idea that human beings could enhance what Nature already created perfect is a pernicious misconception. The traditional narrative of progress, according to which the lives of humans can be improved through technology, which separates mankind from the cruel state of nature, is challenged by Leopardi through his satire of automata. With his proverbial optimism, the author believes that all that distances humans from Nature can only be the cause of suffering, and that no improvement in the human condition shall be achieved through mechanisation and modernisation.

This criticism is substantiated by the fear that humans may become victims of their own creation, a discourse which was widespread during the Industrial Revolution. Romantic writer Jean Paul (1763-1825), for example, uses automata to satirise the society of the late eighteenth century, imagining a dystopic world in which machines are used to control the citizens and to carry out even the most trivial tasks: to chew food, to play music, and even to pray.6

The mechanical metaphors which were often used in the seventeenth century to describe the functioning of the State, conceptualised as a machine formed of different cogs or institutions, acquire here a dystopic connotation, becoming the manifestation of a bureaucratic, mechanical, and therefore dehumanising order. It is interesting to see how observations of this kind recur today in debates over Artificial Intelligence, and how, quoting Leopardi, a future is envisioned in which “the uses of machines [will come to] include not only material things, but also spiritual ones”.

A closer future than we may think, since technology modifies in entirely new directions our way of life, our understanding of ourselves, and our position in the natural order.


[1]  Jessica Riskin, Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence.
[2]  Grafton, The Devil as Automaton: Giovanni Fontana and the Meanings of a Fifteenth-Century Machine, p.56.
[3]  Grafton, p.58.
[4]  Jennifer Walls, Captivating Respiration: the “Breathing Napoleon”.
[5]  John P. Cater, Electronically Speaking: Computer Speech Generation, Howard M. Sams & Co., 1983, pp. 72-74.
[6]  Jean Paul, 1789. Discusso in Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: the Automaton in the European Imagination di Minsoo Kang.