Friday, 13 May 2011

Jean-Baptiste Lully: Le Musicien du Soleil

Jean-Baptiste Lully
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If the fantastic life and reign of Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) were to be staged as a play, or even as a cinematic film, then its chosen musical conductor would, undoubtedly, be none other than Jean-Baptiste Lully, the king's favourite composer. It was Lully who created the music for the divertissements that so amused and beguiled the king and his court; Lully's music defined Louis' reign. In essence, it was Lully who provided the musical score that set the tone and tempo by which the glittering court of the Sun King danced in step around the king's person - much as the planets, in their turn, revolve around the sun, the stellar centre of the Solar System. (In 1653, the teen-aged Louis danced the central role of the Sun in a production of Isaac Benserade's (1613-1691) Ballet de la Nuit, a production in which the young Lully also performed; later, Louis adopted the persona and sobriquet of the "Sun King," derived from his performance in this particular ballet.)
(Sources: Justice, A.,, 2008;, undated)

Louis XIV in his seminal role of Apollo in Ballet de la Nuit ~ 1653
(Gouache sketch by Henri Gissey)
Bibliothèque Nationale - Paris, France
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It is ironic that the Compositeur de la Musique Instrumentale to the French court of one of Europe's greatest monarchs, Louis XIV, was not a Frenchman born in France but rather, an Italian. The man who would  be the first composer to establish and define the generic conventions of  what would, intrinsically, become French opera in the France of the 17th Century and rise to the position of the most important composer of the French Baroque was born in Florence, Italy, in the same year as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, Jan Vermeer, and Christopher Wren, on 29th November, 1632.

In Italy, where opera began as a new musical genre, the earliest operatic works took their subjects and themes from well-known Greek mythologies such as that of Orpheus and Eurydice or Daphne and Apollo. So popular was the new genre that, in 1638, just a few years after the birth of Lulli, the first public opera house, Teatro San Cassiano, opened its doors in Venice. Opera soon became one of Italy's main exports to the rest of Continental Europe as it took root in other European centres. (Source: Justice, A.,, 2008)


J. Bapt. Lully Surintendant de la Musique du Roy ~ Paris, 1695
(From Figures du règne de Louis XIV by Henri Bonnart)

The son of a miller, Lorenzo di Maldo Lulli, and his wife, Caterina del Sera, herself a miller's daughter, Giovanni Battista Lulli grew up surrounded by Italian opera from childhood. In March 1646 and at age of fourteen, he arrived in Paris as part of the entourage of  Roger de Lorraine, Le Chevalier de Guise. Lulli was brought along as a garçon de chambre for de Guise's niece, La Grande Mademoiselle de Montpensier (1627-1693) (formally known as Anne-Maire-Louise d'Orléans, Duchesse de Montpensier, she was the eldest daughter of the cousin of Louis XIV, Gaston, Duc d'Orléans, and his first wife, Marie de Bourbon), who had requested that her uncle provide her with someone with whom to practice her Italian language skills. (To better integrate into French society and to gain favor with his new French employers Lulli altered - or, rather, Frenchified - the spelling of his name; the young and newly renamed Jean-Baptiste Lully quickly rose through Parisian society.) Lully spent six years in Mlle. de Montpensier's household. Already an experienced guitarist and violinist, it was during his time with Mlle. de Montpensier that Lully honed his performance and compositional skills. It must be mentioned that Lully, aside from his talents and musical aptitude, was also an accomplished dancer in some of the court ballets. (Sources: Justice, A.,, 2008;, 2011)

Anne-Maire-Louise d'Orléans, Duchesse de Montpensier ~ ( La Grande Mademoiselle de Montpensier)
Musée National du Château de Versailles et du Trianon
Photograph courtesy of Réunion des Musées Nationaux
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Like the cyclical phases of the moon, in 1652, while the fortunes of Mlle. de Montpensier waned, Lully's waxed. Thanks mainly in part to the scheming of Mlle. de Montpensier and her treacherous involvement in what came to be known as La Fronde (a series of civil wars in France between 1648 and 1653 which occurred during the minority of Louis XIV) - she was banished to her Château at Saint-Fargeau after the defeat of the Frondists; her exile was to last for a few years until the king eventually relented and allowed her back at court in 1657 -  Lully requested to be released from de Montpensier's service. Having returned to Paris, Lully took a position in Louis XIV's court - the most sophisticated, decadent and, some may even venture to conclude, corrupted royal court in all of Europe - where he distinguished himself as a violinist and dancer. Three months after leaving Mlle. de Montpensier's service, on February 23, 1653, Lully danced several parts in Isaac Benserade's pivotal Ballet de la Nuit at court, alongside the young Louis XIV. Apparently the young Louis was impressed by the also-young composer; so  much so that, a few weeks later, Lully replaced  another Italian composer at court, Lazarini, as compositeur de la musique instrumentale.

As the king's "Composer of Instrumental Music," Lully duly composed court ballets in collaboration with Isaac de Benserade - including a ballet performed at Louis' wedding on June 3rd, 1660, to his cousin, the Infanta Marie-Thérèse of Spain. (As with many royal marriages, particularly in those times, the wedding of Louis and  Marie-Thérèse - formerly known as Maria-Theresa - was, in fact, a strategically political alliance between two nations: in this case, Spain and France.) For the royal wedding celebrations, another Italian (Cavalli) provided an opera, Serse, while Lully included his own ballets to give the work an appropriately French character. It would be another thirteen years before Paris saw the first French opera - Lully's Cadmus et Hermione. (Source: Justice, A.,, 2008)


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At first, Lully, as Compositeur de la Musique Instrumentale, was only responsible for instrumental music - it was, after all, as a composer of court ballets (ballets de cour) that Lully's position was entitled to him by Louis and in which ballets he came in close proximity to the person of the king as he danced together with him and other members of the royal court - but he soon rose in importance and position to compose and choreograph entire ballets. Then, at some point  prior to 1656, Lully became in charge of the string ensemble known as Les Petits Violons. Under Lully's direction, Les Petits Violons were transformed into the most disciplined group of instrumentalists in all of France and they became renowned for their artistic excellence and discipline.

During the 1660s, Lully's star - and influence - rose even higher still. In 1661, Lully finally became a Frenchman when he received his French citizenship. It is said that, in his letters of naturalization, Lully re-wrote his own history: he began by officially changing his name from the Italian Lulli to the more acceptably French, Lully. He also elevated his father's modest position (from that of a miller) to the more appropriate and worldly "gentilhomme Florentin" - a Florentine gentleman. That same year, 1661, Lully was appointed to the position - and  lengthy title - of, "Surintendant et Compositeur de la Musique de la Chambre du Roi" ("Superintendent and Composer of Music of the King's Bedchamber."). One year later he was endowed with the title of "Maître de la Musique de la Chambre du Roi" ("Master of Music of the King's Bedchamber") which granted him the honour of coming into regular contact with the king. Also in 1662, he married Madeleine Lambert, daughter of the composer Michel Lambert. The marriage contract was signed by no less an illustrious personage than Louis XIV himself; Queen Marie-Thérèse and the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria, were also witnesses.

Between 1664 and 1670, Lully collaborated on a series of comédies-ballets with the playwright Molière. This new genre (comédies-ballets), which combined spoken comic dialogue with singing and dancing, were the beginnings of  indigenous French opera. By the end of the decade, the librettist Pierre Perrin (1620-1675) and Robert Cambert (ca. 1627 or 1628-1677), musician and first composer of French opera, were given royal permission (or "privilège") to found the Académie Royale de Musique and staged the first two French operas (or pastorales) set by Cambert and which were performed in Paris. Although the company went bankrupt three years later and Perrin found himself imprisoned for debt, Lully was shrewed enough to realize the possibilities of French opera and persuaded the king to transfer the royal permission to himself, which he purchased. (Sources: Justice, A.,, 2008;, 2011)


Portrait bust of Jean-Baptiste Lully
(Sculpted by Antoine Coysevox)

With the exception of the year 1681, every year for about fourteen years, from 1673 to 1687 (the year of his death), Lully produced a new opera every year. Lully's operas, called tragédie lyriques, based heavily on spoken tragedy, borrowed several of their conventions: "a five-act structure, a reliance on mythological subject matter, and "heroic" characters who resolve their situations through discussions with minor characters." (For his librettist, Lully chose the poet and dramatist Philippe Quinault (1635-1688). The first tragédie lyrique on which both composer and librettist collaborated, Cadmus et Hermione, was performed on April 27th, 1673. So influential was this form of the tragédie lyrique, which Lully created with Quinault, that it remained the dominant form in French opera for a century after Lully's death.)

However, French tragédies of popular writers such as Molière, Racine, or Corneille were centered around moral or philosophical issues, such as man's inability to escape his destiny or fateful vengeance, and were not conducive to the inclusion of the dramatic elements demanded and expected by audiences: "machines, scene transformations, battles with triumphant marches and casts of thousands, and ballet divertissements. It was the genius of Philippe Quinault, Lully's principal librettist, that slowed down the action and distilled it to one or two main characters, usually in the form of a love triangle (or quadrangle): A loves (and is loved by) B.  C loves A.  C banished B to win A.  A defeats C and is reunited with B." Most of the operas written and performed were paeans, or hymnal praises, meant to laud the greatness of monarchical power - as well as the beneficence - of  Louis XIV. The prologues regularly allude to triumphant battles and captured territories, or the clemency of the great ruler over his enemies.

Similarly, veiled references were made to the power struggles which inevitably took place between whichever reigning  king's mistress of the moment happened to be - there were several mistresses who ascended to the highly-sought-after position of  maîtresse-en-titre, or "king's favourite," and who bore the king quite a few children; those children who survived into adulthood were later legitimised by the king and ennobled - and the long-suffering Queen Marie-Thérèse; those courtly struggles, between mistresses and queen, were represented by similar antagonisms - on stage - between nubile nymphs and the irate jealousy of the goddess Juno, all in competition for the attentions of Jove. (Source & quotes: Justice, A.,, 2008)


The Family of Louis XIV
Louis and his family represented as Olympian gods and goddesses
(Painting by Jean Nocret ~ 1670, Château de Versailles)
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Lully's control and influence extended far beyond the major  musical compositions he wrote and produced once a year. He exerted control over every aspect of the operatic vehicle and collaborated with various poets in the production of libretti, on which he had the final say. He also took an active interest in the training, singing and musicianship of the performers in his productions, whom he forbade from engaging in lavish ornamentation. As well, he dictated the means of declamation and gesture in acting, and choreographed a number of the dances.  "His insistence on discipline, high artistic standards, and ensemble unity in the opera orchestra was legendary." In the modern vernacular, Jean-Baptiste Lully would be labelled a perfectionist who liked to control every aspect of his productions. 
In 1681, Lully was able to purchase for himself the office of "Secretary to the King," thus elevating him not only to noble rank but also, through their many years of association, to one of the king's closest companions. From that time on, he signed his name as "de" Lully, and the title pages of his operas proclaimed his full rank to the world: "Monsieur de Lully, escuyer, conseiller, Secrétaire du Roy, Maison, Couronne de France & de ses Finances, & Sur-Intendant de la Musique de sa Majesté" ("Monsieur de Lully, esquire, adviser, Secretary of the King, House, Crown of France & of its Finances, and Superintendent of the Music of his Majesty"). (Source & quotes: Justice, A.,, 2008)
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A few years after his elevation to the rank of "Secretary to the King," Lully conducted a performance of his sacred Te Deum (in celebration and thanksgiving for the king's recovery from a successfully performed operation  for an anal fistula) on January 8th, 1687. During the Te Deum, while beating time on the floor with a cane (as was the French manner of conducting), Lully struck and injured one of his toes. "In what remains one of the more legendary and bizarre deaths in music history, the toe wound developed an abscess, gangrene set in, and the composer died shortly after on March 22, 1687," at the age of fifty-four.
Lully's legacy to the tragédie lyrique will always remain his innovative setting of French text - instead of Italian, as was the tradition - to music. Lully's operas remained in the Parisian repertoire a hundred years after they were first performed. Their popularity caused much distress - and opposing camps - when the new operas of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) premiered and a querelle broke out between the "Lullists" and "Ramists."  "Though they remained historically important during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries," as Andrew Justice from the University of North Texas writes, "Lully's operas have fueled a revival of French baroque music and, along with the operas of Rameau and Christoph Willibald Gluck, are being reprised and recorded today." (Source & quotes: Justice, A.,, 2008)
Through such recordings, two worlds, separated  by the gap of centuries, are bridged: the sounds that permeated and amused the dazzling court of Versailles, dominated by its radiant Sun king, live once more.


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The above three videos are courtesy of: ~ all videos are from

Louis the Great in all his monarchical magnificence
Portrait bust of Louis XIV of France
(Sculpted by Gian-Lorenzo Bernini ~ 1665)
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Suggested readings:

Jean-Baptiste Lully and the music of the French Baroque (1989), by James R. Anthony & John Hajdu Heyer: Cambridge University Press

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1990), by Jérôme de La Gorce: Laaber-Verlag

Lully Studies (2000), by John Hajdu Heyer: Cambridge University Press

Music And Theatre In France: 1600-1680 (2000), by John S. Powell: Oxford University Press

Theatre Under Louis XIV: Cross-Casting and the Performance of Gender in Drama, Ballet and Opera (2006), by Julia Prest: Palgrave Macmillan

Jean-Baptiste Lully (2008), by Vincent Borel: Actes Sud

The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV & the Politics of Spectacle (2008), by Georgia Cowart: University of Chicago Press

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