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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Jean-Baptiste Lully

This music was composed by an Italian-born French composer who worked - and some would say sleazed and back-stabbed - his way to the top. His talent knew no bounds, as did his ambition. He's always fascinated me.

There's something of a perverse pleasure in contemplating the life of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who composed this music in 1670. Lully's rags-to-riches story is amazing, working his way up from humble beginnings to be a confidant of the King of France at the height of the ancien régime. The music he created was sumptuous, bold, glorious and spectacular. Yet Lully himself was so ambitious that he didn't really care who he trod on, fought with or discredited in his attempts at self-advancement. He bothers me in the same way Wagner bothers me; I don't think I would have liked Lully as a person if I'd met him. But the music...

Mignard: Jean-Baptiste Lully

Giovanni Battista Lulli (to give the original Italian version of his name) was born in Florence on 29 November 1632. His father Lorenzo Lulli seems to have come from the rural peasantry, and he moved to Florence when he was 20. It was in Florence that Lorenzo married Catarina del Sera, the daughter of a miller, and they had three children. The boy destined to become the most famous composer in France was their middle child. Lorenzo became a successful Florentine miller and businessman.

The details of Giovanni Battista's education in Florence are sketchy but he clearly learnt a lot from his successful father's business acumen. The Franciscan friars who lived near the Lulli family probably had a hand in the boy's early musical training.

In 1645 Roger de Lorraine, the Chevalier de Guise and uncle to Princess Anne-Marie-Louise of Orléans, visited Florence. The Princess was the cousin of Louis XIV, King of France, and somehow - it's not known how - Roger de Lorraine came to know of the young Lulli. He was engaged by Roger as the Princess's Italian language tutor and in February 1646 Lulli, aged only 13, left Florence to go to Paris to begin a new life in the French court.

Moncornet: Roger de Lorraine, Chevalier de Guise

It was an incredible, almost fairytale, transition. Taking the French form of his name, Jean-Baptiste Lully was engaged as the Princess's page and lived at the Tuileries Palace in Paris. The boy was witty, clever and charming, and he rapidly developed his musical skills, not to mention his legendary ability to network, make connections and understand the incredibly convoluted and hidebound hierarchy of the French aristocracy. Some of the greatest musicians of the court were at his fingertips and he most likely developed his violin and keyboard playing under the finest exponents of the day.

Princess Anne-Marie-Louise of Orléans

In parallel with his musical skills, Lully also became an accomplished dancer. Before long he was dancing in the court ballets, and it's in ballet that we have the earliest mention of him as a composer. He is known to have composed some of the music for a ballet performed at the Princess's palace in 1652 but the music is unfortunately lost.

During these early years at court Lully moved in the highest artistic circles imaginable. He mingled with the greatest French musicians, singers, composers and dancers, not to mention poets, painters and theatre designers. It was the perfect hothouse environment for a young man with big ambitions.

Around the end of 1652, Lully left the service of the Princess Anne-Marie-Louise. She had been connected with the Fronde rebellion and after its failure was obliged to retire to her chateau at Saint-Fargeau. Lully's prowess as a dancer, though, led to him being accepted directly into the service of Louis XIV himself. In March 1653 the king appointed the 20 year old dancer as the court's composer of incidental music, an incredible step up the ladder for one so young and with no family connections.

For the next few years Lully's career combined that of composer and dancer. By the mid 1650s he'd started to become well-known to the public as well as within the court. His dancing was so highly regarded that he danced in the same ballet scenes as the King, who was himself a highly-skilled dancer. Lully was a few years older than the King and made the most of this privileged position. Before long he was Louis XIV's favourite musician.

As might be expected, many others in the court did not take lightly to the upstart Italian's ambitions or his success, and a number of traditions were invoked by his enemies to make things difficult for Lully. For example, at first, he had to share the composition of the ballet entrées with other, more established composers, and many of these composers were members of the King's private string orchestra, the famous 24 Violins of the King. Lully made no secret of the fact that he didn't approve of the way the 24 Violins played but rather than attempt to control that group, the King gave him permission to start his own, separate ensemble. Lully's group, the Little Violins of the King, was under his complete control and could easily be contrasted with the older group.

Lully's orchestra was then used to propel the young composer more into the spotlight. He composed his own complete ballets without the collaboration of others. He wrote music for dynastic weddings which included not only ballet music but also vocal pieces. He became principal conductor of the royal ballets and from the late 1650s - still only in his 20s - he was becoming the musical star of the French court. Poems were written in his honour and he was described in one publication as a genius.

Which, of course, was true. Lully's genius for composition, for dancing and for violin playing was complemented by his genius for networking, social climbing and fulfilling his ruthless ambition. Considering he was not even French, the achievements of his first 10-15 years in Paris are staggering.

In the early 1660s Lully extended his reach into the royal chapel by composing two works which made a huge impression. The second of these, a setting of the Miserere, is described in Grove as "a true masterpiece", and while Lully never held an official post in the royal chapel, his sacred music is a vital and important part of his output. The Miserere made a huge impression when performed before the entire court, moving at least one person present to tears. In a single stroke Lully showed that he not only mastered the new world of French sacred music but that he was helping to shape it as well.

The Miserere is one of the Lully's grands motets, scored for large choir, small choir, solo voices and orchestra. It is indeed "grand" in both the French and English senses of the word. [listen]

In May 1661, on the death of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV began his personal reign, even though he been King since 1643 when he was four-and-a-half. Upon assuming total power, one of his first acts was to appoint Lully in charge of the King's personal music, the highest office to which the composer could aspire. This prompted Lully, now 28, to take two decisive steps to consolidate his position. The first was to become a naturalised French citizen, which became official in December 1661, shortly after his 29th birthday.

Louis XIV (1661)

The second was his decision to marry in July 1662. His wife was Madeleine Lambert, the 20 year old daughter of the composer Michel Lambert. Lully was either homosexual or bisexual; already by this stage of his life rumours were circulating about his enthusiastic involvement in the gay underworld of the court, which included many nobles and even the King's brother, Philippe, Duke of Orléans. His marriage would have helped present a conventional front to the world and his discretion seems to have, at this stage, prevented the King from taking any action. The inner details of Lully's marriage are not known, but they did have six children. It seems Lully also had a mistress, just to make sure.

The marriage contract shows how prominent Lully was at court, though. It was signed by Louis XIV and two Queens (I mean real ones: Marie-Therese, Louis' wife, and Anne of Austria, Louis' mother), among other nobles.

In 1664 Lully began one his most fruitful collaborations when he was called upon by the King to collaborate with none other than Molière to produce a series of comedy ballets. These works are brilliant, delightful pieces, with singing and dancing in equal measure. I linked to music from one of these collaborations, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, at the start of this post. All up the famous pair produced about a dozen of these works, including George Dandin, first performed at Versailles in July 1668. [listen]

Mignard: Molière

Lully and Molière collaborated on a very different, and much larger, piece in 1670, the five-act tragedy Psyché. This went through a number of versions, with other librettists involved, until reaching its final form in 1678. Also involved in the work's creation was the famous Phillipe Quinault whose work for Lully over many years gave him the best opera libretti he ever set. Psyché is a glorious work, full of both dancing and singing. The development of the French five-act lyric tragedy became the standard form for such works largely thanks to Lully, and the mixture of ballet and opera marked out this peculiarly French form of theatrical entertainment. [listen]

Philippe Quinault (1670)

Lully and Molière fell out shortly after the first version of Psyché was performed. The composer initially didn't think that French opera in this form had much future but he soon changed his tune when he saw the success of Psyché, and of the works of others. He moved quickly and in 1672 bought a privilege - basically becoming the principal shareholder - at the Royal Academy of Music. The Academy was the principal opera company in Paris and would in time change its name to the Paris Opéra. Other players in the Parisian musical scene sought to limit Lully's power and influence but he could not be stopped. Soon his operas - at first staged in a refurbished indoor tennis court - were attracting huge audiences, and by 1673 Louis XIV himself was in the audience.

The King gave Lully increased privileges, including making available to him the Palais Royal theatre free of charge. Lully then inflicted strict limitations on the rival companies who wanted to use the theatre: he prohibited them from including ballet and he said they could not use forces larger than six voices and two violins. He was simply ruthless.

The Palais Royal, Paris (1679)

The reaction was also ruthless and hardly unexpected. When Lully's Alceste was performed in 1674 - another collaboration with Quinault - it was a savagely attacked by disruptions in the audience, and people of influence started to stay away. Even the King's attendance couldn't save the situation.

An outdoor performance (at Versailles) of Lully's Alceste (1674)

It was Louis who decided to have Lully's next few operas premiered at court, rather than in Paris, in an attempt to protect the composer from the attacks of his enemies. And Lully had many enemies. The King financed all the rehearsals and thus ensured Lully's work would have less criticism and better publicity. His next three operas thus had their premieres at the old chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye before they were revived in Paris. (Saint-Germain-en-Laye was Louis XIV's principal residence from 1661 to 1681, after which the palace of Versailles took on that role.) Among these was Thesée (Theseus), first performed in January 1675. [listen]

Chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Another of the three operas premiered in the mid-1670s was Isis. Lully's enemies started the rumour that the work was designed to parody the King, claiming to see the King and his mistresses portrayed in the leading characters of the opera. This was almost certainly not the intention of either Quinault or Lully (they were bold, but not stupid), but the accusations were enough for the King to register his displeasure. He did so by prohibiting Quinault and Lully from collaborating with each other for two years.

A view of the Chateau of Versailles (1674)

But Louis loved Lully's music so much that he held no real grudge against the composer. In September 1677 the King himself stood as godfather to Lully's eldest son at a glittering baptismal ceremony. The King gave the baby his own name, and the occasion saw the first performance of Lully's most famous and spectacular piece of church music: the Te Deum. This is another of the grands motets, for large choir, small choir, soloists and an orchestra including trumpets and timpani. [listen]

Baptismal document for Louis Lully, son of the composer. The signatures include those of Louis XIV and the composer.

Two years later, from the time of the first performance of Lully's lyric tragedy Bellérophon, the composer had additional support from the royal family. The Dauphin, the heir to the throne, became visibly supportive of Lully's performances, and by the time Lully was 50 - in 1682 - his power and influence were unrivalled. He was completely unrelenting in the restraints he placed on his rivals and he used every privilege, prerogative and connection he could to promote himself and his works.

In the mid-1680s though, Lully's sexual double life caught up with him. He seduced a page boy assigned to his service; the incident became common knowledge and was satirised in scurrilous poems. The King had been swept up in a revival of religious fervour in the court and he could not allow himself to been seen in any way to condone Lully's behaviour. He withdrew his favour and Lully was forced to seek patrons of a lower rank.

Grove describes Lully's opera Armide - with a libretto by Quinault - as his masterpiece. It was first performed in Paris 1686 and was a triumph, but it was never performed in the King's presence. [listen]

Nocret: Louis XIV and his family portrayed as gods (1670)

Lully's last two years saw him enjoy the continued support of the Dauphin, but Louis XIV most definitely kept his distance. It must have stung the composer, who had enjoyed an unparalleled closeness to the King for so long, and it must have cheered his many enemies to see him suffer this loss of prestige.

The stores which remain regarding Lully's behaviour are appalling. His manners were always rough - rustic was the euphemism used - despite his social environment, but he was at times psychotically violent. He was known to break violins over the backs of musicians when their playing displeased him; he is even known to have kicked actresses in the stomach to terminate inconvenient pregnancies. Singers with colds were dismissed; every hour of missed rehearsal time resulted in a fine, as did an absence from a performance. On the positive side, Lully is known to have paid his performers well and made up quarrels quickly. There are documents showing he looked after the welfare of many of his performers and allowed them to accept outside engagements, unless these were with rival companies. He was a man of enormous contradictions.

Lully's demise was ignominious and has entered the folklore of music history. The Te Deum of 1677 mentioned above, written for his eldest son's baptism, was revived in January 1687 to celebrate the King's recovery from illness in a gigantic performance featuring 150 musicians. Lully directed performances by pounding a heavy staff of the floor at pivotal moments, and on this occasion he struck his foot with the staff, giving himself a serious wound.

The wound became infected and gangrene spread to his leg. He died a painful death three months later, at the age of 54, on 22 March 1687. The story goes that he had plenty of time to repent his misdeeds when he realised his death was unavoidable. In accordance with French tradition, his body and entrails were buried separately. His body was laid to rest in the chapel of St John the Baptist in the church of Our Lady of Victories, while his entrails were buried in his own parish church of St Mary Magdalene. Divided in death, it was a fitting end for a man who in life divided the musical world.

Lully's influence and power during his life were incalculable. His rise from Italian working class to the heights of the French court is a staggering example of ambition and determination, not to mention a liberal dose of good luck. His methods for getting power and holding on to it were ruthless, and after his death his shadow continued to fall across French music in the opera and ballet forms he helped devise and develop. Later French musicians were influenced by his forms - particularly the five-act grand opera - for more than two centuries, and closer to his own time, the so-called "French style" became an almost universal way of writing for later composers from England and Spain to Italy and Germany. Those styles more or less began with Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Louis XIV at he age of 63

I'll end this post with music from Lully's Bellérophon, a five-act lyric tragedy premiered at the Paris Opéra in January 1679. It's a work which is virtually unknown today, but like all of Lully's scores, it's full of life and beauty and energy. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in June, 2013.

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