Who was Lully?
Readly is one of the great enigmas in the history of music. Textbooks pay homage to his key role as the founder of French opera, while being less than enthusiastic about his music. There is no doubt that his musical reach was long – he not only dominated French music during his lifetime, but set its agenda in the century after his death. And here is one of the great ironies of Lully’s extraordinary career. If he was the undisputed champion of the French musical style, vigorously supported by Louis XIV, as a bulwark against the advance of Italian music, he was himself Italian.
When was Lully born?
Giovanni Battista Lulli was born in 1632 in Florence into a family of millers. The middle of three children, he learned the guitar and the violin from the local Franciscan monks.
When did Lully arrive at the Royal Court of France?
Giovanni Battista Lulli, 14, is sent to Paris as a chambermaid with Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, cousin of Louis XIV known at court as “La Grande Mademoiselle”. Described by his royal mistress as a “great dancer”, his talents were quickly revealed. On February 23, 1653, Lully finds himself dancing with none other than the king in the ballet of the night. The following month he was appointed court composer and, with a series of successful ballets, established his reputation.
The very structured nature of the court of Louis XIV could be a good medium for social ascent. Years of political turmoil, including the so-called “Fronde” rebellion, during which Louis was practically a prisoner of the Paris mob in the Louvre, led to his decision with rigorous determination. Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, by a combination of strength and administrative virtuosity, ensured that, when Louis came to power in 1661, his rule was truly absolute. Cultural life was framed by the academies of arts and sciences. With similar formality, music in the royal household was divided into three divisions: chamber music, comprising singers, instrumentalists, and the famous string players; Violins Twenty-Four; the Stable Band composed of brass, drums and wind instruments; and the Music of the Royal Chapel. Where appropriate, musicians from all three divisions were combined for more elaborate entertainment such as ballets.
For a musician of Lulli’s talent and professional cruelty, these circumstances were ideal. He takes over the leadership of the king’s group small violins and forced them to be the most refined group in the court. In 1661, the year he became a French citizen and changed his name to its French equivalent, Lully was appointed superintendent and composer of the king’s chamber music; endowed with a strong instinct for networking, in 1662 he married Madeleine Lambert, daughter of Michel Lambert, one of the most respected musicians at court.
Above all, Lully understood and exploited the cult of Louis. Born late into his parents’ marriage, Louis was nicknamed “Dieudonné” and throughout his life was portrayed as The sun King (the Sun King), Apollo in classical mythology. An extraordinary painting by court artist Jean Nocret depicts Louis as Apollo surrounded by members of his immediate family adorned as Olympian deities. Musically, there were many opportunities to personify Louis as the Sun. In the ballet of the night Louis, a passionate dancer, played the role of the rising sun dispelling the darkness of the night.
Why is Lully famous?
Through court ballets in the 1660s, Lully established himself as France’s preeminent musical dramatist. He widened his palette by collaborating with the actor-comic author Molière in a series of comedy-ballets where words and music mingle. In the case of The Bourgeois Gentlemancreated in 1670, the colossal conclusion Ballet of Nations – a decorative extravagance in which Molière’s characters simply become spectators – eclipses the original drama.
The greater use of vocal music in Lully’s ballets was seen by some as leading inevitably to opera. Lully, however, was skeptical that this Italian invention could thrive on French soil. Cardinal Mazarin, himself an Italian, had devoted considerable resources to Italian opera productions, but the response from court and public was poor. by Luigi Rossi Orpheus in 1647 struck a chord, but this was largely due to the inclusion of the ballets and elaborate staging that French audiences loved. Lully has acquired solid experience with a staging by Cavalli tight at the Louvre in 1660. The French public seemed indifferent to Cavalli’s music, but applauded the dances, provided, of course, by Lully.
Why is Lully called the father of French opera?
When the opera was finally established in France, the process was largely on Lully’s terms, as he acted on mafia instincts. In 1669, after the success of two pastoral entertainments, Pierre Perrin obtained a royal privilege of 12 years for a opera academy (later on royal academy of music) and in 1671 produced Pomona, described by a contemporary critic as the first French opera. When the Academy fell into financial difficulties the following year, Lully made his move. With Perrin in prison for debt, Lully obtained a monopoly from the king and devoted the rest of his life to the production of the operas known to contemporaries as musical tragedies.
Lully tackled his task with determination. With royal support, he could count on the best theaters and facilities. He coped with these circumstances by composing one opera a year until his death in 1687 and supervising, with meticulous attention to detail, all the performers. The security of royal support was strengthened in 1684 when Louis extended Lully’s monopoly to all of France.
Lully’s first opera, Cadmus and Hermione, was attended at its premiere on April 29, 1673, by the King and members of the royal family, and by all accounts gave complete satisfaction. In Cadmus Lully provided a great synthesis of the theatrical elements dear to the French public: tragedy, comedy, pastoral scenes, dance and a magnificent spectacle created by the theatrical machinery imagined by the Italian Carlo Vigarani. The libretto, by Philippe Quinault, who wrote ten others for Lully, was a collaboration not only between the poet and the composer, but also Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Lettres whose approval was required. Indeed, the very structure of these new operas of a prologue and five acts reflects the conventions of classical French theatre.
Musically, Lully’s vocal writing is characterized by a simplicity and dignity often spiced up with affective melodic writing, as in the touching farewell between Cadmus and Hermione in the second act. Choruses could be ornamental, especially in the prologues, but often stately and ceremonial, as in the scene honoring Mars in the third act. Inevitably, in an art form born out of the French court’s love of dance, ballet entertainment encompassing mime and dance was central to the new form and was crowned by large-scale Chaconnes based on short recurring basslines that could generate huge structures. In his first operas, Lully indulged his talent for comedy: in Alceste, there’s a hilarious scene in the fourth act in which Hades’ boatman, Charon, collects his dues from recently dead spirits. But comedy was deemed unfit for the dignity of opera, and these scenes soon disappeared.
Just as the governance and political life of France centered on the king, so did the subject matter of operas. While it would have been natural to identify heroes such as Perseus, Bellerophon and Amadis with Louis, the prologue is the site of explicit eulogies of the king. Here thinly concealed allusions, with suitably glorious music, have been made to Louis’s victories: in Cadmus in his war against the Dutch, and in Alceste the nymph of the Seine longs for her triumphal return. Judicial politics could also lead to uncomfortable run-ins with authority. Juno’s depiction in isis of 1677 raised the hedgehogs of Louis’s mistress, Madame de Montespan, and Philippe Quinault had to be summarily, albeit temporarily, dismissed.
When did Lully die?
Outside of the theatre, Lully’s talent is also illustrated in the music of the Chapel. His Miserere of 1664 has real depth and the Te Deum of 1677 introduced into the church the resounding sounding of the trumpets and the majestic double choir of the opera. Unfortunately, the Te Deum also brought about Lully’s own demise. While conducting a performance in January 1687, he stabbed his foot with his stick, resulting in sepsis.
When Lully died on March 22, 1687, he was France’s preeminent musician. His musical style permeated French culture for a century after his death, and his lyrical formula dominated the genre in France for three generations – indeed, the five-act structure, spectacle and glorification of dance returned to the Grand French opera in the 19th century.
Lully’s dominance meant, of course, that there were losers, and neither did the great Marc-Antoine Charpentier, whose deep dramatic abilities were much reduced. And later, while there was no shortage of talented composers – among them Campra, Marais and Mouret – none really succeeded in establishing a personal operatic style until Rameau began composing opera in the 1730s.
Lully’s legacy also brought benefits. His rigorous approach to orchestral discipline created something of a model for later orchestras across Europe. More importantly, its French-style overture, in which a stately introduction characterized by dotted rhythms gives way to a fast contrapuntal section, has been adopted by composers as varied as Bach, Handel, Purcell and Telemann.
To modern audiences, the steady pace of dignified airs, dances and majestic choruses may seem monolithic, but the consistency of Lully’s style is what Louis and French audiences adored. To focus only on Lully’s scores is to miss the point. He understood that they were the starting point of a complex entertainment combining literature, dance, mime, vocal beauty and spectacle. By providing this solid foundation, Lully gave audiences the full artistic experience they craved.
Where is Lully buried?
Lully is buried in Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Paris