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Jean Baptiste Lully

Jean-Baptiste Lully was the principal architect of what became known as the French Baroque style in the Baroque period. He dominated the French music scene in an almost monopolistic fashion during the seventeenth century. The King and French people loved his music.Ironically, this quintessential French composer was born in Italy, in Florence on November 28, 1632. Lully remained in Italy studying dance and music until the age of eleven. By this point he was already learning violin and guitar. In March 1646 the young Jean-Baptiste moved to the court of Mlle de Montpensier in order to tutor her in Italian. It was during his tenure at this French court at the Tuileries that Lully began studying composition and harpsichord. Lully once said of himself that he had "never learnt more about music than he had known at the age of 17 but that he had worked all of his life to perfect this knowledge" (Anthony 1980, 314). At Montpensier’s court, he had the opportunity to greatly expand his musical knowledge. He frequently heard the King’s grande bande perform and witnessed many balls where the best in French dance music was heard. Lully worked hard at making the necessary connections to assure success during this period in his life. When in 1652 Mlle de Montpensier was exile from Paris for her involvement in the Frondist movement, Lully had already attracted the attention of the young King Louis XIV.

In February of 1653, Lully and Louis danced in the same ballet together for the first time. Coincidentally, it was in this ballet, Ballet de la nuit, that Louis XIV gained his nickname the "Sun King" from the role of the same name that he played so successfully (Harman and Milner 1959, 171). It was less than a month later that King Louis appointed Lully his compositeur de la musique instrumentale de Roi. This appointment began a lifelong relationship between the King and Lully.

In less than ten years, Lully gained total control over all of the royal family’s court music. During this time, Lully accomplished many feats. Around 1656, he received permission to conduct the petits violons, a small ensemble of extremely talented string players. Lully quickly advanced this group beyond the achievements of the 24 violons du Roi, began experimenting with new methods of performance practices and changes in basic stylistic features in orchestral music. The success of the new style and expressiveness brought Lully, now conductor of both ensembles, and the ensembles themselves international fame.

Lully’s early career in court music was focused on the genre of ballet. Here, he could combine his two favorite expressions of art, dance and music. During Louis XIV’s reign, dance music shaped what was to be later known as French music. The success and influence of music for dance and ballet is mostly thanks to the work of Lully. Between 1658 and 1671 Lully wrote thirty ballets. For over half of these he collaborated with Isaac de Benserade. In these early works, Lully brought to fame some of the most basic of dances of today, such as the minuet, gavotte, and the bourée. In 1664, Lully first combined with French literary great Jean-Baptiste Molière. Together they staged comédies-ballets . In his staged works, Lully insisted on literary distinction and dramatic unity. This new focus within dramatic musical works proved very popular in France where Lully’s finest works coincided with a peak in the French literary world.

However, Lully did not think that the French language was appropriate to use in large works. The stories and themes were fine for setting ballets, but Lully thought the idea of an opera was absurd. Only after Perrin’s Pomone was a resounding success did Lully change his mind. With Perrin ending up in prison over a family dispute involving indebtness, Lully took advantage of the situation and bought out the patent from Perrin. In 1672, with complete control of French operatic performances, Lully aided in establishing the Académie Royale de la Musique in Paris. After Molière’s death in April of 1673, King Louis granted the patent for the Royal theater to Lully also. This year Lully began his run of composing and performing one opera each year for the next 14 years, except 1681.

His style of opera grew out of his popular ballets. He retained items like the overture, entry music for dancers, atmosphere and action symphonies , and some dances themselves. These parts worked around vocale recitatives and airs that followed a specific plot. This form of opera became known as tragédies lyriques.

Lully collaborated with librettist Quinault on all but two of his thirteen complete operas. Probably the most famous work from this period is Le Triomphe de l’Amour, first performed on May 10, 1681. In this opera, Lully first used recitative with orchestral accompaniment. It is also the first performance to include professional female dancers (Newman 1979, 54). It fits rather appropriately with the themes on the conflicts of sumptuous love. Changes were occurring rapidly in the ways opera was received -- but only within the musical drama of the monopolistic Lully.

Through the patents that Lully acquired he restricted theaters from employing more than a handful of musician, and for a company to perform an opera it must have permission from Lully himself. This exclusive control of French music by Lully stunted the natural progress of music. Lully wrote the kind of music he liked, and luckily for him his taste in music was very similar to Louis XIV’s. Even more importantly, the French people liked what Lully wrote. His musical genius matched his lust for power and his dictatorial methods, though. Lully once had the King personally stop the production of an opera written by a contemporary that had not received Lully’s permission to perform it.

Lully’s career never slowed down. He continued writing music until he suffered a fatal injury while conducting his Te Deum in 1687. Ironically the performance was in celebration of the King’s recovery from an illness. The wound Lully suffered to his foot while conducting later developed into gangrene. Three months later, on March 22, Jean-Baptiste Lully died.

His music did not die that day, though. Lully’s stylistic monopoly stayed in place for decades after his death. People were criticized and rejected for writing in different and progressive styles. Lully’s exclusive hold on the writing of opera during his lifetime led to one hundred years of French opera in his style. Lully also greatly influence music in England. Charles I sent his own musicians to France to learn how to emulate the style that was so typical of the four decade long career of one of the greatest French composers ever. The advancements that Lully made with the use of orchestra and the development of ballet and tragedie lyrique as respectable genres drastically influenced western music for centuries following his career.


© Elena Steingrad     2000 -

the image of Louis XIV in the menu is taken from PC-Game "Versailles II" created by Cryo Interactive Entertainment. See the description of that game under "Software" for more information.

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