Jean-Baptiste Lully

Château de Versailles, from Chalcographie du Louvre, Vol. 22 by Israel Silvestre (1682)

Perhaps the most influential person in the development of 17th century French music after Louis XIV, Italian born Giovanni Battista Lulli was recognised at the royal court as a talented violinist, guitar player, singer, and dancer.

Born in Florence on 28th November 1632, the 14-year-old arrived in France in March 1646 where he was appointed as garçon de chambre to the King’s cousin, Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, Duchess of Montpensier. Lulli served as her Italian tutor until 1652, when he was released from her household following her exile for her role in the Fronde, a series of civil wars between the French nobility and the monarchy.

Now stylised as Jean-Baptise Lully, the 20-year-old caught the attention of the court as an excellent dancer and violinist. He first danced alongside the 14-year-old King in Ballet de la Nuit on 23rd February, who one month later appointed Lully as Compositeur de la Musique Instrumentale du Roi on 16th March 1653, making him responsible for the composition of all instrumental music for court ballets, and director of the Petits Violons. On 16th May 1661, the Vingt-quatre Violons came under the administration of Lully, who also became a composer for the Musique de la Chambre upon his appointment as Surintendant de la Musique et Compositeur de la Musique de la Chambre, and the following year was given the title Maitre de la Musique de la Famille Royale on 16th July 1662.[1]

Over the course of 10 years, Lully’s positions allowed him to hold considerable control over multiple musical establishments at court. He combined multiple ensembles to give more variety and possibilities in composition, expanding chamber music to larger ensembles, lying the foundations for the symphony orchestra.[2] An ally to the King, Lully therefore was at the centre of all musical decisions, compositions and performances that took place at court, which were guaranteed to honour the King.

In 1672 Lully purchased the bankrupt Académie Royale de Musique from Pierre Perrin, who had been imprisoned for the Académie’s debt. In doing this, Louis XIV extended Lully’s new privilege from 12 years, as it had been for Perrin, to a lifetime ownership, which also applied to Lully’s heirs. The privilege gave Lully absolute power over French staged music, forbidding performances of any independent work or production without the written permission from Lully himself. If performances were authorised, it was stipulated that none of the musicians or dancers hired were allowed to be employed by the Académie.[3] Lully now had exclusive rights to produce sung plays and charge for theatre admission.

Productions staged at the Académie included tradégies en musique, new large-scale works based around mythological themes which included continuous music over 5 acts, forming the beginnings of French opera. As a prominent composer of ballets de cours, Lully is credited for the addition of faster, more virtuosic dances that appeared on stage. An excellent dancer himself having performed in many court ballets, Lully was ‘obliged to compose the steps that he wished the dancers to execute,’ when he asked for dancers to perform to much faster, energetic compositions.[4] Lully most frequently composed bourrées, menuets, sarabandes and gavottes for his ballets, although canaries, chaconnes, courantes and loures also feature.

Lully died on 22nd March 1687 following an infection which developed into gangrene after hitting his toe with the bottom of the cane he used to beat time with. At the time of his death, Lully was already considered across Europe to be ‘most representative of French composers,’ and was described by Titon du Tillet, an 18th century French biographer, as the ‘father of our beautiful French music.’[5]

[1] Anthony, J. R. (1986) The New Grove French Baroque Masters: Lully

[2] Spitzer J; Zaslaw, N. (2004) The Birth of the Orchestra

[3] Anthony, J. R. (1997) French Baroque Music: From Beaujoyeulx to Rameau

[4] Anthony, J. R. (1997) French Baroque Music: From Beaujoyeulx to Rameau

[5] Anthony, J. R. (1986The New Grove French Baroque Masters: Lully