Jean-Baptiste Lully

1632 1687

Jean-Baptiste Lully



An Italian who rose to the top of French musical life, Jean-Baptiste Lully is a composer that defined his time. He played for kings and nobility, he was the father of French opera and he has one of the most famous musical deaths. 

Lully was born Giovanni Battista Lulli on 29 November 1632 in Florence. His father, Lorenzo di Maldo Lulli, was a miller and his mother, Caterina del Sera, was the daughter of a miller. After his mother died, Lully was taken to France by Roger de Lorraine, the Chavelier de Guise. It was at the request of his niece, Mlle de Montpensier, who wanted someone with whom she could practice her Italian. They arrived in Paris in 1646 and he would spend six years in her household. Lully, already an accomplished guitarist and violinist, used the time to hone his skills as performer and composer. He also gained fame for his dancing in the court ballets. He felt he learned all he could about music by 17, and the rest of his life perfecting what he learned.

In 1652, de Montpensier was exiled from Paris for her part in the Fronde Alliance, a group of French nobles who tried to limit the power of the crown. This devolved into civil war and the monarchy was the victor and returned to full power. With his mistress in her chateau at St. Fargeau, Lully asked to be released from her household. With the request granted, he returned to Paris.

Lully was seen dancing court by King Louis XIV in 1653. The young king was impressed and appointed Lully Composer of Instrumental Music to the King. He wrote music for the Ballets de Court, which the composer and king danced in themselves. By 1656, Lully was responsible for the ensemble Petits violons and raised their standing to one of artistic excellence.

In the 1660s Lully and his music took many important steps forward. In 1661, upon receiving French citizenship, Lully official Gallicized his name from Lulli to Lully. In the letters of naturalization, Lully embellished his own back-story. His miller father was suddenly a ‘Florentine gentleman’. He and Madeleine Lambert, daughter of composer and mentor Michel Lambert, were married in 1662 with the marriage contract signed by the king and queen. During that decade he collaborated with Molière on six comédies-ballets. The pieces, with dialogue, singing, and dancing, were an important landmark in the development of French opera.

French First Minister, an Italian Cardinal Mazarin, supported the performances of six Italian operas. The French public, however, did not enjoy the language or the length of the performances. Lully agreed with the public’s opinion and felt that opera was meant for Italian, not the French language. After a first French production, though, Lully started to see the potential of native opera. He used his royal connections to gain control over the Royal Academy of Music in 1672. His office allowed him to limit the number of musicians used outside the Academy. Working with poet Philippe Quinault, Lully composed the first ‘tragédie lyrique’,Cadmus et Hermione. The form developed by the pair would dominate French opera for a century to come.

Lully would spend the remainder of his life focused on the writing and development of his operas. He not only composed the music, but also was involved with the libretti and the productions and stage performances of his singers. As with the Petits violons, his demands for discipline and high artistic standards would become famous. He would go on to write 13 tragédies lyriques. In 1679, after a successful debut ofBelléphon, Lully and the printing firm Ballard reached an agreement on the publication of his work. The composer kept total control over his music, not allowing its sale until he, or an agent of his had approved it.

Lully peaked in 1681, when he was able to purchase the office of Secretary to the King. He soon began to title himself “Monsieur de Lully, escuyer, conseiller, Secrétaire du Roy, Maison, Couronne de France & de ses Finances, & Sur-Intendant de la Musique de sa Majesté." A rift between the king and Lully soon grew though, after the king’s secret marriage to Mme. De Maintenon. The court had become more conservative over the years, including the king’s friend Lully from younger, wilder times. This tension did not lessen Lully’s devotion to his monarch. After the king had a successful surgery, Lully composed aTe Deum to celebrate. During the premiere on 8 January 1687, Lully’s enthusiasm got the better of him and he jabbed his conducting staff into his toe. The toe became infected which led to gangrene. The composer would never recover. Jean-Baptiste Lully died on 22 March 1687.

Lully was an active and incredibly successful composer.  He left dozens of works for the stage, both ballet and opera, as well as choral and orchestral music.

Lully’s Armide was premiered in 1686 at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. It is one of his last operas, and is therefore written in a very clearly developed style. The overture is celebratory in tone. This was because the king would often enter the theatre at that time, but unfortunately, to the composer’s disappointment, the king never attended a performance. It is the story of a witch who captures a knight during the crusades. She uses a love potion on him, but soon regrets the artificial affection and attempts to undo it. The knight is rescued by his fellow soldiers and Armide is left in her rage and despair.

Lully’s writing for the stage was not only limited to his operas, he also wrote incidental music for dramas. King Louis XIV paired up Lully with playwright Molière to create a new form of stage work. In 1670 the two worked on Molière’s play Le bourgeois gentilhomme. The text of the play would be interspersed with airs and dances by Lully. The music includes different dance styles, such as the gavotte and canaries, as well as an early French example of a Turkish janissary band.

Not all of Lully’s works were intended for the large stage spectacles of ballet and opera. He wrote much in the way religious music and chamber works. HisTrios de la chamber du roi is for oboe, violin, and continuo. It is music meant for the king’s everyday activities, waking, dressing and so on. They are meant to be light works, not overly stimulating for the listener. They include some harmony and hints of dances, but throughout stay appropriate for their royal patron.

Lully was a composer of great ambition, both for his music and for his own gain. He controlled his ensembles and, through his royal postings, he came to control French music. He made the French opera a viable art form, and then used his power to say who may or may not produce operas. He took the established operatic recitativo secco and made the more luscious, accompanied recitative. He is still in performance today. Productions of his operas are common among the baroque musical community and his sacred music is heard in churches still. After his crushed toe caused death, the miller’s son left behind a wife, six children, and an estate worth five hundred times that of a court musician.