Jean-Baptiste Lully
Jean-Baptiste Lully

10 (Little) Things You Might Not Know About Jean-Baptiste Lully

Ambitious, quick tempered... but also a musical genius, inventor of the comédie-ballet and French opera, here are ten (little) things you might not know about Jean-Baptiste Lully.

There are enough anecdotes about the life of Jean-Baptiste Lully to make a film, which is exactly what Gérard Cobiau did. He made Le Roi Danse in 2000, which highlighted Lully's darker side at times and underestimated it at others. 

He was born in Italy under the name Giambattista Lulli. The composer of Atys et Armide lit up French music and left his mark for centuries. 

He Had Humble Origins

Lully could not escape his origins throughout his life. In the eyes of the French aristocracy he had two flaws - he was an Italian and a miller's son. Born in Florence in 1632, it is not known how exactly Lully managed to infiltrate the circle of the Duc de Guise, which took him to France to teach Italian to the Duke's niece, the Grande Mademoiselle. We equally do not know exactly how he moved from working in kitchens to being a dancer and violinist. What is certain is that he experienced a meteoric rise. 

It is also clear that the composer worked hard to erase any trace of origins. In 1661, Giambattista Lulli naturalised and changed his name to Jean-Baptiste Lully. Hiding his roots proved harder, he tried to style himself as the 'son of Laurent Lully, a Florentine gentleman' but few were fooled. Despite his humble beginnings he became enobled through his work eventually rising to become Secretary to the King. 

Clown and Violinist 

In 1653 Lully, or rather Lulli, entered the Court and appeared as dancer in the Ballet of the Night, on whose score he scribbled notes here and there. He significantly made the acquaintance of a young man who was also a good dancer with a promising future, Louis 'Dieudonné' of Bourbon, aka Louis XIV, King of France and Navarre. 

As a dancer the young man entertained the King with his clowning and demonstrated his talent on the violin. He transformed those early loves and skills into the Ballet de l'Amour malade (1657) and the Ballet d'Alcidiane in the company of Marie Mancini, with whom the King was enamoured.

He Was a Natural Social Climber 

From his early meetings with Louis XIV, Lully realised that it was in his best interests to serve the monarch's desires. If the King wanted to laugh Lully would play the clown. If the King felt amorous, Lully would produce romantic ballets. If the King wished to no longer rely on Latin, to liberate himself from classical references, and to be represented as himself and not Apollo, then Lully gave him a lyrical tragedy.  

In this way Lully gained the power he desired and became the Superintendent of Music for the King, crushing potential obstacles along the way. In March 1672 he purchased the rights to the librettos of the bankrupt poet, Pierre Perrin. This allowed Lully to reprint them in his own name that Pierre Perrin had produced with Molière. Molière was not the only one to pay the price, nobody other than Lully was able to put on an opera without paying royalties. Composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier had to wait until 1693, when he was 50, to premiere his opera Medée

And A Remarkable Businessman 

Through his acquisition of opera performing rights Lully established himself as the sole composer of this genre and gained success through his talent. But he also knew how to promote his work. He recruited actors, singers, dancers and musicians, and paid his most important business partners handsomely to guarantee their exclusivity. 

At the time of his death, he had amassed a substantial fortune, several hundred thousand pounds, gold, precious gems and silverware. Lully also earned the equivalent of 30,000 pounds a year from his monopoly of the opera, in addition to his income as the King's advisor, his own musical performances and his printed music... 

He Invented the Comédie-Ballet (with Molière)

In 1664, Lully was already well established when he began his collaboration with Molière. This fruitful union produced nine comédie-ballets. Not only did these works enable two great geniuses of the 17th century but they also enabled the composer to insert sung and danced melodies into the narrative. In addition Lully deployed all vocal styles and experimented with sung recitatives, the precursors to his lyric tragedies. 

and French Opera!

17th century France enjoyed many different musical genres - court ballet, tragedy, pastoral, comedy and some Italian operas, promoted by Cardinal Mazarin. But Lully went further by synthesising these styles in a unique genre: the lyric tragedy. The first of these French operas Cadmus et Hermione was conceived in 1673. Prolixe the Florentine composed one opera a year until his death in 1687. 

Drawing upon his best work in each genre Lully brought a regal quality to the recitative, which went beyond the simple sung declamation and merged with the aria, to form a fluid whole. The composer also employed popular ballet scenes and used props and stage design to great dramatic effect. 

He Had A Foul Temper

Those who adulate him spoke of his "strength of character" while those who hated him portrayed him as a detestable man. In either case it appears that Lully was not the embodiment of sweetness. According to one anecdote Lully remarked when Louis XIV was waiting for the composer's response "the King is the master, he can wait as long as he likes". Few subjects if any could have spoken these words. 

La Fontaine also paid the price, when Lully flattered him on a visit and requested a libretto for an opera but later preferred the work of Quinault who wrote Alceste, the poet responded with a few well-chosen verses from Le Florentin in which casts the composer as 'The Scoundrel'.

He Was Quite Sexually Liberated

Lully forcefully m,ade himself known at the forefront of French musical life and couldn't help but make friends but the composer quickly gained a reputation for his voracious sexual appetite at the court of Louis XIV, especially for his 'Italian mores' (which is how homosexuality was referred to). His enemies required no further encouragement to peddle, often in the form of songs and barbed comments, tales of Sieur Lully in the company of men masquerading as women. The following verse displays a finesse to rival Racine...

Baptiste is the son of a miller
He cannot deny it
He cannot help but ride astride the miller
But always behind

Amidst the opulent reign of King Louis XIV and his 'Pleasures of the Enchanted Isle' Festival such comments made little impact as Lully was married to Madeleine Lambert, daughter of the composer Michel Lambert, with whom he had six children. It was quite another matter with the arrival at court of Madame de Maintenon, who became close to the King. In 1685 Lully's liaison with a young page called Brunet came to the attention of the King. Brunet was sent away to a religious order while Lully lost the ear of the King who did not attend a single performance of Armida (1686).

He Died Quite Stupidly 

It's not that there are intelligent ways to die of course, but it can be said that it is very clever to pierce one's foot with the cane used to direct the music and to develop gangrene. Whilst in full flight rehearsing 'Te Deum' for a performance for Louis XIV, Lully got quite carried away with his musicians and hit his toe rather too hard. His leg became infected but Lully refused surgery. There was no going back and the gangrene killed Lully on March 22nd 1687.

He A Profound Impact Upon Music

The works of Jean-Baptiste Lully were continually played until 1789 at which point certain fastidious revolutionaries considered the composer to be rather too monarchistic. For more than a century after his death Lully's shadow hung over French music and permeated throughout Europe. His Amadis de Gaule inspired Handel, while Gluck championed his Amide

Lully's overture "in the French style" is equally present in the works of French composers Campra and Rameau and that of Purcell (in the ouverture to Dido and Aeneas), Handel and in Johann Sebastian Bach's Ouverture in the French Style. Lully's Air des trembleurs d'Isis in which the orchestra mimics shivering caused by the cold was later imitated by Vivaldi in Winter from his Four Seasons and also by Purcell in his Air of the Cold Genius from King Arthur