Jean-Baptiste Lully (November 28, 1632–March 22, 1687) was an Italian-French composer who spent most of his life working in the court of Louis XIV of France and is considered the chief master of the French baroque style. Lully was born Giovanni Battista Lulli on November 28, 1632, in Florence, Grand Duchy of Tuscany, modern-day Italy, to a family of millers, Lorenzo di Maldo Lulli, and his wife, Caterina del Sera, a miller’s daughter. His general education and his musical training during his youth in Florence remain uncertain, but his adult handwriting suggests that he manipulated a quill pen with ease. He said that a Franciscan friar gave him his first music lessons and taught him guitar. He also learned to play the violin. In 1646, dressed as Harlequin during Mardi Gras and amusing bystanders with his clowning and his violin, the boy attracted the attention of Roger de Lorraine, chevalier de Guise, son of Charles, Duke of Guise, who was returning to France and was looking for someone to converse in Italian with his niece, Mademoiselle de Montpensier (la Grande Mademoiselle). Guise took the boy to Paris, where the fourteen year-old entered Mademoiselle’s service. From 1647 to 1652 he served as her “chamber boy” (garçon de chambre). He probably honed his musical skills by working with Mademoiselle’s household musicians and with composers Nicolas Métru, François Roberday and Nicolas Gigault. The teenager’s talents as a guitarist, violinist, and dancer quickly won him the nicknames “Baptiste”, and “le grand baladin” (great street-artist).
In the Montpensier home, Lully studied keyboard with Gigault and Roberday, and cultivated a relationship with Michel Lambert, a highly sought-after singer and air de cour composer who served Lully’s patron among other nobles and whose daughter Lully later married. When Mademoiselle was exiled to her estate at St. Targeau in the provinces in 1652 after the rebellion known as the Fronde, Lully “begged his leave … because he did not want to live in the country.” The princess granted his request. By February 1653 Lully had attracted the attention of young Louis XIV, dancing several parts in Isaac Benserade’s Ballet royal de la nuit. As early as 1653, Louis XIV made him director of his personal violin orchestra, known as the Petits Violons (“Little Violins”), which was proving to be open to Lully’s innovations, as contrasted with the Twenty-Four Violins or Grands Violons (“Great Violins”), who only slowly were abandoning the polyphony and divisions of past decades. By March 16, 1653, Lully had been made royal composer for instrumental music, replaciny the Italian Lazarini. His vocal and instrumental music for court ballets gradually made him indispensable. In 1660 and 1662 he collaborated on court performances of Francesco Cavalli’s Xerse and Ercole amante.
When Louis XIV took over the reins of government in 1661, he named Lully superintendent of the royal music and music master of the royal family. From 1661 on, the trios and dances he wrote for the court were promptly published. When he became surintendant de la musique de la chambre du roi in 1661, the Great Violins also came under Lully’s control. He relied mainly on the Little Violins for court ballets. His collaboration with playwright Molière began in 1661 when Lully and Pierre Beauchamp worked on the music and dancing for Les Fâcheux, first performed for Nicolas Fouquet at his sumptuous chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte. In December 1661 the Florentine was granted letters of French naturalization. Thus, when he married the daughter of the renowned singer and composer Michel Lambert in 1662, Giovanni Battista Lulli declared himself to be “Jean-Baptiste Lully, escuyer [squire], son of “Laurent de Lully, gentilhomme Florentin [Florentine gentleman]”. Lully then disavowed any Italian influence in French music of the period.
More theatrical collaborations between Moliere and Lully followed, such as Le Mariage forcé, La Princesse d’Élide, and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, some of them conceived for fetes at the royal court, and others taking the form of incidental music (intermèdes) for plays performed at command performances at court and also in Molière’s Parisian theater. In 1672 Lully broke with Molière, who turned to Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Having acquired Pierre Perrin’s opera privilege, Lully became the director of the Académie Royale de Musique, that is, the royal opera, which performed in the Palais-Royal. The first tragédie lyrique, Cadmus et Hermione, with libretto by Quinault and music by Lully, was performed April 27, 1673. Between 1673 and 1687 Lully produced a new opera almost yearly and fiercely protected his monopoly over that new genre. After Queen Marie-Thérèse’s death in 1683 and the king’s marriage to Mme de Maintenon, the king’s enthusiasm for opera dissipated, and in 1686 Lully was not invited to perform Armide at Versailles. The following year, Lully struck his foot with his long conducting staff during a performance of his Te Deum to celebrate Louis XIV’s recovery from surgery. Infection set in, and he died from gangrene in Paris on March 22, 1687. His body was buried in the church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, where his tomb with its marble bust can still be seen. All three of his sons (Louis Lully, Jean-Baptiste Lully fils, and Jean-Louis Lully) had musical careers as successive surintendants of the King’s Music.
Lully’s music, known for its power, liveliness in its fast movements, and its deep emotional character in its sad movements, was written during the Middle Baroque period, 1650 to 1700. Typical of Baroque music is the use of the basso continuo as the driving force behind the music. Some of his most popular works are his passacaille (passacaglia) and chaconne which are dance movements found in many of his works such as Armide or Phaëton. Through his collaboration with playwright Molière, a new music form emerged during the 1660s: the comédie-ballet which combined theater, comedy, incidental music and ballet. The instruments in Lully’s music were: five voices of strings such as dessus (a higher range than soprano), haute-contre (the instrumental equivalent of the high tenor voice by that name), taille (baritenor), quinte, basse), divided as follows: one voice of violins, three voices of violas, one voice of cello, and basse de viole (viole, viola da gamba). He also utilized guitar, lute, archlute, theorbo, harpsichord, organ, oboe, bassoon, recorder, flute, brass instruments (natural trumpet) and various percussion instruments (castanets, timpani). Lully created French-style opera as a musical genre (tragédie en musique or tragédie lyrique). He also wrote grand motets for the royal chapel, Ballets de cour for court ballets, and instrumental works including various sets of dances from his stage works and 18 Trios pour le coucher du Roi. Lully’s pupils included Pelham Humfrey, Georg Muffat, J. S. Kusser, and J. K. F. Fischer, who carried the French orchestral style to England, Germany, and the rest of Europe.
The following works by Jean-Baptiste Lully are included in my collection:
Ballet d’alcidiane et Polexandre (1658): Prologue et 6 Entrée.
Ballet de Xerxex (1660).
Ballet des Plaisirs (1655).
Ballet du Temps (1654): Air pour l’Este et ses suivants.
L’Amour Malade (1657): 4 Entrée.
Le Bourgeous Gentilhomme (1670): Chaconne des Scaramouches, Frivelins, et Arlequins.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources