Jean Baptiste Lulli

The first French composer of a series of operas, Jean Baptiste Lulli (or Lully) , the son of Lorenzo de’ Lulli, a gentleman of Florence, Italy, and Catarina del Serta, was born at Florence in 1634. An old Franciscan monk gave the gifted but mischievous child some elementary instruction, and taught him the guitar and the rudiments of music. The Chevalier de Guise took him to  France, and having entered the service of Mlle. de. Montpensier, “La Grande Mademoiselle” in the kitchen, Lulli employed his leisure in learning the songs of the day and playing them upon his violin.

As his talent became known he was promoted from the kitchen to the Princess’s band, where he soon distanced the other violinists. Mademoiselle, having discovered that he had composed the air of a satirical song at her expense, promptly dismissed him; but his name was sufficient to procure him a place in the King’s band. Here some airs of his composition so pleased Louis XIV that he established on purpose for him a new band, called “les petits violons,” to distinguish it from the large band of twenty four violin’s. His new post enabled him to perfect himself as a solo player, and gave him valuable practice as a conductor and composer for the orchestra.

Baptiste, as he was then called, had common sense as well as ambition, and soon perceived that without deeper study he could not make full use of his talents. To remedy his defective education he took lessons on the harpsichord, and in composition from the organists Metru, Gigault, and Roberdel; and at the same time lost no opportunity of ingratiating himself with men of rank, a useful process for which he had a social gift. He was soon chosen to compose the music for the court ballets, in which Louis XIV himself danced, and after the success of “Alcidiane” (1658) he was commissioned to write the divertissements for “Serse”, an Italian opera by Cavalli, performed at the Louvre (November 22, 1660) in honor of the King’s recent marriage with Marie Therese of Austria (June 9 previous) , and, a year and a half later the ballets for “Ercole amante,” another opera by Cavalli, performed at the opening of the magnifcent “Salle de spectacles” at the Tuileries (February 7, 1662 ).

It was by studying the works of this Venetian composer, and observing his method, that Lulli laid the foundation of his own individual style. In composing the divertissements for “Le marriage force,” “Pourceaugnac,” and “Le bourgeois gentilhomme,” he made good use of the feeling for rhythm which he had imbibed from Cavalli, and also endeavored to make his music express the life and variety of Moliere’s situations and characters. The exquisitely comic scene of the polygamy in “M. de Pourceaugnac” is in itself sufficient evidence of the point to which he had attained, and of the glorious future which awaited him.

From 1658 to I671, the year in which Moliere produced his tragedy-ballet “Psyche”, Lulli composed no less than thirty ballets, all unpublished. These slight compositions, in which Lulli took part with considerable success as dancer and comic actor, confirmed him in the favor of Louis XIV, who successively appointed him composer of his instrumental music, “sur-intendant” of his chamber music, and in 1662 “maitre de musique” to the royal family. But neither these lucrative posts nor his constantly increasing reputation were sufficient to appease his insatiable  ambition.

With all his genius he possessed neither honor nor morals, and would resort to any base expedient to rid himself of a troublesome rival. His envy had been roused by the privilege conceded to the Abbe Perrin (June 28, 168.), of creating an Academie de Musiques and was still further excited by the success of Cambert’s operas “Pomone” and “Les peines et les plaisirs de l’amour” (1671). With the astuteness of a courtier Lulli took advantage of the squabbles of the numerous associes-dlrecteurs of the opera, and with the aid of Mme. de Montespan procured the transference of Perrin’s patent to himself (March, 1672) .

Once master of a theater, the man whom honest Boileau branded with odium proved his right to a place in the first rank among artists, though as a man he could claim neither sympathy nor respect. In the poet Quinault he was fortunate enough to discover a collaborating of extraordinary merit, and in conjunction with him Lulli within fourteen years composed twenty operas or divertissements. The variety of subjects in these is surprising, but Lulli was perfectly at home with all, passing easily from lively and humorous divertssements to scenes of heroism and pathos, from picturesque and dramatic music to downright comedy, and treating all styles with equal power. He revolutionized the ballets de la cour, replacing the slow and stately airs, by lively allegros, as rapid as the pirouettes of the danseuses whom he introduced on the stage, to the great delight of the spectators. For the recitative secco of the Italians he substituted accompanied recitative, and in this very important part of French opera scrupulously conformed to the rules of prosody, and left models of correct and striking declamation. On the other hand, he made no attempt to vary the form of his airs, but slavishly cut them all after the fashion set by Cavalli in his operas, and by Rossi and Carissimi in their cantatas.

Lulli thoroughly understood the stage, witness the skill with which he introduces his choruses; had a true sense of proportion, and a strong feeling for the picturesque. The fact that his works are not forgotten, but are still republished, in spite of the progress of the lyric drama during the last two hundred years, is sufficient proof of his genius. Not but that he has serious faults. His instrumentation, though often labored, is poor, and his harmony not always correct: a great sameness of treatment disfigures his operas, and the same rhythm and the same counterpoint serve to illustrate the rage of Roland and the rocking of Charon’s boat. Such faults are obvious to us; but they were easily passed over at such a period of musical revolution. It is a good maxim that in criticising works of art of a bygone age we should put them back in their original frames; and according to this rule we have no right to demand from the composer of “These”, “Atys”, “Isis”, “Phaeton”, and “Armide” outbursts of passion or agitation which would have disturbed the solemn majesty of his royal master, and have outraged both stage propriety and the strict rules of court etiquette. The chief business of the King’s superintendant de la musique undoubtedly was to please his master, who detested brilliant passages and lively melodies; and making due allowance for these circumstances we affirm that Lulli’s operas exhibit the grace and charm of Italian melody and a constant adherence to that good taste which is the ruling spirit of French declamation. Such qualities as these will always be appreciated by impartial critics.

Lulli was also successful in sacred music. Ballard published his motets for double choir in 1684, and a certain number of his sacred pieces, copied by Philidor, exist in the libraries of Versailles and of the Conservatoire. Mme. de Sevigne’s admiration of his “Miserere” and “Libera” was strongly declared. Readers will recall the manner of Lulli’s death. While conducting a Te Deum, January 8, 1687, in honor of the King’s recovery from a severe illness, he accidentally struck his foot with the baton; an abscess followed; the quack in whose hands he placed himself proved incompetent, and he died in his own house in Paris on March 22.

As both superintendant de la musique and secretary to Louis XIV, Lulli was in high favor at court, and being extremely avaricious, used his opportunities to amass a large fortune. At his death he left four houses, all in the best quarters of Paris, besides securities and appointments amounting to a considerable fortune. His wife Madeleine, daughter of Lambert the singer, whom he married July 24, 1662, and by whom he had three sons and three daughters, shared his economical tastes. For once laying aside their parsimonious habits, his family erected to his memory a  splendid monument surmounted by his bust, which still exists in the left hand chapel of the church of the Petits Peres, near the Place des Victoires.