Jean-Baptiste Lully

1632–1687

Baroque

Although Jean-Baptiste Lully became the most famous French Baroque composer, he was born to poor Italian parents. Lully had little education but he did learn the violin and also he learnt how to dance. Aged 23, he took lessons in composition and his talent for music and his skill in dancing won him a place among the musicians and dancers at the Court of Versailles. Here, Louis XIV was King. Everything revolved around him, so he was known as the ‘Sun King’. For an ambitious young man, the thing to remember was simple: everything, absolutely everything, depended on pleasing and flattering the King. Lully spotted that early. He flattered him, fed him magnificent ballets, and glorified his reign with glorious music. He soon became the King’s favourite composer.

Louis himself was a fine dancer and often took a leading role in the ballets Lully wrote. But as the King grew older, dancing became painful and he lost interest in ballet. So Lully turned to writing operas. This was a golden age of French literature and the texts of great playwrights such as Molière were matched by Lully’s rhythmic and colourful music.

Lully was an innovator. In ballet he made the music as important as the dancing. He had his own string band and demanded the highest standards. The power of the music, the colourful orchestration, the liveliness of the fast movements and the deep emotions of the slow ones – these all combined in a style that swept Europe. Lully became a musical dictator, at least in France. He was as unscrupulous as he was clever. He got the King to rule that no opera could be performed without Lully’s own permission – which was a good way of protecting his position. But one day he had an accident. At that time, a large heavy stick was used for conducting – it wasn’t waved in the air but was stamped on the ground in time to the music. Unfortunately Lully got a bit over-enthusiastic and crushed his foot with it. He didn’t want his leg amputated because he knew that no leg would mean no more dancing; but the wound got infected with gangrene and Lully died of blood-poisoning. So he wasn’t always a nice man, and he certainly didn’t have a nice death, but he wrote fantastic music!

Jean-Baptiste Lully, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Listen to Lully’s music

Marche des Nations de Flore (‘March of the Nations of Flora’)

The Court of Louis XIV circulated around him like planets around the sun. Composers wrote hundreds of brief fanfares to announce courtly arrivals, usually involving trumpets, and Lully could match the best. This is one of many examples – festive and imperial.

Performers: The Art of Trumpet, Vienna; Leonhard Leeb

Taken from Naxos 8.555879

Ballet d’Alcidiane et Polexandre: Air

Poor Polexandre has to fight many battles to win his Alcidiane. In this early ballet, performed before the whole court, Lully acted the part of ‘Hate’ and played the guitar. This is the overture: the bit played by instruments before the drama begins.

Performers: Aradia Ensemble; Kevin Mallon

Taken from Naxos 8.554003

Quare fremuerent: Symphonie – Quare fremuerent

Lully wrote his grand motets (choral pieces) for the Royal Chapel. This one, Quare fremuerunt (Psalm II), was written and performed at the Palace of Versailles in 1685: the music varies between cheerful and thoughtful.

Performers: Le Concert Spirituel; Hervé Niquet

Taken from Naxos 8.554398

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Lully had to flatter and please which great king?

a. Henry VIII
b. Louis XIV
c. George III

 Which adjective best describes Lully’s behaviour to his colleagues at court?

a. Kind
b. Supportive
c. Unscrupulous

 Lully is particularly famous for his operas and for what else?

a. String quartets
b. Ballets
c. Sonatas

 Lully died of what?

a. The plague
b. Blood poisoning
c. Car crash

 Though the greatest French composer of his age, Lully was born what?

a. An Italian
b. A German
c. A Swede


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Lully died after stabbing his own foot with his conducting staff (stick).
  2. Lully was rich when he died: he had five houses in Paris as well as two country houses.
  3. Lully became a very powerful man and sometimes his decisions were disliked by other musicians – such as when he banned music in puppet shows!
  4. Lully’s faster music is known for its rhythmic energy and drive.
  5. Lully didn’t have many scruples or morals – he basically did what he liked.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Imperial Splendour


2e Air du combat de lance d’Amadis (Second Combat Air of Amadis)

This is another brief example of how ceremony and festivity were celebrated in France in its heyday under the Sun King. Bright and splendid, the music is ideally suited to the trumpet and percussion of the band. This is the second ‘combat air’ of the character called Amadis.

Performers: The Art of Trumpet, Vienna; Leonhard Leeb

Taken from Naxos 8.555879


La Descente de Mars

This festive imperial fanfare introduces the descent of Mars. He was the god of warfare, and the music sounds suitably war-like.

Performers: The Art of Trumpet, Vienna; Leonhard Leeb

Taken from Naxos 8.555879


La Marche italienne

This exceptionally grand and festive imperial fanfare introduces a march of the Italians. There was much rivalry at the Court of Louis XIV between the more dramatic French style and the more decorative Italian style… Lully mastered both but preferred the French!

Performers: The Art of Trumpet, Vienna; Leonhard Leeb

Taken from Naxos 8.555879

Ballets


Ballet de Xerxès

This is a typical example of a ballet by Lully, produced to provide interludes to an opera celebrating the marriage of Louis XIV and Marie-Thérèse. It is light and somewhat comic and includes peasants, clowns, slaves and a monkey!

Performers: Aradia Ensemble; Kevin Mallon

Taken from Naxos 8.554003


Ballet d’Alcidiane et Polexandre

This ballet, an air from which is a spotlight track, was produced in 1658. It is a substantial work and the instrumental music is superb. It ends with a grand chaconne, a stately dance.

Performers: Mary Enid Haines, soprano (tracks 2–4); Sharla Nafziger, soprano (tracks 2, 6, 7); Aradia Ensemble; Kevin Mallon

Taken from Naxos 8.554003


L’Amour Malade (extracts)

These four pieces come from the ballet L’Amour Malade, written in 1657. In it Lully exploits his mastery of comedy, though the four pieces here are mostly subdued. He includes in the ballet the figure of Scaramouche, a clown who combines buffoonery and sadness. He actually played the role of Scaramouche himself in this ballet.

Performers: Mary Enid Haines, soprano (track 3); Sharla Nafziger, soprano (track 2); Aradia Ensemble; Kevin Mallon

Taken from Naxos 8.554003


Ballet des Plaisirs

Lully wrote this ballet in 1658 (he wrote at least one ballet per year) and acted in it himself the roles of an Egyptian, a drunkard and an old man! The seventh track (‘Air pour le Vieillard et sa Familie’) became one of the most famous of all the dances of the French Court.

Performers: Aradia Ensemble; Kevin Mallon

Taken from Naxos 8.554003

Religious Music


Te Deum

A ‘Te Deum’ is an early Christian hymn of praise (‘Te Deum laudamus’ – ‘Thee, O God, we praise’). This is Lully’s best-known sacred work, first performed in 1677. Lully was at the height of his powers. It is grand – some performances involved 300 musicians. It was while conducting a performance of this work that Lully injured himself fatally with his conducting staff.

Performers: Le Concert Spirituel; Hervé Niquet

Taken from Naxos 8.554397


Miserere

Lully was a master of tragic drama. Here in his Miserere he produces a new form of music for the King, a masterpiece that ranges across the emotions: melancholy, plaintive, sweet, tragic, suffering, noble and victorious. Listeners were moved to crying when they heard it.

Performers: Le Concert Spirituel; Hervé Niquet

Taken from Naxos 8.554397


Plaude laetere Gallia

This motet, first performed in 1668, was written to be sung during Mass in the Chapel Royal. It illustrates how the French Court moved away from the traditional liturgy of Rome in the hope that they could reconcile themselves with the new protestant religion.

Performers: Le Concert Spirituel; Hervé Niquet

Taken from Naxos 8.554397


De profundis

This penitential psalm is part of the ‘liturgy for the dead’. It evokes well the feeling of peace and light that are believed to come with eternal rest and the blessing of God’s divine forgiveness.

Performers: Le Concert Spirituel; Hervé Niquet

Taken from Naxos 8.554398