Personalities | Jean-Baptiste Lully | Early Baroque | Classical

(Zhan Ba-test’ Lü-le’) 1632–87
French composer

Lully was an Italian by birth, but as a youth he accompanied the Chevalier de Guise to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1653, Lully danced with the young King Louis XIV in the Ballet de la nuit, and it was from this point that he began his meteoric rise at court.

To begin with, he composed court ballets and intermèdes for imported Italian operas by Cavalli, which were performed in celebration of the king’s marriage. In 1661, the king appointed him to the specially created post of Surintendant de la musique et compositeur de la musique de la chambre (‘overseer and composer of court music’) – the highest position in court music. He became a naturalized Frenchman in the same year.

The following decade was a period of crucial developments in Lully’s style and modus operandi. He wisely collaborated with France’s leading comic playwright, Molière, in several highly successful comédies-ballets, but after these he gradually altered the balance of drama and music to favour the latter. Following Pierre Perrin’s failure to establish opera academies, Lully, with the backing of the king and his finance minister Colbert, began work on a uniquely French form of opera or tragédie lyrique. This resulted in the sublime Cadmus et Hermione (1673), a piece which was designed to serve political as well as artistic ends. Through a series of restrictive measures guaranteed by the king, Lully gained almost exclusive rights to mount large-scale music productions for the French stage – often to the detriment of other composers working in France at the time. Lully’s sacred compositions include a ‘Te Deum’ and ‘Miserere’, both of which were much admired.

The Power of Lully

Because of his astute political judgment, and his secure position at court, Lully was able to wield musical influence within France seldom – if ever – realized anywhere by any composer. His restrictive monopolies removed the threat of all serious competition, both by other French composers and from visiting musicians. If such control inevitably exercised a stranglehold on French musical diversity, Lully’s achievements were nevertheless varied and far-reaching.

Among his greatest contributions were his disciplined handling of instrumental ensembles, in which he laid the foundation of the modern orchestra; the creation of tragédie lyrique, whose outline and character endured – with modifications – for almost a century; the definition that he gave to instrumental dances; and the establishment of the French overture as one of the major forms of the late Baroque era. With a sharply dotted rhythm in its introductory bars followed by a faster fugal section, the style was widely imitated throughout Europe.

Johann Sigismund Kusser (1660–1727) and Muffat, both pupils of Lully, disseminated his overture and dance style in Germany, providing models for composers of the next generation such as J. S. Bach, George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) and Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767). The Italians...

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