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Spotlight: Jean-Baptiste Lully

Today's Spotlight Saturday focuses on the extremely influential Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Lully

Lully was born Giovanni Baptiste Lulli in Florence, Italy (then part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany), on 28 November 1632. His father and grandfather were millers. Lulli was reasonably well educated, able to read and write, and play music. He could play the violin particularly well, and used to say that a Franciscan monk had taught him to play the guitar.

Lulli often performed during festivals, and it was during one such festival that, while playing his violin and acting the clown for the audience, he was noticed by Roger de Lorraine, a French nobleman. Lorraine, also known as the chevalier de Guise, was the son of Charles, Duke of Guise, an influential French courtier. Lorraine was about to return to France, and was looking for someone to take back with him who was able to converse in Italian with his niece, Mademoiselle de Montpensier.

Portrait of Anne Marie Louise d'Orleans, Duchess of Montpensier (La Grande Mademoiselle)

Lulli was just fourteen when he entered the service of Mademoiselle de Montpensier. He taught her Italian, and learnt much French in return. Officially he served as her chamber boy, and spent a lot of time working in the kitchens. He found time to improve his musical skills, learning from Mademoiselle's household musicians, and with composers Nicholas Metru, Francois Roberday, and Nicholas Gigault. Lulli also spent a great deal of time developing his skills as a dancer, and soon became famous at court for his 'street-artist' entertainment.

Jean-Baptiste Lully, lithograph

Shortly after Lulli arrived at court, the king - Louis XIII - died. The new king was Louis XIV, a boy of just five years old. Things at court changed drastically. Because the new king was too young to rule on his own, his mother Anne of Austria acted as regent. Mademoiselle de Montpensier, meanwhile, was soon caught up in the rebellion known as 'the Fronde', in which the French nobility attempted to defy the absolute power of the king. They failed, and Mademoiselle was exiled to the provinces in 1652. Lulli, who desperately wanted to stay at court, begged leave to stay. Mademoiselle granted his request.

Louis XIV, the 'Sun King'

It is about this point that Lulli is thought to have changed his name to its French equivalent, Jean-Baptiste Lully. He became a member of the royal band which played for banquets and special occasions, including ballets. He also acted in comedic roles for the court masques and ballets, often as a clown or some form of animal. The king much preferred the comedic parts of the entertainments, and Lully, who could make him laugh until he cried, became his favourite performer.

The young king wished to become a performer himself, and Lully helped him with ballet and acting roles. The king's debut was made in a ballet called Cassandre. Shortly afterwards, in 1653, Lully appeared with the king in Ballet royal de la nuit (Ballet of the Night). Soon the king's younger brother Philippe began dancing too, and by 16 March 1653, Lully had been made the royal composer for instrumental music. He became indispensable at court.

Portrait of Louis XIV, King of France

In 1660 and 1662, Lully co-produced productions of Francesco Cavalli's Xerse (Xerxes) and Ercole amanita (Hercules in Love) for the court. When the king took over the government from his mother in 1661, he appointed Lully superintendent of the royal music and music master for the royal family. In December 1661, he granted Lully letters of naturalisation, making him a French subject. Lully then married Madeleine Lambert, daughter of the composer Michel Lambert, in 1662.

Lully's coat of arms

From 1661 onwards, his works were promptly published. He was put in charge of a violin orchestra, called the 'Little Violins', which proved instrumental to the development of his music style, one of the forerunners of French Baroque. He relied heavily on this little orchestra for his ballet performances. He also wrote many operas, which were performed in French instead of Italian - it seems a small change now, but then it was revolutionary. His songs became immensely popular all over France.

Jean-Baptiste Lully and Philippe Quinault's opera 'Alceste' performed in the courtyard at Versailles, 1674

As Lully grew older, he stopped performing, but ballet remained his favourite. The ballets then performed at court were cobbled together from popular composers and popular steps, and performed in the usual clothing of the court - knee-length breeches and the impractical but extremely fashionable hoop skirt. Lully set about changing the way ballets were put together and performed.

Pierre Beauchamps, Director of the Court Ballets

Lully first collaborated with the playwright Moliere on Les Facheux in 1661. Larger works followed, beginning with Le Mariage force in 1664. The two wrote fetes at the royal court and music for plays performed both at court and in Moliere's theatre in Paris. Lully believed that the ballet should tell a story, and that the music should reflect that story. Naturally, this called for new steps, and the director of the court ballets, Pierre Beauchamps, was more than willing to help. He and Lully created new ballets by the dozen, recording them with a system that pioneered written choreography. Settings and costumes began to be made specially for the ballets as well.

Portrait of the playwright Moliere

In 1672, Lully broke with Moliere and became the director of the Academie Royale de Musique (The Royal Academy of Music). Lully produced a new opera every year, and the Academie became the first ballet school. The school's influence can be seen in the fact that the language of ballet is still French.

The Palais Garnier (Paris Opera House), formerly known as the Academie Royale de Musique

Lully's 1681 opera was Le Triomphe de l'amour (The Triumph of Love). Like all of his operas, it contained a great deal of dancing. But this time Lully wasn't happy with it. The dancers were as good as ever, but it didn't seem quite right. Lully decided this was because the female parts were currently being played by boys. For a woman to play the part would be impossible; no woman would be bold enough to dance publicly on the stage.

Frontispiece for the published version of Lully's 'Le Triomphe de l'amour'

At least, that's what Lully thought. It turned out that four students were willing to dance, among the girls the dancer who would become Mademoiselle La Fontaine, the first proper ballerina. On opening night, Lully was extremely nervous - he had no idea how the audience would react. But the audience greeted Mlle. La Fontaine's first appearance with rapturous applause. Lully had introduced yet another change that would shape the ballet world forever, and Mlle. La Fontaine became the star of the Paris Opera. The great crowds who came to see her called her 'Queen of the Dance'.

Drawing of Mademoiselle de La Fontaine

Things between the king and Lully soured after the death of Queen Marie-Therese and the king's subsequent secret marriage to Madam de Maintenon. The king tired of opera and was disgusted by Lully's dissolute life, including the rumours of his homosexuality. In 1686, the king made a point of not inviting Lully to perform the opera Amide at the royal palace of Versailles.

Lully died in Paris in 1687. During a performance of Te Deum that celebrated the king's recovery from surgery, Lully struck himself on the foot with his conducting staff. He refused to have his leg amputated, not wanting to lose his dancing ability. Instead, the gangrene that infected his leg spread and infected the greater part of his brain. He was buried in the church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. His tomb, complete with marble bust, can still be seen.

Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Paris

All three of his sons, Louis, Jean-Baptiste, and Jean-Louis, served as successive superintendents of royal music for the king. Lully himself was given a posthumous place in Titon du Tillet's Parnasse Francois (French Parnassus). His extensive repertoire of music and ballets served as the precedent for the later ballet world. Ballet as we know it simply would not exist without Jean-Baptiste Lully, the miller's son who became the best friend of the King of France.

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Maria Tallchief.

- Selene

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